Cognitive Dissonance

“All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”. So wrote Paul Simon in 1968 in the song “The Boxer”. I always liked that line, I never really knew why I liked it but it stuck with me and rang true long before I heard the terms “confirmation theory”, “cognitive dissonance” or “just world hypothesis”.

Paul Simon is a great poet of our time, and like all great poets he manages to encapsulate a great human truth in a single line of prose.
And that brings me to Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson whose brilliant book; “Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) explains how and why we justify foolish beliefs, bad Decisions and hurtful acts.

I heartily recommend “Mistakes Were Made” to anyone interested in how the brain works and where our ideas come from. What follows is the book description from Amazon.

Why do people dodge responsibility when things go wrong? Why the parade of public figures unable to own up when they make mistakes? Why the endless marital quarrels over who is right? Why can we see hypocrisy in others but not in ourselves? Are we all liars? Or do we really believe the stories we tell?

Renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right – a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.

Backed by years of research and delivered in lively, energetic prose, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) offers a fascinating explanation of self-deception – how it works, the harm it can cause, and how we can overcome it.

Church and State

The Wall of Separation

I was forced to participate in religious services in school. Unlike the USA, the UK does not have an equivalent to the Establishment clause of the first amendment to the US constitution.

By all means teach comparative religion, philosophy and ethics in schools so that children can make up their own minds but they should be spared from uncritical sectarian propaganda until they reach intellectual maturity.

Thomas Jefferson expressed it well In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, when he wrote:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise  thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State..”

Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church and State” might be better expressed as “a separation of organized religion and civil authority,” because religious and civil authority  should never be invested in the same entities.

This bright line of separation means that the civil authority cannot dictate to nor can they control organized religious bodies. The state cannot tell religious bodies what to preach, how to preach or when to preach. Civil authority must exercise a “hands off” approach, neither helping nor hindering religion. The converse is also true, churches should stay out of politics.

There are no shortage of; churches, mosques, synagogues or temples so please keep religion out of schools.

Liberal Founders of America

The Founders of the USA were liberals and the USA would not exist in its present form without them. Who ever heard of a revolution by conservatives ? The idea is self evidently absurd. There were conservatives around in 18th century America of course; but they were monarchists, the ones who wanted to conserve the the existing state of affairs, the ones who opposed the revolution.

Founding Fathers
Founding Fathers signing the Constitution

In the 18th century, “liberal”was used in a very positive sense, a person was liberal not by having a particular set of political beliefs but by possessing the virtue of free and rational generosity.

Liberality was the capacity to give freely and to give with purpose. Giving that lacked these qualities was prodigality, a vice, not a virtue.

Liberality also referred to a quality of intellect. A liberal person was broad-minded, open to reasoned argument and to fresh evidence. A liberal person could think and plan on a large-scale and could apply big solutions to big problems.

In these 18th century senses of “liberal,” the Founding Fathers of the USA were liberal. The Constitution itself was an act of intellectual liberality. Its framers deliberately set out to build a new kind of national government for a new country in a new age, the age of enlightenment, the age of reason, the age of revolution.

The invention of federalism, the division of power between one central government and multiple state governments, revealed their openness to thinking in new directions in an unprecedented political situation. This was as far from conservatism as it is possible to get.

The founding generation was liberal in the other sense. They were generous. both at the federal and state levels. The first public officers in the United States tended to distribute their power outward from the national and state capitals. They kept taxes low and in this limited sense they were conservative. The founding generation spent surplus revenue on roads and other infrastructure projects for the general welfare.

When private initiative created new forms of economic enterprise; textile mills, turnpike companies, banks, and so on, they did not jealously constrict the freedom of such enterprises but instead liberally dispensed charters of incorporation to them. American capitalism was founded on the American liberalism of the first federal and state legislators.

Sadly, there are those, particularly from the American right, who seek to hijack the word liberal and turn it into an insult implying, gross stupidity, ignorance or even mental defectiveness. Fortunately for the English language, dictionaries from both sides of the Atlantic still cleave to the definition of liberal as understood by Thomas Jefferson whose own liberal arts education prepared him to help revolutionize the world and inspired him to found the University of Virginia.

Jefferson said of his fledgling university, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it”. Not a bad definition of liberalism that.

Under Jefferson’s direction,  the University of Virginia became the first university in the United States to allow specializations in such diverse fields as Astronomy, Architecture, Botany, Philosophy, and Political Science. Holding true to Jefferson’s liberal ideals the university went on to take an even more controversial direction by daring to implement the then radical vision that higher education should be completely separated from religious doctrine.

Liberal Definitions

Oxford Dictionary

Liberal: adjective

1.Willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.
2.Favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms.
3.Concerned with broadening a person’s general knowledge and experience, rather than with technical or professional training: “the provision of liberal adult education”

Liberal: noun

1. a person of liberal views.

Miriam Webster Dictionary

Liberal: adjective

1.believing that government should be active in supporting social and political change : relating to or supporting political liberalism.
2.not opposed to new ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or widely accepted

Macmillan

1.Accepting different opinions and ways of behaving and tending to be sympathetic to other people. Believing in social or political change if most people want it.
2.Used about societies, institutions etc that allow people a lot of persona freedom.

Wordnet Dictionary

Liberal: adjective

1. showing or characterized by broad-mindedness; “a broad political stance”; “generous and broad sympathies”; “a liberal newspaper”; “tolerant of his opponent’s opinions”.
2. Having political or social views favoring reform and progress.
3.Tolerant of change; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or tradition.
4.Given or giving freely; “was a big tipper”; “the bounteous goodness of God”; “bountiful compliments”; “afreehanded host”; “a handsome allowance”; “Saturday’s child is loving and giving”; “a liberal backer of the arts”; “amunificent gift”; “her fond and openhanded grandfather”.
5.Not literal; “a loose interpretation of what she had been told”; “a free translation of the poem”.