Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
~Martin Luther King Jr.
January 9, 2017
Dear LoMA Family,
Last week there was a fascinating podcast on “This American Life” about how difficult it is to change people’s minds. In it a philosophy professor and internationally-recognized debater confronted a man who heckled her and admitted to grabbing women’s butts on the street as a way of “complimenting them.” The professor played parts of her two-hour discussion with him as she failed to fully convince him through statistics, personal testimony and logic that woman don’t like being treated like that. He came across as a nice, thoughtful guy who just could not accept the truth about how his actions were affecting others. He heard her, but could not resolve his own cognitive dissonance–the uncomfortable tension from holding two conflicting thoughts simultaneously.
To some extent, we all have areas where we exhibit cognitive dissonance. Sometimes, when we have a strong emotional bond with an idea, no amount of evidence can tell us that we are wrong. We see this when people trust the wrong people for too long, or if they believe that they are doing well academically despite low scores and missing homework. The man in the program had gotten so much enjoyment out of humiliating women that nothing he heard was going to disabuse him of his beliefs. Similarly, as a nation, many people seemed to be facing political cognitive dissonance about our leaders, and many communities seem implement racist policies while claiming to be for equality.
“When Facts Backfire: Why Worldview Threats Undermine Evidence,” an article in this month’s Scientific American by Michael Shermer, discusses this cognitive dissonance and how to overcome it. The problem is that too often, people attach their opinions about something to their self-worth or identity. As no one wants to see themselves as sexist, racist or lazy, they look for ways to discredit any evidence that their actions may hurt certain groups. Shermer says that there are ways to overcome cognitive dissonance, but doing so entails difficult conversations and self-critique.
Our first impulse in these exasperating situations is to tell other people how blind, stubborn or foolish they are. The problem is that our beliefs are less about logic than feelings. If you attack someone’s ideas, not matter how wrong, their response will be a stubborn refusal to lose; they will fight back. Calling someone’s ideas stupid often comes across as ad hominem attacks on a person rather than his idea. While it may seem emotionally satisfying to simply tell some that she is wrong, it is a sure formula for defensiveness.
Instead, whenever you want to convince someone of something, you need to start by listening carefully and trying to articulate the other person’s position accurately. In this way you can acknowledge that you understand how someone might hold that opinion. This will do wonders in showing respect and diffusing defensive emotions. Then as you present evidence, you can show how the facts do not necessarily mean changing who they are, and allow them to separate ideas from identity. A student can still be a smart and successful while facing the fact that they need to change how they study; a person can still be a good friend in general if they dump someone who is holding them back.
Hopefully none of us suffer the cognitive dissonance of the catcalling guy on “This American Life,” but we all can learn to listen to others with less defensiveness and convince others with more understanding.
This week's student entry is a poem written by a Junior about the dissonance she has encountered in studying the US.
Citizens of America
What does it mean to be a citizen?
To walk the streets of America,
unafraid of the cracks of our
To sign our taxes with a crooked smile
on our faces?
Or to look and spot "citizens" smoking
on a hot summer day?
Who walk among the desert in search
for freedom, either enter uncharted
territory or melt in the blazing heat.
I do not hate these explorers of the fields
but I dislike their way of entering
our American soil and feeding on the
vegetables they harvested but we produced.
It takes hard work and dedication to become
a true American. So what does it mean
to be a citizen?
It means to struggle with dignity, and
live legally with your identity erased.