We live in a world of illusion. While many believe they have special access to the truth, the reality is that we all see the world not as it is, but as we want it to be. What began in September 2011 as a small group of protesters camping out in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park ignited a national and global movement calling out the ruling class of elites by connecting the dots between corporate and political power. The main message is the fact the economic system is rigged for the very few while the majority continue to fall further behind. This is an effort to make the middle class aware of what is really happening. “Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed,” observed Friedrich Nietzsche.
Maintaining the illusion of prosperity, though, is critical to our economy as it is, because its foundation is built on consumption, fraud, credit and debt. The banking system itself has been engineered from the top down to create unlimited wealth for a few at the top, leaving the workers, the individuals who pay 28% on their credit card, at the bottom. True prosperity is connected to wellness. Wellness is associated with the social determinants of health, which are the conditions in which people are born into, grow up, live, and age. These conditions influence a person’s opportunity to be healthy, his/her risk of illness, and life expectancy. Social inequities in health, the unfair and avoidable differences in health status across groups in any society, are key factors. Differences in health follow a strong social gradient reflecting a population group’s position in society, which translates into differential access to and security of resources, such as education, employment, and housing, as well as differential levels of participation in civil society and control over life.
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort of self-image colliding with reality. Such collisions are inevitable, as self-image tends to be based on values – what is most important to you – while behavior is routinely directed at short-term comfort, pleasure, and utilitarian goals. To put it simply, cognitive dissonance is the brain’s inability to handle two conflicting realities, so it creates an alternate one, which often defies actual reality. Evidently, cognitive dissonance is a fairly ubiquitous phenomenon, and can easily interfere quite badly with our capacity to make sound decisions.
With cognitive dissonance, a key issue is that the ego’s censorship departments step in whenever our (usually positive) self-image gets challenged, such as when a belief gets destroyed that we’ve invested a lot of our personal time, money, sweat, energy, or emotions in – because it would be painful to admit to ourselves that this investment was a stupid idea. We like to believe ourselves to be intelligent. When we believe that we are fully rational, we can be easily manipulated into doing stupid things that undermine human society.
Our ability to believe (or be convinced) that we are rational beings leaves us open to all sorts of manipulation and deception. On a strategic level, the tactic of divide and conquer is standard operating procedure for authoritarians and invading armies, but the illusion of separateness runs even deeper than this. We are programmed to believe that as individuals we are in competition with everyone and everything around us, including our neighbors and even Mother Nature. It is us vs. them to the extreme. This flatly denies the truth that life on this planet is infinitely inter-connected. Without clean air, clean water, healthy soil, and a vibrant global sense of community we cannot survive here. While the illusion of separateness or individualism comforts us by gratifying the ego and offering a sense of control, in reality it only serves to enslave and isolate us.1
Neoconservative pundits have a tendency to assert something is true even if it is not and then repeat the assertion over and over again to give it credibility. The “positive self-image” is linked to a fundamentalist (i.e. “must not and hence can not be questioned”) belief: the benefits of trickle-down economics of tax cuts for the rich creates well-paying jobs for the middle class. The idea is simple: The more money the people on top make, the more the people below will benefit from the dripping down of that prosperity. The hidden agenda here, of course, is the rationalization of inequality. What they want to be real doesn’t correspond to what is real, therefore instead of facing the stark reality that their whole political ideology is wrong, they’ve simply concocted some alternate form of reality. By linking the welfare of working-class Americans directly to the prosperity of the rich, the neoconservatives can protect the insulated interests of corporations and the wealthy without the fear of backlash.
The “free marketplace” is a grand illusion for those in power to promote in order to justify dominance over those who are less privileged. Of course, it is based on greed being a virtue, relying on a system to harness the selfishness of people and direct it to public good, thus freeing itself from the need to depend unrealisticlly upon the uncertain moral virtues of its participants. In the 1970s supply side economics, the doctrine that tax cuts could be had for free, (incentive effects would generate new activity so higher revenue) without causing budget deficits was promoted by neoconservatives. Supply side economics was a sleight-of-hand maneuver to convince the electorate that tax cuts were really in the interest of the middle class, not simply the super rich, because the cuts more than paid for themselves. Of course, it floats the boat of those in power. This makes it popular, to be sure, to those who are privileged, but not rational.
Cognitive dissonance puts blinders on people so that they cannot see the reality of what is going on. So, what happened when steel mills were killing those who worked there? In the 1960’s, even the unions fought against environmental and occupational protections for steel mill workers and their neighborhoods. To these people, the smoke and grit and stench were signs of jobs and people rising from poverty into the middle class. How could it be killing them? Obviously, that was not the case. The jobs were great jobs! Cognitive dissonance is often resolved in our short-term economic interests, ignoring competing concerns for long-term health and ethics. There is also a devastating presumption among the population that if a chemical inflicted cancer on many people it would not be allowed. Most educated people understand that is an illusion. However, it represents cognitive dissonance in which the strongly held value of our economic elites as responsible and humanitarian is pitted against the opposite reality, coupled with the need to see corporations as being law-abiding and contributing to a better future for everyone. This working class mythology needs to change.
