Posts Tagged ‘cognitive dissonance’


July 16, 2014

Here’s a mental experiment: look at whatever you have decided “constitutes evil” in more concrete instances as organic in the sense of self-sustaining and viable, but possibly still self-limiting in its appetites. Picture it as an attitude in the physicality of a stage villain, a breathing pattern and a gestural sensibility for violence that is reactive but not driven from without, an unease with one’s environment that’s impassive but untenable, a disturbing force that is autonomous and mortal.

Physicality and critical thinking go hand in hand – to let your body speak to you in metaphor about things that would seem more intellectual and are normally encountered in abstraction is a rare skill. Excellent stage combat in actors conveys this connectivity, and has dramatic intelligence, not just as an expression of violence but also a display of subtlety and pause. Heath Ledger’s performances were deeply informed by his study of modern dance, and profoundly expressive in gesture and poise.

There is an animalistic simplicity to stage villains – they struggle against all odds to survive the fragile worlds that they disrupt.

Kipling wrote in The Bull That Thought, that in the bull-ring he “raged enormously; he feigned defeat; he despaired in statuesque abandon, and thence flashed into fresh paroxysms of wrath – but always with the detachment of the true artist who knows that he is but the vessel of an emotion whence others, not he, must drink.”

They are performative caricatures of evil, more afraid of inconsequence than death. Death as a backing for mirrors is a sterile aesthetic theory, the apocalypse genre and its “human shadows bright as glass” is too morbid. Shadow catching frightens us into awe. The embodied image of a victim, or a villain, stirs mimetic imaginative forces in the audience – identification, sublimation, catharsis. Resistance to the final act in which “everyone who is marked for death, dies.” The rich vibrations of denial in the heart.

Fear is an experience of particular interest to Christian Bale, multidimensional and subversive. One can crouch in fear the better to revel in an intertwined discovery of courage, or smile in fear over an intellectually overwhelming irony, step towards fear in defiance of intimidation, or stumble in abject fear of indifferent consequence.

The scene in Alexander at night when he genuflects in honor of Fear highlights the importance of accepting vulnerability, respecting its capacity to overwhelm other forces, and studying the means to exploit its effect on oneself and others. Respect for fear is where courage and self-knowledge knit together. A villain is practiced in deploying fear, and a villain’s imposture is a consequence of living submersed in it.


My favorite fandom is one in which ideas like fear and compassion loom over the plot like engines of disaster and little truths about the human condition ambush the characters like carnival masks in a Boschian dream.

The emotional logic of magic in The Legend of the Seeker gives rise to archetypal battles rather than convincing illusions, in a world of relationships that don’t have a legitimating context in a world without magic, thrusting into relief deep schisms in the stilted psychology of symbolic expressionism, foregrounding characters whose attributes are larger than life and whose lived experience is epic in scale.

Character moments sometimes register like an idea fixé held in place, a subtle mask contoured by the multidimensional pressures of cognitive dissonance against character and plot, symbolic action and empirical ghost. The articulate tensing of intrinsic freedom against psychosocial constraint.


Quoting Susan Sontag on dissonance and ethical experience:

“The incomparable early 20th century Portuguese poet and prose writer, Fernando Pessoa, wrote in his prose summum, The Book of Disquiet:

“I’ve discovered that I’m always attentive to, and always thinking about two things at the same time. I suppose everyone is a bit like that…. In my case the two realities that hold my attention are equally vivid. This is what constitutes my originality. This, perhaps, is what constitutes my tragedy, and what makes it comic.”

Yes, everyone is a bit like that, but the awareness of the doubleness of thinking is an uncomfortable position, very uncomfortable if held for long. It seems normal for people to reduce the complexity of what they are feeling and thinking and to close down the awareness of what lies outside their immediate experience.

Is this refusal of an extended awareness, which takes in more than is happening right now, right here, not at the heart of our ever-confused awareness of human evil and of the immense capacity of human beings to commit evil? Because there are, incontestably, zones of experience that are not distressing, which give joy, it remains a puzzle that there is so much misery and wickedness.”

On the suffering of others, she gives the example of an earthquake: “Lisbon lies in ruins,” Voltaire wrote, “and here in Paris we dance.”


Just as I wondered why Eckhart Tolle is more interested in enjoying the “now” without noticing his perspective on it is limited by the “here” Sontag asks, “Is it not part of the fundamental structure of experience that “now” refers to both “here” and “there”? … Perhaps it is our perennial fate to be surprised by the simultaneity of events, by the sheer extension of the world in time and space. That we are here, prosperous, safe, unlikely to go to bed hungry or be blown to pieces this evening, while elsewhere in the world, right now in Grozny, in Najaf, in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Gaza, in the favelas of Rio….

