The fascinating question

Last week, JMG had a post that touched quite a few folks; he spoke of a friend who had died, and of the feelings and introspection that came along with that.  Sobering stuff, talk of death.   A few were calling it one of his best posts ever.  This praise is from some very erudite folk who read his work regularly, and for someone who does some pretty darn good writing on a weekly basis, it really stood out.   Thinking and writing about the reality of death is something that our modern society doesn’t do very well and perhaps it is possibly the reason we have the predicament we are in.

One of the elements that was brought up in his essay was, “By some blend of dumb luck and happenstance, though, I missed out on the sense of entitlement so pervasive among those born when the United States was at the zenith of its prosperity and power.”  This is something that struck a chord, and prompted me to ask, “How is it that the incredible cognitive dissonance that so many others can live with is rejected by you?” Maybe someone has done some sort of study on this; how do people lose that “cognitive dissonance filter”?  For me, how a “cognitive dissonance filter” gets engaged could very well be the linchpin of how to (possibly) break the logjam of non-engagement in the topics that are discussed at the ADR and other related places.   In the book Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith wrote “I understand the HOW, but not the WHY.”


Here, the inverse is true; it is probably easier to understand WHY [people have huge cognitive dissonance filters], but not HOW those filters are rejected by the few.

I didn’t get a ‘gold star’ for the question (which he occasionally gives out to sharp minds in the audience), but JMG did mention it was a fascinating question, and a few folks did respond; some referring to Do The Math‘s recent survey, and another, (Jo) with this great piece of commentary:

Here is my hunch for the groups of people who manage to live without cognitive dissonance. I think they would have had experience of being outsiders – maybe due to their class, gender, religion or cultural group. And yet this experience hasn’t left them as victims, or scurrying to try and blend in to the society which has marginalised them – I am guessing that there has probably been support somewhere – family, religion, philosophy, mentors – who help them along the path to meaningful action within the context of their being able to critically evaluate the society they live in..

I think that being a member of the powerful elite of any society makes it so much more difficult to be critical of it, or to entertain any possibility of change. The amount of psychological investment in maintaining the staus quo is enormous, let alone any other consideration.

Jo also mentioned studying sociology as a path to losing one’s cognitive dissonance filters.   As much as engineers and folks from the hard science worlds may turn their nose up at the ‘softer’ sciences, those areas of research and scholarship might be just the kinds of things that may get people to look at their own societies and corresponding blind spots.

When thinking about the most radical thinkers I’ve known and read about, the ones who don’t have huge cognitive dissonance filters, it seems most of them fit in this pattern.   Some, however, such as the Buddha, have easy lives, but do go off the ‘normal’ path anyway.  According to some, he was born into a wealth as a prince, and although (according to the story) he grew up in a life of luxury, he did break ranks, and start to question the very nature of reality, and rejected his the easy life he was born into.  This is a good starting thesis, and lets hope more folks talk about this.   The science part of our future is pretty well mapped out.  It is now time for people to engage and realize that we’ve got real problems.   Unlike the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, just because we ignore our problems won’t mean they won’t affect us.   As Tom Murphy points out, “As with any 12-step program, admitting that there is a problem is step one.”   Over at Decline of Empire, there’s a great three part essay on the “Flatland thinking”, and it brings up why people ignore things, but the converse is a bit tricker.

These notes above are some possibilities of how this open-mindedness/ability to fight cognitive dissonance occurs, but there are seemingly enough variations to give all of us pause.  As was said in another context; “…there are many paths to the top of Mount Fuji, but there is only one summit.”   In a nutshell – What is it that makes very few people embrace hard to swallow realities?

Questions for this week’s post:

  • What set you on the path of critical thinking?   Were you an outsider/outcast growing up?
  • If you are made an outsider/outcast later in life, will this effect change your worldview so that your cognitive dissonance filter falls away?   Or does becoming an outsider/outcast later in life just make you want to get back into the mainstream?
  • Is this the only way to make a cognitive dissonance filter go away?  Is suffering and/or isolation something that is always present in these transformations?  What is the spark that sets those internal fires raging?

2 thoughts on “The fascinating question

  1. Mako

    Came over here from your comment in The Archdruid Report.

    What set you on the path of critical thinking? Were you an outsider/outcast growing up?

    My mother is Japanese, and my father was Irish-(lapsed) Catholic- American; I experienced both Japan and the United States (deindustrializing mid-west city) as a child. I feel comfortable in both societies, although accepted by neither as fully and truly ‘their own’. So, I was, and am, an outsider.

    I speak both languages, although I am more literate in English. Culturally, I appreciate both culture’s foods and have experienced schools in both. This has given me an insight as to the reality of both societies view of interpersonal relations, of the value they place on children, of what they expect from people.

    It also gives me a non standard view of US race relations (where the difference between Koreans, Chinese and Japanese are minimal, all lumped in as ‘Asian’ while in Asia each has a distinct identity, culture, customs, foods, etc), US views of immigrants (and conversely, how some immigrants view the US), what living in a homogeneous country means for its politics and the story that it tells itself about itself versus a country like the US where heterogeneity is the norm.

    All of this was a base for recognizing that everyone has a culturally based view point, that one isn’t ‘better’ than another, but different, with different values underlying the point of view.

    But it wasn’t until I started to read widely that I recognized and was able to articulate this view. So, the ‘path’ as it where wasn’t so much a straight and narrow one with an obvious direction while I was on it. It was more a walk, that when I ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’ I finally saw that one things lead to another, which lead to my current understanding, which will no doubt change as time and experience add to my perspective.

    Is this the only way to make a cognitive dissonance filter go away?

    I doubt it is the only way. Read Aldous Huxley. He is profoundly open minded, but came from an extremely privileged background in what is typically regarded as a class bound society.

    As for the other questions, fantastic questions, but I have little to add.

  2. Pingback: The most important topic | peakfuture

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