Is there a cure for cognitive dissonance? Not as long as we have competing needs, interests and values! This is part of the human condition. Cognitive dissonance appears to be a feature of our human nature. Keeping our lives relatively simple and un-stressful is helpful, but we still tend to jump to conclusions and rationalize more than we are aware. Understanding our emotions is one of the keys to thwarting the destructive impacts of the illusions created by cognitive dissonance. To reduce cognitive dissonance we can acquire new beliefs or information that will increase the existing consonance (agreement between opinions) and thus cause total dissonance to be reduced. It is necessary to come to terms with the fact cognitive dissonance is a feature of humans that predisposes us to self-delusion, bias and blindness to our errors and biases. We can give up the struggle for truth and adopt the feel-good illusions that trap us in a matrix of lies and deceit. However, these illusions are dangerous.
Self-awareness is a cruel paradox, indeed, that most people do not understand cognitive dissonance because, ironically, it causes great discomfort to admit that humans are irrational and prone to profound illusions. Cognitive dissonance is inconsistent with our strong values of intellectualism, rational science and free will. So self-awareness of our attachment to illusions continues to elude us. Some believe that slowing down our overstimulated culture is another key to allowing our conflicting realities to reveal themselves to us. Yoga, Mindfulness, and other forms of meditation, exercise regimens, and other stress reduction techniques can open the doors of reality. Yet, it is up to each of us to step out of our roles as consumers/worker drones and claim the role of citizen. We must walk through the doors of illusion and stand firm, spreading the new awareness and reinforcing and supporting thoughts and actions that affirm our humanity and work for a better future.
Earon Davis asks, “Do we finally become rational when we recognize that we are irrational? Unfortuneately, no! We can be reasonable and intelligent, at times. We can have self-awareness and insight. However, we will not become fully rational. This is why we need to live in diverse communities. Being consistently rational is simply not in our nature. No matter how wise, we will eventually stumble. Our ability to deal creatively with reality also opens the door to illusions and self-deception. No matter how humble we may be, something will slip past our awareness, or our deeds or words will mislead others. No matter how we study cognitive dissonance and define it clearly, we will not always be aware when it is undermining our ability to reason. We are not computers or machines. We are human animals. Power and creativity both ennoble and corrupt us. We can’t consistently choose well, but we can try. We are each a work in progress, as are our cultures. We are creatures who flourish in balance, but yet always tend to push the envelope. When our cultures promote transparency and resilience and remain within the changing constraints of our natural world, our natural environment, we seem to do well. A society that creates” [ a milieu for extreme individualism, and the worship of wealth], “can self-destruct, especially through false choices, “logic” and “reason” that are distorted and empowered by cognitive dissonance.”2
However, Nietzsche believed, one should be conscious of the illusory nature of what is considered truth, thus opening up the possibility of the creation of new values. It is necessary to create the social environment or milieu to support good governance to control cognitive dissonance and the consequent balancing of perception that leads to misperception. Accountability is the key requirement of good governance. Accountability is about obligation to answer for one’s actions. In addition to being responsible for one’s actions, one may be required to explain them to others. Consensus orientation is part of good governance mediating differing interests to reach a broad consensus of what is in the best interest of the community and where possible, on policies and procedures. Processes and institutions must produce results that meet needs while making best use of resources. The effectiveness and efficiency of good governance requires honesty, integrity and fairness. Equity and inclusiveness requires all men and women have opportunities to improve or maintain their well-being. The well-being of the community depends on ensuring that all its members feel that they have a stake in it and do not feel excluded from the mainstream of society. This requires all groups, but particularly the most vulnerable, have opportunities to improve or maintain their well-being. Transparency in governance means that decisions made and their enforcement are achieved in a manner that follows rules and regulations. It also means information is freely available and directly accessible to those who will be affected by such decisions and their enforcement.3
As the illusions begin to crumble, more people will see the folly of allowing years of minimal government and deregulation feed the rise of an oliarchy in Canada and the US. When enough people become aware of the illusions our society operates under, we can use what remains of our democratic institutions to further change. Everyone must have the freedom and opportunity to reach their full potential. Until we restore the primacy of politics (management of the state) over commerce and address the disparity between the rich and the rest of society, we are unable to reach our full capacity to make wise decisions.
1 Fischbaucher, Thomas (19 Dec 2009) The Tricks of the Human Mind. http://permaculturenews.org/2009/12/19/the-tricks-of-the-human-mind/
2 Davis, Earon. (20 April 2015) Why Awareness of Cognitive Dissonance is so Elusive. http://www.slideshare.net/EaronDavis/why-awareness-of-cognitive-dissonance-is-so-elusive
3 Horsman, Greg. The Narcissist’s Vocation and the Economic Debacle, p 224-229. 2011