Archive for November, 2012

Tolerating cognitive dissonance

November 4, 2012

The ability to live easily amidst contradictions is something Fitzgerald famously celebrated as a mark of intelligence. It is readily mistaken for the key to intelligent self-interest, one step up from lying to oneself for peace of mind when pressured to accept a falsehood, and one step down from admitting that even if the apparent truth would be risky to endorse, it is more likely to be true than the official line.

But as our troubled gut feelings like to remind us, like it or not, on some level we are all concrete thinkers who reject many apparent contradictions at face value. A sense of hypocrisy is tolerable up to a point, but there are times when we experience that dissonance physically as the focus of a passing feeling called regret. Conveniently, this dissonance can be resolved in hindsight, by rationalizing the regrets away.


Rationalizing and giving a dissimulating excuse are internal and external versions of the same arguments, but the only motive for rationalizing (internally) is fear of experiencing private shame. After all, privately felt dissonance carries no risk of embarrassment or punishment, unless somehow the belief you had done wrong would drive you to confess against your own self-interest to avoid the further private shame of hypocrisy.

If shame inspired no such fear perhaps it would not safeguard right action, but freedom to rationalize makes it a poor guardian of good conscience. Poorly armed against the self-serving biases of the ego, vulnerability to shame is easily rebuffed on principle as a slave mentality – as if willingness to confess against one’s self interest were a capitulation to the mob and not to a sense of higher purpose that the penitent wrong-doer shares and takes refuge in if the mob proceeds to condemn him on his own testimony.

Pervasive apathy towards injustice certainly suits the “sensible knave” described humorously by David Hume: “That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule, but is liable to many exceptions; and he, it may perhaps be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions.”

Hence the refreshing quality to antisocial aphorisms like those of the banned Soviet poet Kharms (the pseudonym of Daniil Yuvachev, who apparently starved to death in a lunatic asylum).

  • “Poisoning children is cruel. But something has to be done about them!”
  • “Old women who go around thinking sensible thoughts should really be apprehended with bear traps.”

Perhaps it is only the self-righteous who are completely unwilling to admit that any of their motives are selfish. In secular societies people worry little these days about self-righteousness. But whether inspired by religion or not, self-righteousness is characterized by the kind of self-serving bias that doesn’t discriminate at all. It gradually poisons one’s instincts by requiring unswerving indifference to cognitive dissonance to rule out any vulnerability to self-doubt.

This keeps the emotions boxed in, until they override reason with a more convincing deception that leads to seemingly self-defeating adaptive depravities instead – going mad, seeking escapism in addictions, etc. Indeed, refusal to take morality (or reality) seriously may be a more authentic description of a slave mentality, a reactionary hostility to the idea of justice in a world that excludes you from access to justice when you are the one being exploited and victimized.

But there is something nihilistic about rebelliously refusing to be shackled by a capacity for regret on principle, for it leads to rejecting all attachments that could be lost through one’s own choices, just to avoid ever circling back to bitter regret.

What sort of secular consensus could we reach as social animals to avoid these false alternatives? I especially like the way Eckhart Tolle cites an alternative translation of the Biblical word for “sin” in A New Earth, understood as merely missing the point of human existence, conveyed in a word also used for “missing the mark” with connotations of living “unskillfully, blindly” and merely through clumsy error “thus to suffer and cause suffering.”

In this context perhaps a wiser course than rationalizing away any personal regrets would be to live in a way more responsive to dissonance when deciding how to act (i.e., “acting in good faith”).

What’s wrong, are you a ‘goodie two shoes’?

November 4, 2012

Social psychologists have tried to explain altruism and our very capacity for an emotion such as shame, testing theories with names like “the emotional contagion explanation,” which holds that merely seeing someone else in distress can lead to catching that distress, like a sympathetic pain traveling on a sneeze.

Emotions do register more noticeably in the body than in the mind, which can make them feel like involuntary reactions despite the fact they can be somewhat governed by internal decisions about how to interpret the events that trigger emotional reactions in us. Indeed, we’ve probably all caught a yawn this way at one time or another.


