Not All Dissent Stems from Cognitive Dissonance

Cyrus Eosphoros, Contributing Writer

It’s human nature to believe that one’s opinions are factually correct. After all, why would you believe something that isn’t true? Unless we get into the messy philosophical debate about whether reality can be proven at all, some things are provable: the earth is round and bacteria exist. Most things are subjective. The current 2016 presidential election is proof enough that politics falls under that category. It’s still tempting — reassuring even — to believe that our opinions in subjective cases are the right ones, no matter what. That’s a problem, because the easiest shortcut to justify why your opinions are good or morally correct and someone else’s are wrong or immoral is to simply blame their thought process or ability to think rationally.

At Oberlin and on social media, I interact largely with liberals and leftists, so I cannot comment on whether this is also widespread with conservatives and the right. I am describing a fundamental human impulse, but it might manifest differently in another political subculture. It’s changed as I’ve gotten older. After all, liberals don’t say “stupid” any more. Not as often, anyway. For people they disagree with, they say “crazy” conservatives. For people they think could be swayed to agree with their opinion, they say “cognitive dissonance” — the psychological term for someone holding self-contradictory beliefs, which is used to refer to anyone who fails to come to their same conclusions while sharing their same values.

So here’s a first step: Republicans, conservatives, alt-right pundits, and the day-to-day voters who back them up aren’t “crazy” — individuals might be mentally ill, but that’s not relevant to the reality of their political beliefs. The ideas they espouse may strike those on the left as bizarre or monstrous, but what makes them frightening is that they hold those beliefs while operating in a largely rational, calculated fashion. They wouldn’t be successfully advancing their agendas through courts of law, executive offices or board meetings if that weren’t the case. Maybe some politicians say things they don’t believe in order to get elected, but in practice that distinction doesn’t matter. They’re certainly not being “psychotic” or “delusional” — words describing mental disorders in which someone’s brain isn’t giving them accurate feedback on the world around them — when they fire up crowds, convince constituents and push through legislation. They’re interacting clearly and effectively in a system rigged to uphold oppression. That’s why they’re dangerous.

On the other side of the political spectrum, leftists describe other leftists who hold opinions they find wrong or reprehensible as having “cognitive dissonance.” The only way someone could possibly hold an opinion contrary to yours, the logic goes, is by having all the information that could lead them the right way and choosing not to follow it. Someone with all the right information who doesn’t agree with you has chosen to be wrong and deliberately maintained this idea in the face of the obvious. This may be a more optimistic view of them as a person. If you think that their beliefs require dissonance, that means you think, deep down, they can be convinced to think like you — and, after all, you believe you’re right and good. But it’s also intensely disrespectful and dehumanizing. It still requires the conviction that anyone who doesn’t think like you do is an inferior person and that your beliefs are self-evident.

Here is a distressingly unintuitive concept: Other people have likely arrived at their opinions by as valid a process as you have. Yes, some of those opinions are going to be mindlessly replicating what they’ve already been told by society, authority figures and friends. But that’s just as true for you. It’s impossible to research and prove everything you believe from scratch, never trusting another individual. Even if reinventing the wheel like that were possible, it would be exhausting. You and I both have better things to do.

So for some of our thought processes, we take the shortcut of choosing other people to believe in. We might choose them based on proximity like friends and family or by the fact that we already trust and respect them. Maybe they have an authoritative position on a subject, so we trust their judgment on that topic. Maybe the way they speak resonates with us but taking someone else’s opinions and believing it unquestionably is truly mindless. There’s still a deliberate action happening in choosing to trust that person.

On the other hand, some beliefs we arrive at through longer, extensive thought — through seeing a question we don’t know the answer to and looking for a way to reconcile it with what we think we know. You have no way of knowing how much of someone’s opinion on a given topic was arrived at through the first kind of intuitive process and how much was arrived at through the second. Both of those are valid processes, and all results come from a combination of internal and external factors. Devaluing the process others have used is not only unhelpful, it’s harmful.

People don’t choose who to vote for against what they actually believe and then put in the effort to endure “cognitive dissonance” that tells them in their heart of hearts they know they’re wrong. People do, overwhelmingly, what they believe is the right choice. The fact that someone disagrees with you is not sufficient proof that they willingly set out, against their best knowledge, to be wrong. Thinking this gives an appealing gloss of hipster martyrdom — that you, and only those like you, know the real truth, and everyone who disagrees is either doing it to spite you or just hasn’t realized you’re right. But it not only dehumanizes other people in ascribing real thought only to yourself; it also makes it that much more difficult to change their minds, because you’ve convinced yourself they aren’t capable of critical thinking.

This doesn’t mean that it’s anyone’s obligation to tolerate, let alone individually convince people who hold beliefs they find repugnant. It’s not my job as a trans person to endure transphobia when I can avoid it or to convince individual people away from their sincerely held convictions that I’m sub-human. But they don’t believe those things to spite me and neither do people who aren’t going to vote for my choice of presidential candidate or who don’t share my religion or who dislike something more trivial, like my favorite band. Their beliefs are born of real experiences, values, fears and convictions. If I do decide to take it upon myself to convince other people to see things my way, then I need to first recognize that they are neither blank slates nor broken machines.