America – Cognitive Dissonance

To believe the following, you need only believe that Cognitive Dissonance is painful and annoying; that we are subject to Social Desirability Bias; and that it is basic human nature to seek a higher position in the social hierarchy. In other words, we are hierarchical apes who live in clans.

Many traditional societies had tiers in their society. There were slaves, free but lowly people, higher-ups, local strongmen or warlords, and a very small number of high aristocrats or kings. Those at the top feel they deserve it via Divine Right or maybe God-Given Talent or maybe a vague notion of betterness. Perfectly normal. It is unusual for successful people to think, Anyone could be in my position, I got here by luck.

Since the Enlightenment, Europe’s gift to the world, we have ideals of Equality, Freedom, and Ruling by Consent of the Governed (EF&RCG). There is a pretty obvious tension between these concepts and the traditional tiered society where the Betters rule over the Lowlies by some flavor of Divine Right. Each traditional tier feels that they have more rights than the one below and fewer than the one above. Is this Human Nature? I think so, but I’m no expert in Human Nature. The Enlightenment values of EF&RCG are a departure from basic human nature, but one that we admire.

Why do we admire these values? Peer-group pressure? Is it because of printing and the dissemination of ideas? You’d think our “peer” group would be within a tier. It could be that the upper tiers have more access to education, hence Philosophy; our Enlightenment ideals were thought up by members of the higher tiers. They could be dubbed tier traitors! But whatever the reason, it takes a brave person to say they’re against Equality, Freedom for all, and Ruling by Consent of the Governed.

It is a truism and not very original to say that America was founded with High Ideals, as expressed in the poetry parts of our founding documents, but not-so-high in the actionable parts. Some good management ideas, such as Checks and Balances, but those aren’t expressions of high ideals. The 3/5 compromise is a great example of how compromised these documents were. No doubt the slave states wanted each slave to count as a full person in the census, but our High Enlightenment Ideals could not stomach that; 3/5 would have to do!

So back to the traditional tiers in early American society — White Men with Property on top, they had freedom and provided consent for government via voting; followed by White Men without property, who had freedom but could not provide consent via voting; followed by White Women, who had whatever freedom they could convince White Men to give them; followed by Indigenous people, whose rights to their lives and property were not respected, but were not enslaved, and had freedom as long as they stayed out of the way (which ultimately proved impossible); and Black people, who had no freedom, no say, nada, nichevo, nothing.

The nation, at its founding, provided various levels of freedom and self-government for 80% of its population, and a totalitarian dictatorship in for-profit work camps for the remaining 20%. It takes quite a bit of mental gymnastics to make that seem okay for a modern person; you’d have to glamorize the work camps (as in Gone With the Wind); you’d have to dehumanize Black people as inferior yet deeply threatening (see The Birth of a Nation and so… many… others); you’d have to claim that there was no controversy at the time and that the institution of slavery and domination was so normal that judging the slavers and their supporters is, absurdly, imposing modern ideas on people long ago. The wrinkle in that is that it was not “completely normal” at the time; it was controversial then and there were many who opposed it; Vermont banned slavery in 1775. Quakers always opposed it. See the Granville Sharp case in 1772. But, of course, if you owned slaves they made you a lot of money (not paying people is still a big money maker today), and if you didn’t, it gave you someone to be better than, no matter how lowly you were in other respects. It is very hard to build a good argument against something that makes you rich (or superior to others). Much easier to simply accept it as what a Just Universe owes you. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

America, it is often said, has been on a path to achieving in its laws and customs the High Ideals expressed in the non-actionable text of its founding documents. So non-property owning Whites got the vote under Jackson, then, at various times, Women, and Black people got to vote. Woman are still fighting for full freedom (even when pregnant!). So if you’re a White Man, your satisfaction at your higher status is under assault. Others are getting rights and freedoms that used to be exclusively yours! As a hierarchical ape, this does not feel good. Seeing others catch up is indistinguishable from falling behind.

But, as a high-minded individual of impeccable morals, the same White Man believes in the Enlightenment ideals of Equality, Freedom, and so on. So you favor Equality, but feel bad when it is being achieved and resist it. This is confusing and upsetting. You have to make excuses for your behavior – they don’t deserve Equality, they’re jumping in line ahead of you, they’re not working hard and playing by the rules.