On some level, we all know how to restrain ourselves, even when we take to heart the idea that it is better to be generous than to be self-absorbed. The things we know about why appeals for emotional sensitivity are sometimes received with suspicion are the things we tell ourselves when listening for “tells” in a cry for help, in case it was intended to fool us about whether the urgency was such as should apply to ourselves as the nearest passer-by.

But we know our gut feelings sometimes lead us against self-interest by objecting categorically to unfairness (even when the injustice in question would be to our own advantage). Hence the instinct to say it is in the name of cosmic justice one rejects the “dissociation of sensibility” that separates thought and feeling.

Hobbes found aesthetics dangerous enough to be worth writing about, but a student of prosody could miss his point when he contrasts good form with fancy and ornament. He is getting at a principle that can maintain even in the ornamental thickets of the Baroque, if the style of music is not its explicit pedagogy, and some substance transcends virtuoso elaboration in the shaping of its harmony for the listener who cannot keep up with the pace of its pleasant ironies.

Little anticipating just how extravagant Baroque music could quickly become, the early movement of church music toward polyphony had to be defended in Parliament as late as the 1590s against the charge that inclusive simplicity, the great virtue of the arts in statecraft, was giving way to some virtuoso performance sport in which “they toss the psalms in most places like tennis balls,” as Thomas Cartwright complained.

The defense was also made in the language of ethics:

In harmony the very image and character .. of virtue and vice is perceived, the mind delighted with their resemblances, and brought by having them often iterated into a love of the things themselves … there is that draweth to a marvelous grave and sober mediocrity, there is also that carrieth as it were into ecstasies, filling the mind with an heavenly joy and for the time in a manner severing it from the body .. the very harmony of sounds being framed in due sort … able both to move and to moderate all affections.

Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

There was something to the fear of a society in which art had outpaced its audience’s understanding.

Democracy’s freedom to outpace literacy in the political economy of everyday life seems to have opened new ground to naïve anger over the way things are. Freedom as the banner of democracy seems to stand for an attitude content to make a sneering (but entirely honest) show of egalitarian dislike of one’s fellow man out to be the marvel of the modern world.

Ignorance as a right to experiment until further notice emboldens the least imperialistic of all nations to try internationalism, try adventure. Eqbal Ahmad explains in what sense American’s aren’t imperialistic, that you can tell bcause they aren’t self-conscious about the reputation of their leaders: “This is not a people with a will to rule. This is a people with a will to violence, yes, but not a will to dominate.”

They have difficulty finding the satire in a work like Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror, and would nod in agreement told merely this much:

The trial and death of Socrates would not have remained a subject of reflection and commentary if it had only been an incident in the struggle of evil men against good men and had one not seen in it an innocent man who accepts his sentence, a just man who obeys conscience and yet refuses to reject the world and obeys the polis, meaning that it belongs to men to judge the law at the risk of being judged by it. .. The whole of Greek tragedy assumes this idea of an essential contingency through which we are all guilty and all innocent because we do not know what we are doing.

At the same time, they dislike the ideal hero described by Hegel, who is impartial in the sense of not seeing adversaries as necessarily ‘wretches’ and believing in a life governed by that assumption, or at any rate governed “… everyone being right in a sense, and accomplishes his task without hoping for everyone’s approval, nor his own entirely.”

But Americans are not famous for overthinking things. What went wrong was something else. It’s as if our guts were not our celestial guides to a land of milk and honey as effortlessly governed as cherubs in heaven after all. Could our guts also be contrary in their sentimental preferences, sometimes leading us needlessly into shame instead?

The body may seem inarticulate to the mind, but that does not mean it is without subtlety – depth and complexity are suggested instead by the involuntary and bodily magnetism of spilled blood and mangled bodies described in the passage I quoted earlier from The Republic.


Not everyone is convinced that sympathetic pain makes altruism happen, that generosity is a reactionary kindness. In boredom and in fear of disdain, we flaunt sympathetic pain and talk up our own impatience for meeting the world on its own terms, giving battle to avenge wounds already taken, rather than wait on death and remembrance.

