The United States seems to have been going through cognitive dissonance reduction for more than 100 years.  It is trying to reconcile the highfalutin wording of is founding documents with its horrendous historical behaviour.

Cognitive dissonance (a theory developed by Leon Festiger in 1957) occurs when you must reconcile your own behaviour to either your beliefs or stated objectives or vice versa.  It puts the individual into a spin seeking to rationalize the conflicting issues – am I what I say or what I do?  The theory says we aim for consistency between attitudes and behaviours, and may not always use very rational methods to achieve it.

The U.S. has willfully undertaken genocide against indigenous people, been a major proponent of slavery and racism, both official slavery and the Jim Crowe laws, invaded other countries for gain with little pretext (Mexico, Spanish American War, Guatemala, etc.), placed citizens into internment camps, even the notion of separating government and religion, and much more.  None of these things are consistent with their founding assertions.  Quite the opposite.

Tension is created in trying to resolve this incongruity continues today with riots, accusations and unrest.  The battle is between aligning behaviour with expressed ideals.

Historically this dissonance has been dealt with through denial, rationalization, deflection and partying.

Systemic racism? Denial: “No way, we even had an African American President who, BTW, is a Muslim born in Kenya. Plus we have a national holiday for Martin Luther King.”

In a large study in the U.S., psychologists asked about two wealth distributions, one where 10% own 80% of the wealth and one where 30% own 60%.  Which would people prefer? About 90% chose the latter option no matter what their political position – left or right. What they didn’t know was that the 30% distribution represented Sweden whereas the almost universally rejected one was their own U.S.  Denial puts blinders on reality, making it easy to resolve the dissonance.

Rationalization is the way evangelical Christians, supposedly very observant religious people, have embraced many leaders and political figures, like Donald Trump, who clearly act in a manner inconsistent with the evangelicals’ teachings.

This dissonant behaviour is often explained away by saying “I don’t like the way he has behaved in his private life, but he does some good things for us publicly.”  The rationalization separates the person’s personal actions from their social actions as if they were two different people.  This accepts the benefits while turning a blind eye to how you got them (denial). This is also how slavery worked – taking the benefit while avoiding the morality.

In discussions of these difficult inconsistencies, the dissonance can be dealt with through deflection.  We see this often where the subject is changed to avoid the issue so no one has to think about it.

Partying is a kind of denial and deflection.  It distracts from any wrong doing, so it also provides an escape.  Why worry about the years of discrimination against the Irish or Mexicans when you can get drunk on St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo?

Reformers keep asking that the country “walk the walk” while the majority seem content just to “talk the talk.”  Talking provides easier access for self deceit.

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