“I’m right and so is whoever agrees with me!” A Look at Cognitive Dissonance in Popular Culture

Happy New Year!

I don’t actually think I’ve ever made a New Years’ Resolution that wasn’t “be a better Brianna this year” and this year is no different. Except this better Brianna is going to try her hand at being a blogger, because writing is my thing. So without further ado…

We all have opinions. Most of the time, those opinions are completely harmless. There are times when opinions, whether they’re popular, societal, or personal, are somewhat problematic, usually due to the psychology and the thought-process (or lack thereof) that comes with them. Perhaps what is problematic is a sort of mental block some of us may not realize we have that prevents us from seeing both sides of an issue, and that prevents us from disagreeing with something or someone with which we identify.

I detailed in a Facebook post when the Phil Robertson story was (more) rampant that the First Amendment, in this case, Freedom of Speech, does not mean, and has not ever meant, freedom of criticism. It protects citizens from governmental censure. And since Mr. Robertson was not jailed or even fired for his words, (and probably won’t be), and because his words remain and will continue to remain in print verbatim, the First Amendment argument is an invalid one. So what is making people yell their support for such phrases as “blacks were happy and singing under Jim Crow” and “I don’t understand why a man would want an anus”?

Let me start off by saying this: it is a fact, not an opinion, that Jim Crow laws inhibited the civil rights of black people and made them a lesser class. It is a fact that lynching occurred up to three or four times a week in the Southern United States during this period, killing numerous black people; it was not prosecuted in court. Perhaps Mr. Robertson never experienced any ill-feelings from blacks because they were literally scared for their lives? I don’t think he is a racist man, but he definitely made a racist and insensitive statement. However, I digress.

Here’s something I think has run rampant in our society these days, and that is a factor behind many a thought-process, including the support of Mr. Robertson. It is what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance. In a nutshell, cognitive dissonance is the presence of conflicting beliefs within one individual:

The easiest way to describe the concept is by a quick example. Say you’re a student looking to choose between two different universities you’d like to attend. After being accepted to each, you’re asked to freely rate the universities after considering each college’s pros and cons. You make your decision and are asked to rate the two universities once again. People will usually rate the chosen university as better and the rejected option as worse after having made their decision. So even if the university we didn’t choose was rated higher initially, our choice dictates that more often than not, we’ll rate it higher. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense why we would choose the lower-rated school. This is cognitive dissonance at work.

So when I see comments along the lines of “I personally disagree with Phil, but I will defend his right to say whatever he wants,” I cannot and should not immediately assume this commenter is racist. This person recognizes Phil’s comments were wrong and offensive, however is not defending his rights in the least, since his rights were not infringed upon. What this person is defending is Phil Robertson’s right to an opinion, which he absolutely has, but this is an ideology separate from Free Speech and the U.S. constitution.

Either way, nothing absolves Phil Robertson from personal responsibility from his outward expression of said-opinion, except, it seems, the supporters of his statements. The above commenter, (an excerpt from a real comment) indeed watches and enjoys Duck Dynasty because it is “hysterical,” but is in a difficult place because (s)he believe that Robertson’s comments were quite offensive. This is cognitive dissonance. Some, like this commenter, can still recognize the issues with his words, but many do not. Many claim he was not wrong at all. Period. And because they like the show and the Robertson family, cannot see any wrongdoing on the part of Phil. Many claim this is an example of our government becoming a Facist one (*sigh*) or think that criticizing Robertson is an attack on their religion, since he sort of used the Bible when justifying his homophobia. I think people argue these smokescreens because it is easier than facing the offensive and ignorant nature of his words. Either that or some of the supporters actually believe his words, which, in my opinion, is probably worse. In reality, it is probably a mixture of these things.

It seems that in our society, inconsistency makes us uncomfortable (another factor of cognitive dissonance) so we often just stick tight to what we think we already know, and ignore the contradictory stuff. Either that or get really angry. I often have to remind myself to not read comment sections, in order to retain my sanity.

I like to wonder how many Phil Robertson supporters would support him if he came out as a member of the Neo-Nazi party, or as a Holocaust denier, and A&E decided to suspend him “indefinitely” for either of those things. He would still be voicing an opinion, but would he have support to the same degree?