Death could come too slow to allay anything less than a fighting finish. The fact that there are ever Good Samaritans has been cited as evidence against “emotional contagion” explanations for helping others, because if confronted with the disturbing sight of someone else’s misfortune, we could spare ourselves just by leaving the scene. The other way out? “Look Rev, I hate to see a man cry. So shove off out the office; there’s a good chap.” (From Monty Python’s motor insurance sketch.)

If the emotional contagion theory of altruism doesn’t seem entirely water-tight, other “candidate explanations of the cultural origins of moral norms prohibiting harming others” cited in Sentimental Rules include:

  • Nietzsche’s “slave morality” invented by the weak to avoid provoking the powerful
  • Reciprocity by mutual agreement for mutual benefit, or making one’s own terms of personal conduct attractive to those who would at least consider entering into such an agreement, negotiated for mutual gain, eventually
  • Extension to larger social groups of beneficence that originated (by Darwinian evolutionary processes) as a kin-protection strategy giving advantages to one’s genes
  • Emotional sensitivity that disregards self-interest by disposition and finds suffering categorically upsetting, even in strangers (i.e., a reactionary emotional impulse)

Three of these are conceptualized as if the ego (or the selfish gene) had learned to find advantage in masquerading in sheep’s clothing, and the last brings us back to where we started.


Even so, we tend to celebrate the idea of selflessness, and often favor an irrational explanation over secretly self-interested alternatives when explaining away our own acts of kindness. Where will we find evidence for what we want to believe?

Ornamental anachronisms will not revive the ethic of social order, and can glamorize the most anarchic visions of the postmodern as “apocalypse with dystopian elements,” as easily as they can paint idyllic origin stories for traditions being brought back out of disuse for further experimentation.

If lutes belonged to an iconography of concord and were once depicted in diplomatic letters with strong language about the implications should a string be broken or an instrument poorly tuned, when musicology was never discussed without a prologue on cosmology and the soul’s affinity for measure, this itself has come to sound to us more like abandoning the mundane arts to work at flattery, concealing what is unkind about the real with drowsy studies in fancy suspended in a vacuum.

The carnival fee for peeping at misery

November 4, 2012

Laughing at extreme violence that is purely fictional is the more innocent side of the attraction of paradox. The less innocent side is promoted as grand and challenging in a novel like The Heart of Darkness. But when the shock is procured on a petty stage, it is called “prurient” and “base” – mere excitability in the presence of blood, which we fear in ourselves and associate with the murderer’s exultation in wickedness.

Hence the conflict in the story of Leontius, told in Plato’s Republic:

“On his way up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, he noticed the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground, with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried, ‘There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on this lovely sight.’”

The human carnival of humiliations is an interesting indulgence, not that different from the more unflattering options in today’s reality TV line-up. It is a trigger we will pay to pull in our hearts, though we may be embarrassed in polite company to admit to the appetite we don’t know how to explain. Yet that very potential to be embarrassed by one’s desire to look is part of the excitement that draws the crowd.

Poster for the 1932 carnival horror film “Freaks”

Perhaps it is exactly that, in fact – an appetite for permissible venues to plunge ourselves in the experience of shame, known to translators of the Greek word aidos as a word of many connotations (including awe, respect, self-respect, sense of honor, sobriety, moderation, regard for others, regard for the helpless, compassion, shyness, scandal, and dignity), some of which are pleasures ranging from the delicate (coyness) to the sublime (reverence).

Anne Caron discusses these possibilities in connection with the plays of Euripides, a body of work in which already “the real” is an evasive subject, the unconstructed life of the audience a controversial point of departure for dramatizing their favorite myths. Misery, and a shame that serves no redeeming plot device within the action of the play, is what makes tragedy obvious as a genre, as a transaction between values and audiences.

Here pain is already beginning to look like the great challenge in aesthetics that legitimizes street-wise speakers’ disrespect for ethics held to be conventional, the metaphor for the intransigent real that will not be kept off the stage even if it beggars description.

