Back in September, at my college, I began my English 101 class class by introducing the concept of cognitive dissonance. I also, that first day, asked how many students are first-generation college students. To my surprise, nearly every student raised his or her hand.
Cognitive Dissonance, in short, is the tension created when we try to hold conflicting ideas or values in our mind at the same time. One of the goals of education, perhaps counter-intuitively, is to help us be more comfortable with this tension, to be willing to live with it longer. To be willing to look at it and feel it rather than immediately act to reduce it. When we learn to tolerate tension, or what some people call discrepancy, we can become more aware of what we are really facing. We can tolerate reading articles about an opposing viewpoint. We can see clearly where we are behaving against our own best interests, and, if we choose, we can more easily change our behavior.
When you are being defensive, it’s a good bet that you are trying to avoid dissonance. When we too quickly act to avoid dissonance, we squash opposing viewpoints. We rage at these who don’t agree with us, or we tune them out. We reduce the opposition to sound bites. We demonize. (A fairly perfect definition of an election campaign TV commercial.) We might have a very high IQ, and in other circumstances enjoy reading, might be perfectly able to read and think, but in an election year (for instance) in order to reduce tension in our emotions, we refuse to listen to someone who disagrees with us–we stop subscribing to the newspaper or journals that in other times have delighted us. We don’t watch news that doesn’t pander–I use this word deliberately–to our point of view.
My advice, as a writer, is to learn to live with cognitive dissonance. Endeavor to become thoroughly cynical about what you are seeing and hearing. Be cynical even of your own convictions and opinions. Examine everything.