Sound familiar? It will if you've seen The Shawshank Redemption, and recall when Andy Dufresne (protagonist) finds proof of his innocence, but Warden Norton (antagonist/scumbag) dismisses it. Andy "knows" he is innocent; the warden "knows" that all criminals are guilty. We are on Andy's side, and appalled that the warden doesn't even consider the possibility of innocence. In the end, the warden is vanquished and Dufresne is free, but both remain obstinately true to their beliefs.
I was reminded of this when reading The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science - a brilliant analysis on the strength of our belief systems, and why persuasion is so difficult. Psychologists use the term cognitive dissonance to explain it - when we are faced with conflicting ideas, we "reposition" things to reduce the discomfort. Like when justifying an expensive purchase - "Sure this is an expensive car, but that's because it's well-engineered, safer, and will last so much longer than that cheap clunker you just bought - you get what you pay for."
Unprovoked, most of us are somewhat open-minded, but when pushed, we forsake reasonable for defensive and obstinate, and that leads to bad decision-making.
As American politics kicks into gear for the 2012 elections, apparently *every* politician feels pushed and under siege, and none are capable of making good decisions. The abject disinterest in governing has never been more present than during the recent debt ceiling and FAA debacles. The good of the nation is/was forsaken for the good of the Party or the individual politician.
Why? Because politics is a zero-sum game - there is only one winner. It used to be that candidates would campaign on the merits of their vision, their ideas, talk about who they were as a person, and "may the best (wo)man win." But as politics has "evolved," they've discovered that it is much easier to make your opponent(s) lose than it is to show why you should win. Rather than being the best candidate, it's about being the one with the best opposition research and counter-marketing.
How can they be so obtuse?
On Friday Standard & Poor's lowered America's credit rating from AAA to AA+; their analysis wasn't based on numbers (i.e. is America actually a trusted investment), but rather on the politics - can Congress and the White House stop the posturing and juvenile finger-pointing, and focus on running the country?
Is this a reasonable basis for judging credit-worthiness? Will a loan officer at a bank decide to lend money to a couple based on the numbers, or on whether they keep bickering all the time? I'm sure the bickering should be a factor, but am not convinced it is the ONLY factor.
How can they be so obtuse?
Having said this, the reaction so far from both the White House and Congress is partisan drivel. The ONLY thing politicians are capable of is showing how the other side is to blame for everything that's bad, and how they are righteous and good (there is no pressure to talk about compromise, leadership or governing). If immaturity and petulance were the only factors, America should receive a rating below that of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain - maybe closer to that of Syria or North Korea.
A strength of democracy is that the fringes are attenuated by the center; and that effective partisanship impedes government overreach. A weakness of democracy is that it is possible for enough of the electorate to be swayed in the moment, that the most fringe voices are rewarded, and the more honorable and insightful are ignored.
Today the American public is as polarized as her politicians, no-one is considering the ramifications of the downgrade or our economic state, instead we are each bent on making sure everyone knows how screwed up the other side is, and how we'd be better off if they didn't exist. This is our cognitive dissonance, founded on our deepened commitment to the votes we've cast.
How can we be so obtuse?
Does good come out of bad? I hope so. Has American been harmed enough by our politicians' failings to demand and expect more from ourselves than angry sound bytes? Not yet, but perhaps soon.
I was listening to a show on NPR asking, "What is life?" I agreed with the NASA definition - life exists when there is procreation and evolution. I was talking to a friend later about the unasked question, "What is humanity?" I think humanity exists when there is empathy and aspiration.
Survival requires community - we must have more empathy for our brothers and sisters, because the community prevails when the least among us survives and thrives. Success requires ability and desire - we must make our children more capable than we are, and we must imbue in them a desire and urgency to be greater than their parents.
Out of all that has happened recently, my hope is that we overcome our cognitive dissonance, and resurrect our humanity.