A man desiring to understand the world looks about for a clue to its comprehension. He pitches upon some area of commonsense fact and tries if he cannot understand other areas in terms of this one.

This original area becomes then his basic analogy or root metaphor.

He describes as best he can the characteristics .. discriminates its structure. A list of its structural characteristics becomes his basic concepts of explanation and description.

Thus far the conventional textbook on aesthetic elements by Stephen Pepper. Archetypes are hardly fit to mention among the details of oral tradition and its mundane asides, without being drenched in blood. What do we love about this stuff for images?

Blood rhetoric is as old as story telling conventions come, full of florid literalisms like the Pangs of Ulster and the wine-dark sea under an army of triremes moving on Troy.


When we tire of the iron in suspension, we set all on fire, and the dogged phoenix abducts what we held dear when we wanted only blood. Does recent wresting from the body’s interior implied in colored blood give sexual energy to its description? A trace of an invasion that succeeded in taking down a vivid obstacle, a making of an impression on a living form?

“Beauty is a dreadful and awe-inspiring thing! It is dreadful because it has not been unriddled and never can be unriddled, for God gives us nothing but mysteries …

Beauty! I cannot bear the idea that a man of exalted mind and heart starts with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. Yet even more shocking is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not give up the ideal of the Madonna and his heart may be afire with that ideal, truly afire, just as in his days of childhood and innocence.”

– Dmitry in The Brothers Karamazov

This is not the artist speaking but his subject, a sardonic one. A Russian who reads Schiller and identifies with the sentimental manic depressive episodes of productive melancholy in the writer’s life ironically.

I came across the above passage on a similar mood from Plato in Regarding the Pain of Others, where Susan Sontag reflects on the dark side of the photojournalism mantra, “if it bleeds, it leads.” She discusses a desktop photo of death by a thousand cuts in portrait. We are none too pleased with ourselves as social animals when pity gives way to a rather naked enjoyment of the sight of misery or death as spectacle.

We have no rationale for the impulse to look, no excuse for the felt gratification at finding out what we were turning toward.

Sontag also quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest, noting that when Trinculo notices Caliban, he immediately pegs him for an excellent candidate for a carnival exhibition: “not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver … When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.”

Even these duller dimensions of shame may be enjoyable in a sense, when we have sought out the confrontation, mentally prepared to meet the enemy within just so. A little control, a casual way to exit, and we pay to go in. We vibrate with its power over our desires, a complex web of pains through which it binds us to others, selectively but not without sacrifice.

The attractions of paradox

November 3, 2012

Freckles is the most patient of my dogs (she never snapped at our beagle for putting notches in her ears when she was teething), though she seems to have decided she’s pulled her weight in the nanny department and is putting in for retirement from chew-toy status. She is slowing down, which is a relief since she was always best at catching fledglings.

Not to munch on, but to roll in their gore. Not holding that against her entails enjoying her less appalling enthusiasm for rolling in the remains of dead insects, which is perversely the one activity that brings the most innocent (uninhibited and goofball-gleeful) expression to her face.

Extreme violence makes us laugh when its direction of will is stupidly needless but splendidly executed – there is love of mischief in this laughter, but not necessarily the dread appetite for moral tragedy.

Darken Rahl, established in the story of The Legend of the Seeker as a thoroughly secure villain, far from the realm of morbid fixation on the paranoid consequences of successful grandiosity aspiring to the tyrant role, throws the rhythm of the whole story off when he experiments with life among the living at the last moment before an apocalypse runs its course, and only then appears to run a serious risk of death himself.


Before the bitter end is staring him in the face as a formidable probability, he can keep the Seeker and Confessor at bay so casually no one is surprised to hear that Craig Parker finds the extreme violence in the fantasy genre adventure “awful and funny at the same time.”

Actress Elizabeth Banks attacked her role in 30 Rock with a similar subliminal wink at the shark-in-a-pencil-skirt archetype. This trick gets more sophisticated in Hunger Games with a character like Effie whose adaptive depravity is weirdly romantic as a sentimental survival strategy, despite looking so much like facile pandering to the totalitarian regime.

