When Integrity meets Cognitive Dissonance – The intellectual transformation from left to right

Interesting article:  Why Do Some Liberals Become Conservatives? by Jean Kaufman; a favorite subject that I see explored often since 9-11; but I’m guessing (hoping really) there will be a big  wave after the age of Obama.

But although they may not be interested in change, change is interested in them.  It usually begins with something external, some new information encountered seemingly by accident, something that starts to bug the person because it contradicts or doesn’t fit easily into his or her pre-existing framework. It’s like a buzzing fly that won’t quit and can’t be ignored. It causes discomfort, a sense of unease, and the disequilibrium that comes from the dilemma known as cognitive dissonance.

It’s such an unpleasant experience that people are usually eager to resolve it. How they do that is one point at which changers split off from non-changers. The latter group, if faced with that very same information, might just swat that fly — that is, in their discomfort at the knowledge that seems incongruous with their previous beliefs, they would either discredit the new information, minimize it, rationalize it, or shut it out entirely, thus ending the discomfort and the dilemma.

But those who ultimately end up as changers can’t seem to put it away that easily. For them, something once seen cannot be unseen. Perhaps they have a different habit of mind to begin with, one more accustomed to challenging its own beliefs and assumptions, one more uncomfortable with contradictions.

I’ve often cited Owen Harries, “Primer for Polemicists” as explaining the mechanism, and the remote possibility of changing someones mind.

Rule 1: Forget about trying to convert your adversary. In any serious ideological confrontation the chances of success on this score are so remote as to exclude it as a rational objective. On the very rare occasions when it does happen, it will be because the person converted has already and independently come to harbour serious doubts and is teetering on the edge of ideological defection. This is due, more often than not, to some outrageous action by his own side or some shocking revelation: witness the effects on members of Communist parties in the West of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and the Khrushchev speech of 1956. Then, but only then, a particular argument or example may provide the catalyst to complete the process. When that happens it should be treated as the equivalent of winning a lottery – bearing in mind Lord Bryce’s remark (actually made when discussing American presidential elections) that success in a lottery is no excuse for lotteries.

This rule is important for two reasons: because beginners are likely to confuse polemical exchanges with genuine intellectual debate, in which persuading is a proper and sensible goal; and because, in the oddly symbiotic relationship that often develops in a prolonged polemic, even the experienced are susceptible of becoming fascinated by their adversaries.

However when you talk about the slow motion, steady drip conversion (no catalytic act or event); it relies on a Kaufman’s buzzing fly – the inability to dismiss cognitive dissonance via various defense mechanisms. I call this intellectual integrity.  

When a mother uses denial to deny her son is a murderer despite overwhelming evidence, one can understand the intense urgent and temporal psychic need which drives her denial.

In my opinion, when one can deploy all these defense mechanisms (avoidance being the most popular among liberals – as Klavan says “shut up!”) to shield one’s thinking from facts and the logical conclusions; over many years, it reflects dishonesty and “lack of integrity”. I don’t mean them as goddamn lying liars who lie (though they swarm in the professional liberal class).

Cognitive Dissonance is fundamentally the psychic pain caused what you feel or want to think by not being integrated with what you know. The pain caused by this dissonance has to exceed the fear of relinquishing prior beliefs which are held dear. 

I think it’s akin to rock bottom in alcoholics. Once you hit yours, its amazing how the floodgates open and you start to see past beliefs (and attendant behaviors) as insane. Why a Horowitz or a Mamet or a NeoNeocon end up as the most zealous proponents of challenging the insanity.


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