Getting Through Cognitive Dissonance and into Action
by Jan Hart
Our lives are no longer as simple or safe as we once believed.
The institutions we trusted to protect us, serve us, and tell us the truth have proven to be unworthy of our trust. Feeling powerless and afraid, we are easy prey for distractions and false prophets. What happened and where do we go from here?
I remember over 10 years ago reacting with my fellow humans in horrified grief when the planes hit the world trade center. In that moment we Americans came together. We wanted to hear from our leaders, watch the news and respond with action. Initially I agreed with the decision to go into Afghanistan to pursue the terrorists and I stayed glued to the evening news. But with the puzzling shift in focus toward Iraq, my intuitive gut began to question. When ‘weapons of mass destruction’ became a familiar phrase and the march to war gathered momentum, it just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t alone. People around the world were against this invasion and in one day of coordinated action 15 million took to the streets in protest.
As the days and months and years of war rolled by, the unthinkable truth began to seep into our consciousness. The facts showed without question that it was a Big Lie festooned with supposed uranium shipments from Niger and satellite images of secret Iraqi bases and concealed WMD. But just because we now know the truth does not mean we can easily wriggle into action. The enormity of our participation continues to engulf us. How do we live with the fact that through our invasion we destroyed a country, sent our sons and daughters into war, killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians and spent Billions? How can we accept that many of us supported this invasion because we could not imagine that our government and media would lie to us? For me, it was a powerful introduction to the theory of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is a phrase coined by author, Leon Festinger in his 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent belief in an impending apocalypse. The theory explains that we humans are powerfully motivated to restore our sense of order when faced with truth that contradicts a deeply held belief. For many Americans that deeply held belief was that our government and media, even with their flaws and limitations, were well meaning institutions that served the interests of We, the people.
Festinger said that we regain consonance in one of three ways:
- We drop the part of the story that contradicts. When it became obvious that Iraq did not have WMD we simply stopped talking about it. Now when someone brings them up again they are told not to live in the past….Bury it.
- We add things to build our story. I started hearing lots of reasons added to justify the invasion. Saddam Hussein was a really bad person. The Iraqis needed our help in getting rid of their leader. The Kurds were being attacked. The women of Iraq needed to be liberated. We needed to finish the job that was begun with the invasion of Kuwait. There are benefits to war. And on and on…
- We change one of the contradictions. Some still declare the WMD are there – buried deep under the sand and would someday be found. Many continue to believe that Iraq was behind 9/11 though there is no evidence to support this.
Ten years later and we’re still stuck. Why? To get unstuck and get past the cognitive dissonance we have to understand and feel the enormity of the Lie, the complicity of our leaders and our own participation. It’s a lot to take in and it is painful. I still find myself vacillating between shame and anger when I think about it while I wrestle with my sometimes overwhelming feelings of powerlessness. I struggle to put it all behind me while I avoid looking squarely into the truth behind it. It is easier not to look. It’s no wonder that so many of us focus on entertaining distractions like TV reality shows and the latest I-phone apps. And boy, do we have a lot of excuses that keep us stuck in inaction.
‘We won’t be here anyway after December, 2012’: The world is ending and nothing we do matters. There is nothing for me to do.
‘La la la la la la la. I’m not listening!’: I don’t want to think about it because it scares me and I don’t think there is anything I can do.
‘God knows best and will take care of it in the best way.’: God will decide what to do. There is nothing for me to do.
‘Just focus on the party, or sex, or drugs! Life is about having a good time!’: I’ll just focus on fun since there is nothing I can do.
‘The news is too depressing. It’s better to not know.’: If I don’t know anything, there is nothing for me to do.
‘I’ve got enough and that’s all that counts.’: I’m okay so there is nothing for me to do.
‘Anything I do won’t matter anyway.’: I’m powerless so there is nothing for me to do.
The good news is that the madness is now obvious for all to see. People are waking up as though coming out of a trance. In a world reaching its limits in resources, we are witnessing the frantic scramble to own the last of the oil, minerals and water and to bank the last dollar. We’re finally seeing the extent of corporate influence over our politicians and media and now we’re asking some real questions. Does it really make sense…
- that we talk about wanting peace while we Americans are major suppliers of weaponry to the world and continue to invest more in military and weaponry than all other countries combined?
- to trust the mainstream media that is owned by giant corporations — corporations that have financial interests in weapons of war? How can we expect them to report on anything that would be damaging to their own corporations?
- to consider austerity measures for the poor as the only way to balance the budget while at the same time approving more tax cuts for the rich?
- that at the same time as more than 4 million ordinary Americans lose their homes to foreclosure, the Banks that made the loans are able to pay out Billions of dollars in bonuses to their CEOs?
- to try to deny access to contraceptives for women when women overwhelmingly view birth control as fundamental to the health and well being of themselves and their families?
- to undo the Affordable Healthcare Act when 55 million are now uninsured and the insured are finding more and more restrictions and added costs to their coverage?
- that the wealthiest 400 Americans have more total wealth than the poorest 150,000,000 Americans?
These are the questions that bring us together. We are, after all the vast majority, the 99%, and we are so very diverse: young, old, retired, men, women, white, people of color, heterosexual, homosexual, religious, atheist, Muslim, Christian, Jew, able-bodied, healthy, ill, comfortable, middle-class, poor, homeless, unemployed, and more. Much more. By embracing our differences while understanding our commonalities we understand that we’re all in this together. Most of us still believe that our nation can be strong if it works for all of us, not just those on top.
Recently I watched a National Geographic program about all the little things that went wrong on the Titanic 100 years ago. Many were things that just didn’t get done or didn’t make sense. Things like going too fast, not paying attention to a radio warning message, not having enough life boats due to outdated regulations, using cheaper materials for the rivets, not taking action soon enough, cutting costs in the wrong places, not repairing early damage. Passenger reaction varied from stunned inaction through denial as they struggled through the cognitive dissonance inherent in the sinking of an unsinkable ship. Many of those who finally managed to act survived.
Knowledge compels us to act in spite of our distractions. We must pay attention to things that don’t feel quite right — trusting our own common sense and intuition. We can follow up with a little research to find the corporate donors of our elected officials and corporate owners of our mass media and question the influence. We can tune in to independent news sources like Truthout, New Clear Vision, Real News, and PBS for balance, truth and direction. We can recognize that the inequalities we see affect us all in a myriad of ways. Most of all, we can put our innate empathetic caring into action towards something worthwhile. Even simple kindness helps.
This spring I hope more will put their distractions aside and shake off their excuses. Speak out against government policies and business practices that further enrich the rich and impoverish the poor. Commit your support for the 99% Occupy Movement by direct participation or from the sidelines. Together we may be able to keep this Titanic nation from sinking into the depths of greed and madness.
“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Jan Hart is an artist, teacher, and adventurer. She is the author of The Watercolor Artist’s Guide to Exceptional Color (2007). More information about her work can be found at:www.janhart.com.