From Walt Whitman’s Sparkles from the Wheel

“.. A knife-grinder works at his wheel sharpening a great knife,
.. he carefully holds it to the stone, by foot and knee,
With measur’d tread .. he presses with light but firm hand,
Forth issue then in copious golden jets,
Sparkles from the wheel.

Myself effusing and fluid, a phantom curiously floating, now here absorb’d and arrested,

.. the loud, proud, restive base of the streets,
.. hoarse purr of the whirling stone, the light-press’d blade,
Diffusing, dropping, sideways-darting, in tiny showers of gold ..”

The irony is more playful and evasive in The Legend of the Seeker, so that no matter how guilty you feel about warming to Darken Rahl, it’s useless to look for the “tell” when you’re on to the subtle wink. For one thing, it’s hard believe his cheek, because the “pesky” Seeker’s side of the story (trying to overthrow his evil tyrant) is almost always deadly earnest.

But then, the Goodkindian Darken Rahl does come back from the dead to terrorize Kahlan with a ghostly hickey, and few horror movies these days are at once so titillating and downright campy. Craig Parker protests on the commentary track that he would’ve given Kahlan gloves (to help keep her dangerous Confessor magic out of the equation) if he’d noticed the longing glances she and Richard exchange when the coast is clear.

Forbidden young love turns him into a wickedly sympathetic schemer. (“What if she just kept her hands out of the way?”) Of course, he has something else that would work.


Control takes balance, and casting involves knowing how to use slack on the line. Most of Darken Rahl’s career, assembling the boxes of Ordin or reclining in power when they’ve been put in play, feels like a battle to maintain composure.

Not losing perspective is the main thing, when the pace of events goes your way so consistently any real upset caused by this new Seeker of Truth could be mistaken for the equivalent of a routine inconvenience in policy implementation, given that not everyone in the chain of command you rely on to tell the difference is quite on the same page.

So if caution is warranted, a sense of urgency is wanted to make sure the attentional bias orients your way, even if only fear itself will keep the old guard from sleeping on its feet. But not too much fear.

The cyclical orbits that almanacs from astronomers warn farmers about are not random, but absent almanac many farmers will call their outcomes chance. And a cycle contrived in calendar time on Earth can use the impression of randomization to good effect, if resignation to Fate (or a self-serving bias taking credit for whatever just happened) is a predictable reaction on the part of those easily blindsided by the seasonal.

Apparently the companions of someone who exercises (and then loses) the power of Ordin over them can convince themselves not to take “the abuse of power” personally, if omnipotence produced behavior as indifferent in its cruelty as the landfall of a hurricane. They needn’t know the main thing is to be pitiless, at least about the luck of others who convenience your need to make examples.  Or they wouldn’t say, if they couldn’t bring themselves to condone the obvious.


If all acts of leadership are experimental, surviving your own experiments is the only real challenge in leadership, in politics or any other kind of innovation. Of course, your dominion is infested with preconceptions, and with them comes skepticism of new goals and all attempts to implement them that require the mob’s cooperation.

Hence perception war. Not to control the spread of information exhaustively, but to attack the rhythm of everyday life where it breathes information found free on the street, in the open air market for bad tips and dangerous rumors. To know how to get that attention and turn it at the opportune moment, how to control the timing of its favored vagaries in ways that seem to express “a momentum of its own” found in the life casually lived midstream in an engineered current.

How to exploit simultaneity in defiance of all preconceptions about what History implied in class, and exploit “indifference to distance” when illusions permeate and dominate the here and now, so that in the audience, ascertaining your own feelings is a virtual experience in which your errors are chosen for you.

If time is ever on your side, you’re often waiting on the mob to move through a few more levels of denial at the pace of administrative events, working to create a safer space on the other side of the social experiment’s duration, where life is more your own to live. Sometimes getting cognitive dissonance to resolve when the “banal” status of a given evil has been revoked involves taking the entire audience through tight corners at high speeds, so they can’t hold each other back so damn well.