Free Dina’s Art

Cognitive Dissonance
September 3, 2009, 6:10 am
Filed under: Active Decency | Tags: , , , , ,

In Sanford, California in 1957 Leon Festinger identified one of the most lamentable states in which the human mind can find itself. When we try to hold  conflicting ideas simultaneously, our human tendency is to experience a sense of anxiety, leaving us in a sorry mental condition. Festinger called the cause of this condition ‘cognitive dissonance’.

Consider the plight of twenty-first century tobacco smokers. They know (and by “they” I mean “we”) that smoking tobacco can, or might, or probably will kill them. And yet, some continue to smoke in spite of such knowledge.  THAT is cognitive dissonance. Continuing an evil practice while knowing that it is wrong creates cognitive dissonance. If you are going to do that, try to ensure that you are hurting only yourself, and the world can have no issue with your choices.

But there is at least one instance in which a person can participate fully in knowingly committing evil deeds, and still escape the pangs of both conscience and cognitive dissonance. That instance is when one is part of a committee.

Much like the members of a firing squad who can convince themselves that they had no part in killing a human being because there were others present who were equally likely to have fired a live round at a living person, the members of a committee (from what I have observed) can count themselves as highly respected intellectuals, as doctors, humanitarians and even religious teachers.  They can consider themselves “respectable” even though their collective arbitrary decisions profoundly affect the lives of people they haven’t ever met.

Members of a committee, if they are shallow enough human beings, can convince themselves (but not me) that they are doing good and important work when they deny others the human rights that their own parent organization declares to be universal. They can commit with impunity the very sins they claim to hate and to be trying to stop from ever happening again. And they can defend their decisions with the most scurrilous and spurious reasons.

Somewhere within the first five books of the Bible, a person truly interested in religion could find four little words well worth contemplating. Those words are, “Thou shalt not steal.”

And yet these same  people can know that someone else has been profoundly hurt by their choices and actions and still feel no sense of responsibility at all. No cognitive dissonance can occur where conscience is absent. That is a shame. It is especially regrettable to see such behaviour originating with people who are trying to convince themselves and the world that the evil they are currently committing is somehow different and more noble than the same evil as practiced by others in the past.

Such people, whether committee members or not, are wrong to hurt others only to glorify their own evil deeds as acts of nobility or civilization. In their own minds, they may convince themselves that they are good people, but Leon Festinger might have told them otherwise.


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