I toss around terms like “cognitive dissonance” quite a bit, and I feel the need to occasionally attempt to convey exactly what sort of baggage I carry with such terms when I use them. I am fairly certain that I’ve explained it before, but I’ll explain it again: when I refer to cognitive dissonance in society, I am specifically referring to the way that people are forced to cope with the world in which they live. We go to work and school everyday, promised a better life if only we work harder. All the while we’re bombarded with gossip about celebrities and socialites, news about philandering bankers and stock traders, stories about corrupt politicians, and so on and so forth. I shouldn’t need to explain how most of these people share something in common: they are rich, and they are lazier, more selfish, and/or more dishonest than the general population.
I am generalizing to some extent, but I don’t have the time to go through and quantify each and every statistic, but the overall truth remains the same: we are told that by being good, honest, hardworking people that we can improve our lot. However, we find that those who are at the top of the ladder are often the most unjust, dishonest, lazy people of society. Though I believe people are naturally selfish, most of us are unwilling (or unable) to be so selfish that we would thoroughly compromise our values for material gain. We sometimes make small exceptions, and perhaps we do that quite a bit. It seems evident that when it comes down to it, though, most of us would not completely sell out our fellow man for our own greed.
The most materially successful people are the greedy, yet we ourselves are not willing to compromise so thoroughly. How do we reconcile this? As much as we parrot the ideals of democracy, I think each person is largely aware that our votes change little in our society. We might donate to certain causes, we might volunteer our time, some of us even attend protests and rallies. Even then, we effect so little change that it can be demoralizing. All the while, in order to survive, we have to participate in this same system that rewards callous greed. We have jobs, some of us have nice cars, some of us take the bus. The struggle remains largely the same, though: we work for those people at the top, and they give us some percentage of the revenue we help to generate. Sometimes that percentage is more fair than others. Our very survival depends on holding up the same system that I think we all know is corrupt. This is the very essence of cognitive dissonance: we simultaneously love and hate ourselves and our livelihoods and the society in which we live.
The simple solution is to create bogeymen. We blame sexism or racism or homophobia or war or illegal immigration or the tech industry or some vague idea of social oppression. While certainly there are individual examples of oppression (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.), the idea that modern society is inherently oppressive against these certain minority groups seems detached from the reality. (Granted, LGBTQQIAAP rights certainly are behind the legal standard of equality that other groups experience.) In other words, we take the traditional ideas of oppression (patriarchy, et al.) and apply it to the modern era in order to create an intellectual problem that can be sorted through. If we can blame society’s problems on patriarchy, we can change the system without getting rid of it! The same example rings true, I think, in other iterations of social justice. When we can identify a bogeyman that affects only some group of people, then the system seems salvageable. It seems possible that we can create this scapegoat and then the problem will be solved.
Yet this is a stellar example of using an emotional coping mechanism that is passive. We comfort ourselves by creating an internal paradigm where there is some battle being waged by men versus women, or whites versus minorities, and so on. The reality is that people are inherently selfish. Yes, there are racists; yes, there are sexists; yes, there are prejudiced people who simply hold wrongheaded, stereotyping views. The reality seems to be that people are insecure. The more insecure a person is, the more selfish he or she is likely to be. If I don’t know how I will get my next meal, I’m much more likely to do something bad to you in order to guarantee that I’ll eat tonight. The more chaotic the system is, the less predictable it is. The less predictable it is, the less security we have. Therefore, the more chaotic the system, the less secure we are. We live in a society where our jobs, our retirements, our homes, and so on cannot be guaranteed. It is chaotic and unpredictable, and we therefore are more likely to be greedy and selfish towards one another. That seems fully apparent to me.
Using these passive coping mechanisms only serve to perpetuate the system that seems to be spiraling into further chaos and unpredictability. It seems to me that the best way, if not the only way we can counteract this is to throw off our bogeymen and to be a little kinder towards one another. Live moderately, and show people that you can be trusted. If we learn to voluntarily trust one another, we might not yet be slaves to greed. We ought to stop blaming each other and find an active solution. We ought to show compassion and altruism, because it seems to me that there is no other way that we can thwart our descent. I think that by showing compassion as opposed to self-centered egoism that there is some progress to be made yet. Perhaps the only way we can redress our cognitive dissonance with society is to quell our own greed and selfishness by fostering trust and security.