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Dissonance reduction, American-style

Psychologists use the term “cognitive dissonance” to refer to the icky feeling we all get when we realize that we are doing something that is inconsistent with our beliefs. We get ourselves out of this jam by coming up with thoughts that reduce the dissonance. Suppose you lose your temper with a cashier. If you can convince yourself that she was lazy and not doing her job, then you feel better. This column by Katha Pollitt has a good example.

Ms. Pollitt writes about a heartwarming story she heard on NPR about an Iraqi boy who was horribly injured by a cluster bomb that also killed his brother. The boy was flown to the United States for treatment, was warmly taken in by an American couple, and has now been joined by the rest of his family. Even hearing about this story second-hand, it is hard not to feel proud of the generosity of the American people. We may have invaded Iraq, but we are there to help.

BUT... Pollitt points out the fly in the ointment. That cluster bomb that the little boy picked up was delivered to him by the United States military. The sad fact is that no matter how well that boy heals, he will always be disfigured and will never have his brother back. And no radical Islamist can be blamed for what happened to him.

In the big picture, even though no banned WMD was found we try to tell ourselves that we are making the country better. But are we really? Certainly, the country is better of without Saddam, but it was never a simple matter of having Saddam or not, but of replacing a whole civil society. Far from being a panacea, it looks like the upcoming election may well trigger a civil war. Do we really expect the Sunni militants to lay down their arms after they lose? It is not like they are believers in democracy!

Through all of the twists and turns of the war, one constant fact has always been that people who make negative comments are accused of "undermining the troops" or "undermining the President and the troops". (The latter version is no doubt more sincere.) No matter how many of those negative predictions turn out to be right, the truth-tellers will never get credit. (Heck, John Kerry still gets flak for being such a downer about the Vietnam War.) This is dissonance reduction on a social level: Americans are good. Americans went to war. Therefore, it is a good war. If you find evidence that it is not a good war, see rule #1.

I wish I could say that I was against the war all along, but I never really made up my mind. I was suspicious of Bush, but it was hard for me to accept that he would go to war for "fictitious reasons", as Michael Moore quite accurately put it. Once I realized the truth, I was even more resolved to help defeat George Bush. I don't feel like I failed, though; the voters failed themselves.

This is already a pretty lengthy post, but I would like to conclude with some timely thoughts by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

[The Vietnam War] has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken... Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order... There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right. I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "We ain't goin' study war no more."

Postscript: After I posted this I looked back and realized that I was about the fourth person to define "cognitive dissonance" on these pages. Little refresher, I guess...

Posted by Woody Mena at January 23, 2005 4:07 PM