I don’t actually think so.

There seems to be a belief that because slavery is over, black people have no right to complain about what they feel is racist. (And that the chattel slavery of the United States was somehow better or not as bad as the Holocaust, which was also the systematic devaluation and murder of a people). There’s also a belief that racial slurs seem to hold no weight any longer, and that the minority groups in question should just “get over” their use by white people. I’m having trouble coming up with more reasons as to why “Redskins” is still a sports team name or why white people are offended when they are told they cannot use the N word. More on that stuff here and here.

I’d hypothesize that Phil Robertson’s supporters can relate to him in some way, whether that means they’re white, Christian, southern, enjoy hunting of some sort, etc. Mr. Robertson is a wealthy straight white Christian male in the United States, a narrow, yet very powerful category, the most powerful category, in which one can be. And the fact that he was called out and criticized seemed to hit people hard (mostly white people, but I saw one black person make a support status). This support and outrage at his suspension exposes his powerful position, and dare I say, privilege. Please note that not everyone receives this support.

Did you hear about Rashard Mendenhall? Rashard Mendenhall is a black professional football player, a running back for the Arizona Cardinals, who, back in 2011, tweeted his opinion: he felt it was wrong to celebrate the death of anyone, even if that person is Osama Bin Laden. He subsequently lost his endorsements and was heavily criticized in articles. His other related statements had some “9-11 was an inside job” conspiracy undertones that I personally disagree with, but his perspective was a humanist one, that death should never be celebrated.

Here’s my question: where were all of these First Amendment groupies when Mendenhall was feeling the fire of public opinion? I’ll tell you where: the magical land of Nowhere To Be Found. If you didn’t hear about Mr. Mendenhall’s situation, it is because it was not nearly the viral sensation that Phil Robertson’s was which is probably related to racism/white privilege admittedly very interesting.

On the subject of professional football players (and running backs), what about O.J. Simpson? In my experience, most black people that I know, and let me stress that further, black people that I know, not speaking for all black people, just the ones that I’ve talked to, seem to think that he is actually innocent. Obviously “innocent” is different than “not guilty,” as the latter means it was not proven in a court of law, while the former would mean no involvement in any wrongdoing. One can be found not guilty whether they are innocent or somehow involved. Right. So, necessary digression aside, why do so many black people support O.J.?

Because he’s the Juice!

Because he is one of the athletic heroes of the ‘70s!

Because he was in movies!

These things factor in, but more importantly, the people who support O.J. can relate to him. That could potentially mean they are black, athletic, his age, were cheated on, etc. Despite overwhelming trial evidence and his book titled If I Did It (it is exactly what you think it is) he is still thought innocent by many supporters, who refuse to think that he could have done it, some even suggesting a frame job. Maybe some people just have the utmost faith in our judicial system (giggle). But whatever it is, many of these people simply won’t allow themselves to believe that someone they admire could also be a murderer. Once again, cognitive dissonance.

The same cognitive dissonance that allows support for O.J. and Robertson also allows gun rallies to be purposefully held in Newtown, CT a year after 20 children were slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or for George Zimmerman to sell a painting on ebay for $100,099.99. Just because you support one very narrow interpretation of the second amendment, does not mean that “guns don’t kill people, people do” – make no mistake, guns were invented with the intent to kill (in combat); to insist that the many, many, many, many, many mass shootings and gun deaths that have occurred in our country are all isolated incidences that are not linked to a larger problem, suggests cognitive dissonance on your part.

In the same way that someone can be so firmly planted in their beliefs that they deny facts, another can also call the frickin’ Pope a bigot for firing a Cardinal that he felt was discriminating against homosexuals and women who had abortions. This cognitive dissonance is strong (its like the force, you guys)

Here is the main point of all of this: do not allow your love/admirarion/amusement/hatred/ignorance/fear prevent you from seeing the larger picture. Think critically about all aspects of your life and your experiences, and not just those of others; use this to help yourself look at actual facts, and recognize the difference between a fact and an opinion. Do yourself and our society a favor, and, when you have a thought or opinion, think about the other side as well, and don’t allow yourself to get caught in the “my opinion is just as valid as your facts” loop.

You can disagree with an opinion. You cannot disagree with a fact.

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