My mother’s cure for a Nazi is to dress him in shabby sackcloth with a swastika sewn on the front and turn him loose in the public streets. No one can touch him or look at him and he passes his life in a state of barefoot and beggarly opprobrium. This is the punishment she would have imposed on the Nazis if she had been a judge at Nuremberg.
“But surely nobody on earth was more hangable than these war criminals,” I argue with her. She opposes the death penalty, however, and in sparing the condemned she applies the principle with unsparing consistency.
Granted, there is something harsh and nightmarish in the pariah’s punishment — I don’t accuse her of leniency. My mother has never been a fan of German culture, which she parodies for its supposed fetish for order, but she maintains an admiration for the German theologians she studied in college. There is one other exception to her antipathy which I will presently mention, but let me say it’s not Jewish grievance that explains her tastes — she’s not Jewish — but reflexive antichauvinism tempered by Swedish liberal disdain. I swear that when we traveled to Europe many years ago, my mother refused to set foot in West Germany: she told my father to enjoy his bratwurst and sauerkraut and met up with us four days later in France.
After so much integrity on my mother’s part, it always confounded me that she drove a Mercedes. First it was a used silver coupe, later a bronze stationwagon. “What is this fetish for German cars?” I demanded.
“You can’t beat a Mercedes for quality,” she said. “The service is expensive, but the engines last forever. So-and-so’s Mercedes has 350,000 miles on it.”
“I guess you never heard the German car makers were in bed with Hitler?”
In fairness, back in the 1960s when she drove a VW Beetle, a car whose economy and cuteness made it a symbol of social consciousness, she probably didn’t know that Volkswagen used slave labor during WWII, and indeed the Führer himself helped to inspire the design and production of the car. By the 1990s, though, when she upgraded to a Benz, the research was known: German auto companies like Daimler-Benz had profited immensely from their collusion with the Third Reich. When I reminded her of this, she remarked on the beautiful engineering of the Mercedes. “They do know how to make a car,” she said.
My point was not that she should boycott the Benz and buy American, but I was irked by the obvious (to me) inconsistency between her judgmental rhetoric and her behavior, her moral indignation and her choice of wheels. Didn’t she see the contradiction? Wasn’t she being a hypocrite? No, the discrepancy didn’t bother her at all, thank you, her self-image withstood it very nicely. While she lampooned German culture by goose-stepping across the kitchen floor and barking Teutonic commands at us, her mind simultaneously found flattering ways to justify her driving a Mercedes. I am someone who appreciates fine quality, who knows that good engineering approaches the beauty of fine art. I am a citizen of the world, not a boorish American, and I show it by driving a European automobile.
We are all susceptible to our own blandishments. As regards the Benz, her mental calculus underweighted the importance of its German manufacture, and if it crept into her awareness that driving a Benz was problematic, she could always divert the doubt by lashing out at the nearest BMW driver. BMW drivers she regarded as road fascists, a sort of Los Angeles Luftwaffe.
It’s an endearing trait of people that we constantly tinker with our words, beliefs and actions to hold them together in a vain equilibrium. We trim our statements to match our actions, and we mind our manners to reflect our public values. “I have often noticed that our principles are just a supplement to our peculiar manner of existence,” a character in Goethe says. Cognitive dissonance, psychologists call the phenomenon, but it’s as old as human nature and we know very well what it means. Cognitive dissonance is internal conflict resolution. It’s how we get along with ourselves. You don’t normally hear cigarette smokers fume about the rudeness of cigarette smoking: they’d be ridiculous if they did. If the woman hugging the tiny terrier to her chest were to say to me, “I hate those ratty little toy dogs that are the rage, don’t you?” I would think something was wrong with her. How often is the beneficiary of a social program a vocal opponent of the program? The cost to the self-respect would be too high and the charge of hypocrisy too easy.
We don’t like the feeling of there being too large or lasting an imbalance between our behaviors and our principles. The imbalance creates a discomfort we more or less consciously remedy by changing one of the terms in the direction of balance and comfort, starting with the change in our beliefs or actions which is easiest to make. We take this dynamic for granted, and in my opinion we don’t credit it enough. Mental health, romantic relationships, political and artistic tastes, character quirks — nothing about us is truly considered if we haven’t acknowledged how this dynamic conditions us.
Four months into his subscription, the reader of a prominent literary journal realizes why he always feels irritable when he reads it. It’s the editorial bias. The bias of the journal discomfits him because he doesn’t share it and because he sits there like a chump reading it. Something has to give. We don’t know what he’ll do, but some adjustment in his attitude or behavior will follow. He might cancel his subscription. Or he might convert to the worldview of the journal. Such conversions are rare. But suppose a woman or man he admires is an avid reader of the journal. His self, in its emotionally labile state, may be ready to assume new shapes. But there’s another alternative. Our reader might go on reading the journal in a relation of healthy opposition. But this only happens if he finds a way to soften the conflict, to transform the threat to his ego into an enhancement. I’m an open-minded member of the intelligentsia. I drink cocktails with readers of this journal. It gives me a leg up to know what they’re thinking. People are too partisan these days. I’ll just sit here with an olive branch between my teeth and read. I’m no chump. The writing is excellent. I’m no chump, I’m a connoisseur.
