Best understood by example, cognitive dissonance can look something like this; a recent study by Harvard University shows that men who express the most homophobic sentiments are the same men who most easily experience homo-erotic attraction.
The men mentioned above are a prime example of the process and effects of cognitive dissonance for two reasons; 1) these men are unwilling to accept their attractions to other men, which results in; 2) these men’s most exercised coping mechanism for dealing with their attractions toward other men is to express resentment toward men they believe to be gay.
Sadly, the realities of cognitive dissonance play a larger part in the maintenance of systems of oppression than the previous example encapsulates.
To this day, many people deny the fact that genocide committed against Indigenous people and the enslavement of African people has an effect on present day society. These people fail to take into consideration how African enslavement created the economic base which allowed the United States to accumulate vast stores of wealth, along with how Indigenous genocide allowed European colonizers access to previously inhabited lands.
Some who deny the effects of this nation’s history on present day society may simply be lacking in information and critical thinking skills. Too often, however, many individuals remain attached to these beliefs, even when presented with data and logically solid arguments.
Much has been written about how white people, men, and other people of privilege who claim to be committed to the work of justice, but are unwilling to accept criticisms of their own racism/misogyny/etc. These people are willing to acknowledge the fact of systemic injustice, to some extent, but are unwilling to include themselves within groups which wield power over others and refuse to accept criticisms of their own behavior.
The cognitive dissonance here reveals itself in the way people in positions of power can speak about oppression and injustice, even criticize people they share identities with, while lacking the willingness to be critical of themselves.
Often times, the urge to maintain beliefs grounded in faulty logic and fantasy compels the individual who has been challenged to shut down and/or lash out.
Currently, I work at a non-profit that claims racial justice and restorative justice as two of its core pillars of work. At a work meeting this past summer, I got into a heated argument with a cisgendered, heterosexual white male colleague on the day same-sex marriage was legalized by the federal government. This colleague decided to bring up same-sex marriage as a pre-meeting topic of conversation, so I decided to openly share my perspective. While I was attempting to explain to him that same-sex marriage doesn’t do much for me as a Black, genderqueer person, and most other people in LGBQ and Trans communities, he continued to aggressively and condescendingly insist that my perspective was invalid.
Halfway into the conversation, he began cutting me off when I pointed out that the mainstream gay movement is extremely exclusionary of people of color/trans people. Eventually, I left the table out of sheer frustration.
Upon returning to the table, I decided to share with this colleague that his cutting me off was particularly triggering due to his whiteness and maleness, speaking to the ways in which white men often speak over people of color/women/femme people/other marginalized groups of people. He responded by saying this was “my sh*t”. His response revealed his refusal to accept that our identities had a role in our conflict.
In a facilitated conversation with this same colleague, I told him, “I can show you data, statistics, theories…” to prove my point. The potential of being introduced to information that would challenge his worldview nearly caused his eyes to pop out of their sockets.
My colleague’s cognitive dissonance was so ingrained that the mere thought of exposure to information that conflicted with his distorted sense of himself resulted in a visceral physical reaction.
All of this from a man who routinely wears a T-shirt reading, “You’re my baby, no matter if you’re Black or white”… This behavior is a perfect example of what happens when “allyship” goes bad.
Cognitive dissonance also manifests in the ways in which groups of people are represented in mass media; when referring to Black people who have engaged in criminal behavior, mass media often uses the label ‘thug’ while casually sharing details of allegedly dysfunctional personal lives; when referring to white people who have engaged in criminal behavior, particularly mass killings, mass media painstakingly details the level of psychological distress the offender was in before committing the crimes.
And most consumers passively accept these hypocritical portrayals of news media subjects, ignoring the racist impact of these practices.
Cognitive dissonance is an aspect of the human condition with roots in every aspect of our lives. However, cognitive dissonance running rampant in the political sphere has disastrous, even lethal, consequences for people around the globe.
Overcoming cognitive dissonance requires having the courage to critically interrogate societal, interpersonal, and internal contradictions which may not be immediately apparent to someone initially beginning the work of justice.
And once we’ve begun dispelling the myths and fantasies which uphold systems of domination, the possibilities for just, equitable transformation are endless.