Alt Belief

December 6, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Cognitive dissonance controls our political sensibilities. We speak in cryptic code and listen only to those whose code we understand. Our understanding is the standard by which we judge all other versions of reality. There is a dedicated band of people determined to preserve out of fashion ideas and explanations. Life would be easier if the people who disagreed with us would change their minds.

Listening to Washington Journal on C-Span this past week, I realized why my sensibilities lie with the Democratic Party. I can argue with their ideas, some of which I do not agree with. A Republican Congressman said that the government has no right to dictate the personal behavior of people, even though that behavior might kill people. On the other hand, the government does have the right to dictate the personal behavior of women on the chance that they might kill their fetus. My head exploded and I moved on to something else.

Several decades ago, Republican voices used to make more sense. Either the party has changed, or I have. Is this any way to discover my political allegiances? American politics is driven more by disaffection. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend, but more like my foxhole companion on the political battlefield. Both sides of the political aisle would benefit more if they cooperated, but it pays to compete, or to defect as it is known in Game Theory. If the other side says 2+2=4, then our side will claim the answer is 5. Rally ’round the flag, boys. In this prisoner’s game, the American public is forced to play along.

The American people and the members of Congress, but especially the Senate, live in different realities. Many families cannot pay their rent; the lines at food pantries stretch for many blocks; 20% of retail businesses have closed their doors; depression, drugs and suicide are increasing. Lounging in their Roman baths, our Republican Senators argue the ontological points of another aide package. Republican led states, dependent on energy or tourism, are begging their party for help. Senate Majority Leader McConnell wraps his white tunic about him, bids his slaves to draw his bath, and refuses to budge.

It’s always the other fella who is living in an alternate reality. When Einstein first noticed that, he built himself a theory. Some people thought he was living in an alternative reality, but after a century, most agree that his explanation was a good one. E=mc2 is as well-known as the 2600-year-old Pythagorean theorem a2 + b2 = c2.

Many alternate realities die as people come to agree on things. There are a few people who won’t let an explanation die. The earth is still flat. The moon landing was a hoax. So is Covid. Massive voter fraud gave Joe Biden a 7 million vote victory over Donald Trump. I used to think that ideas changed one death at a time. Now I’m not so sure. Some ideas are stubborn.

People and mules have much in common. We respond better to carrots in front of us instead of whips behind us. Why then do people on each side of the political aisle whip each other with words? Did we all run out of carrots?

People fix their minds on something and never change. That’s a conservative. Facts will not budge them from their ideological foxholes. The economist John Maynard Keynes said that he changed his mind when presented with new facts. That’s a liberal. They respond to the whip of facts and the carrot of something better.

We begin life with no fixed ideas. Our parents and the people around us put their ideas in our heads. Some of them grow, some fall out. People get mad at us when the ideas they planted don’t take hold in our minds. As adults, we learn that lesson at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

We are more comfortable when we are with those who share a common perspective. Perhaps we think God controls every detail of our lives, or that [insert name here] is part of a conspiracy that controls every detail of our lives.

No matter how different political and religious institutions are, they want us to believe what they believe. That is the problem: getting others to believe what we believe. We believe that what we believe is not a belief, but reality. Your belief is a belief. You see that, don’t you?  

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Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

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