Our subscriber is at peace. Is he being dishonest? Of course not. Who are we to say he’s fooling himself? He is merely protecting himself — as we are all made to do.
We are fragile creatures, compulsively fidgeting with our identities. Some fidget more unthinkingly and unblushingly than others. We have a stake in who we are, or think we are, and are permanently on the defensive. At stake is our authenticity. Sooner or later events force us to doubt ourselves, or the selves we have jealously nurtured, and our anxiety may build to intolerable levels. Tolstoy in his Confession tallies up the lies and inconsistencies that made him want to kill himself. He labored under a huge dissonance — “the desire to teach everyone while hiding the fact that I did not know what I was teaching. It finally reached a point where I fell ill, more spiritually than physically; I gave it all up and went to the steppes of the Bashkirs to breathe fresh air, drink koumiss, and live an animal life.”
A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but a foolish inconsistency nearly ran Tolstoy into the ground. We demand a reasonable consistency of people and we demand the same of ourselves. But why? We prefer balance. When we’re off balance, we right ourselves. The logic we’re born with, our capacity for the logic that develops with maturity, is structured according to the laws of the material world we’ve evolved in. Two things can’t occupy the same space at the same time. Our brains apply the same logic to the less material realm of our selfhood. The inner self comports with the outer self. It confounds us, it annoys us to hell when there is too much inconsistency inside us or out.
Nature ensures a degree of individual consistency and social harmony by assessing a penalty when we stray. In its simplest form the penalty is anxiety, an unpleasant tension which we reduce by making a change. We may fight for a long time not to change a discredited belief or course of action; we sophisticate our arguments, we scream in protest. “For each man commonly defends himself as long as possible” (Goethe again) “from casting out the idols which he worships in his soul, from acknowledging a master error, and admitting any truth which brings him to despair.”
In politics, change is celebrated in the abstract, but watch a politician change her position from what she previously held, or let her senate vote conflict with what she said in her stump speech, and you’ll see how much we like people to change in front of our eyes. Nevertheless, a chameleon inconsistency is advantageous in politics. In this regard politics is like money. Money and power make a primitive appeal to our brains and trump our niceness about consistency. They justify the boldest two-facedness. We say what we don’t believe and we do what flies in the face of our “true” selves if the money or power is sufficiently attractive. Our political self amasses huge credit lines of cognitive dissonance. “It amazes me,” the anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan says, “that people who are sharp on the issues and can zero in like a laser beam on lies, misrepresentations, and political expediency when it comes to one party refuse to recognize it in their own party.”
There’s a striking record of the workings of cognitive dissonance in Sheehan’s 2007 “resignation letter as the ‘face’ of the American anti-war movement.” Sheehan is conflicted on multiple fronts. Her faith in America cannot withstand her loss of love for America; her loyalty to her party is incompatible with her experience of its betrayal; her passion in leading the anti-war crusade is undermined by her realizing the crusade isn’t winnable; and her conviction that her son Casey didn’t die in vain in Iraq surrenders to the stark perception that he died for nothing. Sheehan can go no further. Her identity as the “face” of the peace movement crumbles. She abandons the movement and returns home to salvage what she can of her earlier life.
To be sure, Sheehan’s account is subjective. When she complains that the peace movement “often puts personal egos above peace and human life,” she seems to imply that she herself has been selfless. Maybe; her former allies, who came to call her an “attention whore,” obviously didn’t think so. How are we to know? Maybe Sheehan wearied of the activist life and wanted to stay home and drink herb tea and play solitaire, an ambition so far at odds with a moral hero’s that she was driven to put a righteous face on her exit.
It’s hard to know where the truth lies because Cindy Sheehan was not the only player responding to the internal fine tuning of her psyche. Her fellow activists embraced her until she threatened their self-images by attacking them for their hypocrisy. In turn they rejected and demeaned her. A group comprises multiple players, individuals confronting challenges to their identities, moment by moment adapting, consciously and unconsciously reshaping themselves, multiple minds incorporating, repudiating, modifying and otherwise processing the incoming information that positions them in the world while at the same time — those minds — transmitting the purposeful signals that communicate who they are and where they stand.
The psyche’s work is never done. The psyche is a delicate mechanism like a gimbaled boat compass constantly adjusting to minimize the effect of rough seas. The psyche holds us together on the ocean of existence. We prefer to sail along without a care, without being reminded that who we are isn’t necessarily who we think and say we are. So much of our verbiage and activity is busy camouflage to keep us safely unaware of ourselves, safely forgetful of the provisional nature of the faces we show to the world. We have passionate opinions, we turn out for them, we feel guilty that so many of our opinions are founded in low motives, we don’t want to let on that we know this, to ourselves or to others, so we strut all the harder for them, or we give them up entirely and look around for something else to believe in.
