Cognitive Dissonance – Source of Rage

It’s easy for the media to pick out a few choice tea-party conservatives with hateful signage at a rally. Well…perhaps not easy…they usually have to scan through footage of hundreds of peaceful, reasonable placards and banners respectfully requesting change in Washington before they find one person holding a sign that says something many of us are feeling right now. Something like “God Damn Washington!” or “Tyranny of the Minority!” (which they have twisted to mean something like…tyranny of those ugly brown people, when it likely actually meant tyranny of the oligarchy inside the Beltway) But there is bound to be someone angry enough to say something inflammatory at any tea party rally. And the media is going to find that person and put him on the cover or in the teaser or in print. Why is there bound to be anger? Because Americans are ANGRY! Everyone acknowledges this. Obama refers to it often in his speeches. The NAACP, in their national convention in LA two weekends ago, referred to American anger. The most progressive among us knows that Americans are angry with their government.

But why? Why are we so angry? Despite the many attacks on our fundamentally brilliant system of national governance, we are still much more prosperous than 99% of the rest of the world. Our unemployment rate – while much higher than we’d like – is lower than almost every country in Europe and much lower than China or Japan. Our per-capita income is still amongst the best in the world (with nations ahead of us largely being boutique-like small nations where such statistics can be very misleading). Our GDP still doubles runner-up China. Our economy is bad, but it’s not THAT bad.

You might argue that we’ve lost perspective – can only compare things to how they’ve been for us in the recent past. After all, unemployment hit 20% in 1980 (!) but we act like 10% is the start of a nation-wide depression of historical proportions. We’re coming off an economic high…the 90s were rather akin to the roaring 20s in terms of growth rates and unsustainable speculation on Wall Street. A self-named progressive acquaintance of mine argued that the anger comes from the difference between what we believe we should have and what we do. She thinks we’re mad because we had higher expectations for our country and we’re not living up to those expectations. I recognize the psychological reality of this argument. After all, if you get on a plane never expecting a nice warm cookie as a snack, when you don’t get one, you’ve lost nothing and are not annoyed, but if they promise you a cookie and then the whole supply get contaminated with a spilled juice carton and you don’t get one, you might be miffed. But let me offer forward an additional explanation for our anger.

Cognitive dissonance. Like all sociological and psychological problems, I think we are dealing with more than one causal factor. When you hear someone expressing an opinion that you disagree with, even the most controlled and rational among us is bound to feel a little burning in the pits of our stomachs. Put simply, this arises from cognitive dissonance – our brains don’t like to be confronted with seemingly contradictory information. We’ve always had cognitive dissonance to deal with when we talk politics, but, after reading “Left Turn” by Tim Groseclose, I am more convinced than ever that we now have, on top of our usual disagreements, an identity crisis in this country. What do you do when people you are brought up to respect – your informed superiors in Washington, in the media, and at your institutions of learning, both secondary and collegiate, are telling you to believe in a series of core principles that you KNOW to be false?

I’ll tell you what happened to me. Maybe you want to call me thin-skinned and maybe I am, but I doubt I’m all that unusual in America. As a young person, I heard the narrative without end. My parents (largely conservative, but not zealously political in my youth) focused not on sculpting my core philosophy (for example, they did not require me to go to church) but on fostering my instincts for learning and critical thinking. My conservative values did not come from direct parental supervision, but from their example and from my own developing common sense. I believe my personality led me toward a predisposition toward a natural identity as a conservative. But once I started taking a full-time interest in politics and in the media (which did not happen until I was probably 15 years old), I started absorbing the narrative. From my history teachers, from college professors, from the media. The mainstream media, to be precise. I didn’t watch a ton of CBS Evening News, but I did watch lots of Good Morning America and local news and I did read the newspaper online from time to time when something important caught my attention.

Looking back on those early days of the formation of my identity, the strong example provided by my parents led me to hold onto some basic conservative social values. For example, I was reluctant to drink while under age, I knew I wanted no part in rushed sexual relationships, and I always believed that God had a hand in the creation of the universe, though I described myself as everything from Deist (there was a God, but he takes no active role in the universe today) to agnostic (I don’t really know what the truth about God is) to vaguely Eastern in philosophy (there is a higher truth that we must seek, and that quest continues long after death). I literally got annoyed when confronted with Christian messages (my co-author will remember me groaning and incessantly mocking her for watching Touched By an Angel, for example, though these days I will occasionally find it in reruns and enjoy it). I scoffed at the idea that you could know whether you were compatible with a partner without having sex with them. I called myself libertarian and insisted that I was economically a moderate conservative, but socially liberal. I called myself pro-limited-choice on the abortion issue. I got angry and insisted that the Republicans had no reasonable leg to stand on when they resisted gay marriage. All while feeling a bit sick with my own identity.

Why did I do all of this? Why did I start out clinging to a false belief that I was a left-leaning libertarian with a dose of fiscal restraint? Continuing this bit of introspection, I believe I did so because I wanted to belong in my own generation, and to hear the media talk, you were completely outdated if you were socially even remotely conservative. It’s a lot easier to fit in with the crowd at SUNY Oswego or George Mason if you declare yourself a libertarian (and therefore not a threat) rather than a conservative. And, frankly, I wasn’t in the mood to carry party loyalty since I wanted to be clever and intelligent enough to disagree freely with either party without feeling like a traitor to a higher cause. But it all goes back to the media. I loved shows like “The Practice” and “Chicago Hope” and “Friends”…I wanted to identify with what I saw, even though, deep down, I knew some of it was wrong. The news told me that people felt like I feared I might were on the fringe of the far right. They made only the case for why what I believed was wrong. Even after Fox News hit the airwaves, I didn’t dare get caught watching it because I was told it was evil and dishonest.

