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Generational Dynamics Web Log for 2-Jul-2018
2-Jul-18 World View -- Generational explanation of today's vitriolic divisiveness in America

Web Log - July, 2018

2-Jul-18 World View -- Generational explanation of today's vitriolic divisiveness in America

Leon Festinger and Cognitive Dissonance

by John J. Xenakis

This morning's key headlines from

Generational explanation of today's vitriolic divisiveness in America

Celebrity Kathy Griffin and her bloody Donald Trump head
Celebrity Kathy Griffin and her bloody Donald Trump head

My father was a Greek immigrant who was a fairly objective observer of American society. When I was a kid, he once told me that in the 1930s there had been so much violence by Communists and the left that he hadn't thought that America would survive. Unfortunately, I didn't ask him what he meant by that, although the comment obviously made an impression on me since I remember it to this day.

The 1930s was America's last generational Crisis era, previous to the current one. In the one before that, the 1860s, America was "engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

So today's vitriolic divisiveness is not unique to today, nor is it unique to America. We're seeing it today in Europe, where the European Union is being torn apart by issues such as Brexit and immigration. It's fairly common in any country during a generational Crisis era.

This week's mass shooting by Jarrod W. Ramos at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, has focused the public on the vitriolic divisiveness. Ramos's motive apparently has nothing to do with politics, although some in the mainstream media are blaming it on various comments by president Donald Trump that could have incited violence, especially his tweets about fake news, or his "punch him in the face" remark during the 2016 campaign.

However, if Ramos was motivated by political incitement at all, it's much more likely to have been the much more recent incitement by Maxine Waters, specifically inciting her supporters to target Trump officials and physically "push back on them!"

There's a "dog whistle" aspect to incitements to violence. If, like Trump or Waters, you say something to incite violence by supporters against opponents, then most people would consider your statement to be a meaningless rant. But just as a dog whistle can only be heard by a dog, your statement could serve as a "dog whistle" that would only be heard by people who are moved to commit actual violence. And the problem with inciting violence is that you can't control the result, since you don't know how many dogs on either side are going to hear that dog whistle and act on it with actual violence. In other words, if Ramos was moved to act by political incitement, it might have been the incitement by Trump during the campaign, or by Maxine Waters during the last few days, or by numerous other people on the left who are calling for various forms of confrontations and violence against Trump supporters.

The mainstream media are pointing to various statements by Trump that could have incited violence in the sense of a "dog whistle":

On the other hand, I've seen far more serious incitements to violence from the left, and I've written about them many times in the last ten years, including the following:

I've been following this trend line since the George Bush administration, and there has been a steady increase in left-wing violence and incitement to violence for about 15 years, during the Bush and Obama administrations, and long before Trump ran for president.

The vitriolic divisiveness occurs on both the left and the right. But violence and incitement to violence are almost entirely on the left-wing side. USA Today and Washington Post and Hollywood Reporter (30-May-2017)

Leon Festinger and Cognitive Dissonance

I've been searching for years for an explanation for the growing vitriolic divisiveness in America today, as well as in other countries, and it suddenly occurred to me that the key to understanding it is a book that I read decades ago.

The 1956 book When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger can be purchased from online booksellers, or is available from as a free PDF. I read this book decades ago, and it made an enormous impression on me. I strongly urge everyone to read it.

First I'll describe the book's methodology and conclusions, and then I'll explain how it applies to America today.

Festinger was interested in religious cults that predict the end of the world on an explicit date, commit themselves fully to it by giving up their families and belongings, and then have to face the world again when the world doesn't end.

This is called "cognitive dissonance," when deeply held beliefs are contradicted by incontrovertible facts.

Festinger found that people in such a situation do not simply give up their beliefs because their beliefs were proved wrong. Instead, they double down on the beliefs, and look for any way to justify them. In the case of end world predictions, the most likely way is to believe that God provided the world with a reprieve provided that the chosen people begin to proselytize the new belief system. From this brief description, you can get an idea of how this applies to the vitriolic divisiveness in America today.

Festinger was aware of a religious sect that was predicting the end of the world on a specific date. Two members of Festinger's team infiltrated the religious sect. The predictions were based on messages from extraterrestrials known as the "Guardians" that one cult member, Mrs. Marian Keech, started receiving. The members of the sect would be rescued by flying saucers and then, four days later, there would be a huge flood drowning everyone left behind. The members of the sect were highly committed to this belief: Many had given up their families and all worldly belongings to join the other sect members in a vigil in a member's home, waiting for the end.

The first disconfirmation came when the flying saucers didn't show up at the predicted time. There were four wrenching days of waiting, as the saucers failed to come at each newly predicted hour, as specified by Mrs. Keech as she continued to receive "messages." The final and biggest disconfirmation came after the four days were up, and the world did not end.

Although the group were a private sect, what they were doing had become known, and they received ridicule through the newspapers, and they received visits by people who believed them and people who ridiculed them. During the four-day wait, a couple of people, the people who had joined most recently, left the group, but everyone else stayed. Here's what happened:

Chaotic though they may seem, the days immediately preceding December 21 [the day that the floods were supposed to appear] were at least loosely organized around a dominant theme -- cataclysm and salvation. By dawn on the 21st, however, this semblance of organization had vanished as the members of the group sought frantically to convince the world of their beliefs. In succeeding days, they also made a series of desperate attempts to erase their rankling dissonance by making prediction after prediction in the hope that one would come true, and they conducted a vain search for guidance from the Guardians."