Literature is full of examples of climactic dissonance and character crisis. Our psyches work incessantly to protect us — until the protection no longer avails. Take Pip in Great Expectations. There were always questions about the foundations of Pip’s status as a gentleman, but circumstances and wishful thinking allow Pip to justify his snobbery in a way that eases his doubts while gratifying his ego. But then Magwitch is revealed as Pip’s benefactor. Pip’s carefully constructed self falls apart. “All the truth of my position came flashing on me.” He suffers a psychic meltdown. “For an hour or more, I remained too stunned to think; and it was not until I began to think, that I began fully to know how wrecked I was, and how the ship in which I had sailed was gone to pieces.”
Afterwards, irrationally clinging to his love for Estella, Pip appeals to the reader: “Why I hoarded up this last wretched little rag of the robe of hope that was rent and given to the winds, how do I know! Why did you who read this, commit that not dissimilar inconsistency of your own, last year, last month, last week?”
Cognitive dissonance is one of those sweeping observations about the human personality that can be found lurking behind most mental events. As a tool it is unrigorous and practically useless. It reminds us of our psychic finagling, our sleight of mind, but it is unspecific and predictive only in the broadest sense. I once attended a lecture by a well-known novelist whose books are based on superhero fantasies. Was I surprised to hear him take a jab at literary realism? Of course not. Whether his jab came from a positive aesthetic, or from gnawing doubts about his legitimacy as an artist, who’s to say? Perhaps philosophy never had a sounder basis than a vulnerable ego. That’s the point, really. Not that we don’t say what we mean or mean what we say or do as we believe, but that we cannot. There is no precision in the matter. That’s because when we speak and when we act, part of what we mean, as we shuttle among the never quite corresponding points of our identities, is — You see how strongly I believe what I’m saying — and — I am one who is true to his values; that’s why I do what I do — and so on.
Cognitive dissonance being so vague and unflattering, why bother to talk about it? Isn’t it disgusting how we hustle ourselves? We are cynical, manipulative, fickle, insecure, unprincipled hypocrites of feeble character and low integrity, wishy-washy quislings who never tire of lying to ourselves and to others!
But that’s a heavy verdict to lay on my mother just because of her weakness for Volkswagen and Mercedes automobiles. Cognitive dissonance, though it teaches humility and a mature wariness, doesn’t have to lower your opinion of people. It is not the same as hypocrisy. I hear the terms used interchangeably. Cognitive dissonance is not hypocrisy but the psychology that enables us to rest easy in what others see as our hypocrisy, or that moves us to change something in ourselves or our environment so that we don’t feel unduly hypocritical. The ego goes a long way to make peace with itself. It adjusts, grows, adapts; enjoins a better attitude or a wiser course of action — all positive things. But as an amoral cluster of mental processes, cognitive dissonance also accommodates evil. Under its influence the mind rationalizes, lies, distorts facts, projects blame, embraces treachery and justifies enormity. A slaveholder celebrates the equality of men. A populace unites in mass delusion. It has been asked whether ordinary Germans went along too easily with the Nazi program. It has been asked whether the Jews went along too easily, too. The banality of evil, as it’s called, is just people getting along with themselves in perilous times.
What’s remarkable about cognitive dissonance is the picture you get of people being moved around by it. The picture may be blackly comical but you sense a deep disturbance. Our defensiveness, our keenness to hold on to our identities even as they slip from us, suggests a fundamental dread of not having a self to hold on to. Don’t worry about Pip in Great Expectations — he rapidly reinvents himself. One good, solid self replaces another. As long as there’s some self. Our faith that we are somebody is more fundamental than our faith in who exactly we are. To be like the poet Keats and have no identity at all — how dreadful. But Keats had a poet’s identity. The ultimate doubt, the one our dull brains are ill equipped to dwell in, is the doubt of our substance in reality, a doubt not about the specifics of the self, yours or mine, but its possibility. To be anybody is better than nobody — only give us a self we may call our own. What if I am only a space in which a mind is ceaselessly at pains to define itself in a way that holds together, a nakedness that cannot be seen without a mask, but, masked, will never be seen for what it is, a minutely individuated disposition to move one way instead of another in order to assume the substance of an identity? Hard to accept that I am no more than a collection of sensations and ego gyrations. I must be more than that. I must.
At the beach we used to build great castles and forts in the sand. When the tide swept in, we ran back and forth, shoring the walls up where they were breached, slapping on the mud where it was needed, and digging drains and diversionary gutters. How busy we were! We cried out in alarm, we were always in motion. Against the sea, what chance did we stand?