But the media’s coverage of the Obama campaign in 2008 broke me of my desire to belong for the sake of belonging. Their continued fond admiration for an obviously inept and empty suit leaves me more convinced than ever that the media isn’t just a little biased in an unconscious way…but instead is VERY biased and intentionally. And you know what…the more I allow myself to question the media, the more confident and the less angry I get (in general). I express anger at the media bias and at Obama’s dishonesty only for one reason now. I have a deep intolerance for injustice. But my INTERNAL conflict is dead and gone. I am not a libertarian…not really. Though I will continue to preserve the right to disagree with them when they, inevitably, screw up, I am clearly a Republican.

But I think the media has pulled us, as a nation, so far from our core identities, that we are living (as a whole) in constant cognitive dissonance. I believe the vast majority of us behave the way we do in the hope that we are serving a higher definition of all that is good in the world, but that when we look at our actions honestly, we know we are falling short because we know the story we’re being fed is a lie. Tim Groseclose, in his aforementioned book showed a graph depicting his estimate of the average political quotient of the American people since 1945. By his calculations our total representation in Congress (house and senate) had a PQ of 27 (!) in 1947…roughly the PQ of George W. Bush today. Since the dawn of television and the three major networks (around 1960 when TV began to hit most American homes with news coverage during prime time), we’ve had roughly the same PQ we have today – around 50 (he obviously chose 50 to represent the center of American politics in the modern era). The media did that…it was ABSOLUTELY the media that caused the major political changes that have shaped our current political landscape. Ever since journalists gained the power to reach American homes without forcing us to spend two hours a day reading the paper, they have gained a massive hold on politics in Washington. A picture is worth a thousand written words, and a moving picture is worth a thousand times as much as any still photograph…and a spoken word is worth a thousand written ones. And most of us stopped reading the paper when we had the chance to get our information passively.

Walter Kronkite – the most trusted man in America for three decades – believed in one world government – a socialist paradise – a new Eden…in which America was nothing more than a bit player. When polled, 93% of Washington correspondents say they vote Democrat. Barack Obama himself once famously quipped that if Fox News didn’t exist, he’d be 2 or 3 points higher in the polls. But don’t kid yourselves. The bias that exists in journalism today has ALWAYS existed…and since the era of network news, it has had ENORMOUS influence on American politics. All of which leads me back to cognitive dissonance.

What happens when people we’re supposed to trust to honestly report the news so we know what’s going on around us start telling us how to believe…and it’s different than what we actually believe? There is a tug of war in the mind of all Americans when they encounter such disagreement. We have to do decide whether to accept the new information in full or at some discounted rate or not at all based on how much we trust the sender. There is a social experiment that tests our willingness to trust a sender we know possesses incentive to lie. In this game, two players, one sender and one receiver are told that the sender will receive a true number from 0-10, averaging 5 over the course of the experiment, and that it’s his job to get you to guess the number by giving you a message…but that he’ll be paid more if he can get you to guess too high. The sender then transmits his messages and the receiver makes a guess based on how strategic he thinks his opponent is (with the incentive that he’ll be paid more every time he gets the real number correctly). When you do this many thousands of times, you find that, given a true number of 5, the sender sends an average of 5.84 and the receiver guesses an average of 5.28 – meaning we have a tendency to underestimate bias even when we know it’s there!

But for decades, Americans didn’t even believe that their media was biased! We’re just now realizing how biased it really is, and only because things like conservative talk radio, Fox News and the conservative blog-o-sphere are giving us alternatives to the networks and the newspapers. Imagine how bad the pull on us must have been in 1965 when Kronkite was reporting about race riots and the failures of the Vietnam War, ending with his famous catch phrase “And that’s the way it is.” An authoritative send-off if ever I’ve heard one.

So…since 1960, we’ve been living one gigantic lie. Professing to believe one way when, if unaffected by media bias and the pressure to conform with public opinion, we would probably prefer to believe something completely different. Gloseclose estimates that the unbiased public would be about as conservative as Kansas or Montana even now. I think he might be overstating his case, and some of his methods are kludgey at best when he tries to put a number to the effect of bias on Americans today. But if you look at the raw data on the changes in American political believes, it seems clear that the media has pulled us away from ourselves…and that we’re all bathed in a sea of cognitive dissonance.

Seems like more than enough to make us angry, especially after we vote in a government far more liberal than we actually wanted and they don’t get the results we were promised they would by the media (in fact, they made things much…much worse).

Democrats will never see it…they are in an echo-chamber filled with nothing but good intentions without a firm basis in reality and cosmic justice to settle…but I have. When the 2012 election season gets far enough along to choose the GOP ticket, I’m getting a poster and plastering my office door with it. And the (very liberal) denizens of my place of business will have to deal with me as I really am, not in camouflage for their benefit. Even if we stupidly pick Mitt Romney…I’d rather have Romney than four more years of the worst president this country has ever had. I feel no anger when making that statement. My dissonance is gone – at least with regard to the media.

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