Another change of behavior was equally familiar in today's politically divided world: Led by Mrs. Keech, the cult members began actively proselytizing. They had previously kept information about the cataclysm secret, "in order to prevent panic." But now they sought out even the most skeptical nonbelievers, in order to convert them. For example, one sarcastic commentator whom Mrs. Keech had repeatedly refused to speak with suddenly was welcomed with open arms. In fact, Mrs. Keech couldn't stop talking, as he recorded the interview, and she answered all his questions in detail.

Another reporter who hosted a program on women's issues asked her to comment, and she spoke at length on what's wrong with education, and how the messages from the Guardians explained how to straighten it out.

Hordes of reporters and visitors came to the house, resulting in an "amiable, manic uproar."

One further trend was noticeable on December 21. As the day wore on, Mrs. Keech began to make more and more of the importance of some recent news items. The morning newspapers contained an article about an earthquake in Nevada that had occurred about five days earlier, pointing out that if the quake had happened in a populated area, the destruction would have been enormous. Mrs. Keech showed the story excitedly to the members of the group, emphasizing the fact that, indeed, cataclysms were happening.... Here, she declared, was evidence for the validity of the prediction. This theme ... grew in importance in response to further disaster news."

The next day, the group put out a press release saying that the Guardians had postponed the cataclysm, "Due to the confusion which has arisen from the prophecy we have decided to unite forces to complete the prophecy." In other words, they were proselytizing in a press release.

Festinger found that when deeply held beliefs are contradicted by incontrovertible facts, the result is not to abandon the beliefs, but to double down on them, with any possible explanation, even bizarre fantastical explanations. This is the result of cognitive dissonance.

Festinger's book lists five conditions that lead to this "cognitive dissonance" response to disconfirmation:

"1. A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves.

2. The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual's commitment to the belief.

3. The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.

4. Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief. ...

5. The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of dis-confirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct."

These are Festinger's five conditions for the disconfirmation of a belief in the end of the world by a religious cult. What has occurred to me is that we can make slight adjustments to these conditions so that they apply to political parties, and explain the divisiveness and left-wing violence in America today. Leon Festinger, When Prophecy Fails and Psychology Today (22-May-2011) and IMDB

The explanation: Commitment, disconfirmation and Cognitive Dissonance

As I've said in the past, the survivors of World War II, the GI Generation and the Silent Generation, did great things -- they created the United Nations, World Bank, Green Revolution, World Health Organization, International Monetary Fund, and so forth. They created these organizations and managed them for decades with one purpose in mind: That their children and grandchildren would never have to go through anything so horrible as the Great Depression or World War II.

Throughout their lives, they worked together, even when they were on opposite political sides, to protect America and the world from the excesses that led to the Great Depression and World War II.

In the 1980s, the Republicans and the Democrats cooperated with each other to change the Social Security system to make it a sounder system. After that, they cooperated again to specify new rules to control the budget deficit. And in 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton, saying that "the era of big government is over," cooperated with the Republican congress to eliminate the welfare entitlement.

These politicians had deeply held beliefs that policies must apply the lessons learned from the Great Depression and World War II. Democrats and Republicans differed in some policies, but these differences were minor compared to the shared beliefs of the WW II survivors.

These deeply held beliefs meet Festinger's five conditions, prior to the point where the disconfirmation occurs.

As the generational Crisis era began in 2003, these WW II survivors were rapidly disappearing, replaced by younger generations of people with no shared deeply held beliefs. What deeply held beliefs did they have? This requires more study, but young people do seem to have rearranged themselves into groups, with each group having some deeply held belief. Each of these groups meets Festinger's condition, except for disconfirmation.

There is one major example of disconfirmation of a deeply held belief that we've seen in modern times. Prior to November 8, 2016, almost everyone in the country, Republican or Democrat, believed that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election.

Democrats were particularly deeply committed to this belief, and supportive of one another in that belief. Many made financial commitments, personal commitments, commitments to live in Washington, and so forth.

The unexpected Trump victory caused a psychological crisis among a minority of Democrats that looked very similar to the crisis that Mrs. Keech and her cult suffered when the world didn't end. There was a doubling down on beliefs and widespread proselytizing in some of the most fantastical claims -- just as fantastical as claims that flying saucers would be coming to save the earth. This explains the demands for impeachment, the demands for a special prosecutor, the calls for violence against Trump and his supporters, and so forth.

What I'm saying is that the concepts and principles that Leon Festinger applied to small religious cults could also be applied to larger political groups and political parties during a generational Crisis era, when there's no unifying experience (like WW II). This is a rich area for research, with results that could explain a great deal that would help America's democracy at times like this. I've only scratched the surface.

Finally, let me remind readers of the "Regeneracy" concept from generational theory. A regeneracy event is one that creates civic unity for the first time since the end of the preceding crisis war. In 1861, the regeneracy event was the Battle of Bull Run. In 1941, it was Pearl Harbor and then the Bataan Death March. It's impossible to predict what the regeneracy event(s) will be this time -- perhaps a major military defeat overseas, or perhaps a North Korean nuclear missile landing in California. But whatever it is, it will unite people in all political parties behind the president, as they fight to preserve the country and its way of life.

Related Articles:

(Comments: For reader comments, questions and discussion, see the 2-Jul-18 World View -- Generational explanation of today's vitriolic divisiveness in America thread of the Generational Dynamics forum. Comments may be posted anonymously.) (2-Jul-2018) Permanent Link
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