Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Two words about Scott McClellan: "Cognitive dissonance"

So Scotty McClellan says the Bush Administration did bad things and the long knives are out for him. Dana Perino says he's "disgruntled." Fran Townsend, who's been all over TV, says he's "self-serving, disingenuous and unprofessional," and complains that he didn't speak up when he was in the White House, as does Karl Rove.

All these people, and all the pundits and columnists writing about the subject, seem to have forgotten two words: "cognitive dissonance." According to Wikipedia, it's actually "the uncomfortable feeling when a person begins to understand that something the person believes to be true is, in fact, not true," but I've always understood it to be something that Wikipedia says is the "popular usage" (i.e., not exactly correct but close enough):

Maintaining conflicting principles (e.g. logically incompatible beliefs) or rejecting reasonable behavior to avoid conflict can be increasingly maladaptive (non-beneficial) as the gap being bridged widens, and popular usage of the term "cognitive dissonance" tends to stress the maladaptive aspect. It is often associated with the tendency for people to resist information that they don't want to think about, because if they did it would create such dissonance, and perhaps require them to act in ways that depart from their comfortable habits. They usually have at least partial awareness of the information, without having moved to full acceptance of it, and are thus in a state of denial about it.
Putting it another way, even those of us on the left have a tendency to say, just like Townsend and Rove (but with different motives in mind), well, thanks a lot, pal, why didn't you say something a few years ago when it mattered? It's something we've said time and again as one after another rat jumped ship and spilled his guts out in public. But the fact of the matter is that, thanks to "cognitive dissonance," people like Scott McClellan don't see what's happening as it's happening. They resist information which contradicts their mindset, similar to being in a cult but the effect is much, much broader than that, and doesn't require a real "cult" to come into play.

Marxists talk about "dialectics" and about how quantity becomes quality. In the case at hand, information accumulates until finally a qualitative break from the past must be made. Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge's theory of punctuated equilibrium is probably even better as an analogy. Forces build up (the internal, unacknowledged contradictions), but nothing external changes, until one day a major event (leaving the White House and getting away from the groupthink, or perhaps just a book contract being signed, if one is being cynical) causes a major break, and a major shift.

Thus endeth today's lesson.

Update: OK, not quite. I don't want to leave the impression that I think that no one in the Bush Administration (or other administrations) consciously knows they are lying. Colin Powell, for example, in my opinion knew he was lying (or, at the very least, greatly pushing the boundaries of the truth) in his famous speech to the U.N. before the invasion of Iraq, but held his tongue because he felt (erroneously, in my opinion) it was his "duty" to do so. But others, and I'm guessing McClellan is in this group, simply subconsciously ignore (i.e., aren't conscious of) the bullshit piling up all around them, until it finally reaches the level of their nose.

Why stop here? There's more...

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