I think it may be of benefit to examine the current insanity of American politics and policies by removing them from the matrix in which we find them, getting rid of the aggregate in which the “gem” is imbedded.
In this context I do not use the term “insanity” lightly. I see examples of what is nothing less than irrational behavior from America’s leadership in the political arena, the economic arena and the common place day to day existence of the average citizen. We embrace and applaud policies and actions that are diametrically opposed to core moralities, and that are demonstrably injurious to us, both as individuals and as a society. These are symptoms, and taken together they seem to indicate a sort of societal mental condition.
Let’s examine one sort of mental condition, and see if it can be a valid tool toward understanding.
The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also shown to be reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.
A classic example is that of the child groping with the issue of Santa Claus, who is apt to develop ever more elaborate explanations to continue belief. Magical thinking enters into the need to justify continued belief. It can lead to feelings of confusion, nebulous anger, paranoia, denial, and magical thinking. Stockholm Syndrome relates to it as well, the feeling that the authority figure is acting in the best interests of the victim, but is forced to actions of harm by an outside, evil force.
It must be understood that cognitive dissonance is a condition known only to apply to an individual, and there have been very few real studies into group psychologies. I posit that when a sufficient number of any society exhibit the same symptoms, then perhaps we can attempt to impose what we know to be true of the individual to the society as a whole.
This whole realm of study, cognitive dissonance, self-serving bias and other cognitive biases, uses psychological theories to illustrate how the perpetrators of hurtful acts justify and rationalize their behavior, and how the victims of such abuse are willing to alter their perceptions to justify such behavior. It describes a positive feedback loop of action and self-deception by which slight differences between people’s attitudes become polarized. Experience and intellectual observation can clash with expectations, as, for example, with buyer’s remorse following the purchase of an expensive item, or more pertinent to the purposes of this discussion- when an elected representative has been shown to have not been what the voter expected. As in cases of abusive parents- the victim creates ever more elaborate explanations to justify the actions of the abuser. The abuser is powerless to act in any other way- an outside force is imposing the actions, or the victim is unconsciously causing the abuse. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. People are biased to think of their choices and beliefs as correct, despite any contrary evidence. This behavior sheds light on otherwise puzzling irrational and destructive behavior. Magical thinking is brought to the fore- the belief that thoughts or action can relate or interact with reality in ways that are outside the understanding of how the laws of the physical universe operate. Doing the same thing in the same way will- magically- produce a different outcome, if only we believe it to be so.
Now, when we look at American society as an “entity,” an aggregate personality, it is easy to conclude that we are in the midst of a socially reinforced insanity. When we rail about the false left/right paradigm, or the Orwellian double speak, or the elastic morality of a mind set that allows our guy to commit acts we found repugnant when it was their guy doing it- we are addressing the symptom, not the cause. You know how it goes- you make a statement, are confronted for expressing it. You provide links and commentary that support your statement- at which point the reaction is series of denials: Question the source, question the methods, question the agenda- a convenient way to dissemble- and it allows the deluded to maintain their own untenable point of view.
Over the past two years I have posted notes and blogs covering this idea, and it is not surprising in the least to find that the general reaction from readers is to say that they see symptoms of cognitive dissonance in everyone who has a different point of view than their own. We see it in others, but not in ourselves.