“To be a traveler – and novelists are often travelers – is to be constantly reminded of the simultaneity of what is going on in the world, your world and the very different world you have visited and from which you have returned home.”

Somewhere in the world, someone is warming to battle, saying, like Shakespeare in Coriolanus:

“Let me have a war, say I: It exceeds peace as far as day
Does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, full of vent.
Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy, mull’d, deaf, sleepy,
Insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war is a
Destroyer of men.”

Someone is stoking the appetites for violence with the rhetoric of victim-blaming and its subliminal narrative’s naive expressions of imposture, invoking free rider social anxiety, estrangement, latent attitudes towards shirking, instinctive exclusionary threat displays and the language of non-exclusionary vulgarity in posturing. Someone is reframing the rictus of a fear grimace as a mask of rage, calling in debts, condemning a deferred presumption of decency, channeling actual bystander attitudes towards other bystanders and reciprocity, harnessing the nameless confusion of social animals into the traces of war.


Someone is unleashing and amplifying the cruelty of micro-aggressions practiced in the informal policing of the frontiers of justice, tacit reminders of inequality given not without satisfaction, even if the aggressive nature of the behavior is unacknowledged out of social pressure to keep the peace.

Cruelty is easy to disown. At the frontiers of justice, passive gatekeepers without keys appear to be toying with the alternatives (assist or obstruct passage) every time they acknowledge someone on the other side. They are merely posturing to maintain position on the better end of the social contract’s Pareto optimal sum of political fair-mindedness.

Gloating, posturing, fear, uncertainty, depravity and imposture are a potential blemish on stardom, and the grimace is underrepresented in film apart from the stock villain. Such a villain is a favorite in contemporary criticism of the Iliad, in the very modern Thersites, tragically out of step with the epic love fantasies and military ethics of his time.

A holistic concept map of his foibles would link ugliness and thwarted aggression, soothing and patronizing gestures, imposture and irony, disgust and desire, initiating violence and defending self-efficacy, miscommunication and indifference to strangers, the attention economy and stop-go posturing, phrasebook conversation as the formulaic bent of high diction and indirection as an ambivalent or inattentive vagueness.

I would use the concepts of cognitive bias, working memory, compartmentalizing and strain on the attention economy to develop an abstract theory of ugliness fit to explain the antithesis of a charismatic hero. Errata, grudges, divided loyalties and excessive interests belie a villain’s imperfectible nature, making his virtues forgettable and his failures decisive. He will come to want revenge for being born.


The foibles of the villains in The Legend of the Seeker have overtones of BDSM sexual fantasy, ritualized and sardonic. Porn is a garish metaphor for the strained idea of inter-subjectivity in contemporary identity politics. The boundaries issues, the mutuality deficits, the resentment masking (forced irony as sublimated hatred), all devolve into rote penetrative violence governed by reactive interpersonal dynamics (push and push back w/o pull, ‘telling’ instead of using ‘indirection’, rape scripts instead of seduction). BDSM porn may be richer in symbolic language and relational innuendo, but is still preoccupied with power and its confrontation.

If mainstream film is governed by a market that parallels that for porn, the horror genre is the most emblematic of vulgarity. The banalization of violent pornography in horror films humanizes female protagonists with contemporary plots that take the objectified heroine off her pedestal and establish “she’s no victim, but that is distress.” The distress is guaranteed, exaggerated, inane. Horror films elicit, by repetition and predictability, a matter-of-fact sort of stage feeling about the universal experience of unrelenting vulnerability to interpersonal violence.

In 1944, Orwell wrote a column about what he called “a very dangerous fallacy, now very widespread in the countries where totalitarianism has not established itself. … The fallacy is to believe that under a dictatorial government you can be free inside …. The greatest mistake is to imagine that the human being is an autonomous individual. The secret freedom which you can supposedly enjoy under a despotic government is nonsense, because your thoughts are never entirely your own. Philosophers, writers, artists, even scientists, not only need encouragement and an audience, they need constant stimulation from other people .. Take away freedom of speech, and the creative faculties dry up.”

The subversive energies of violent pornography transgress the vulgar politics of Pareto stability and the impassive obscure with splashy narratives of overpowering force and indiscriminate disruption.


Bertrand Russell speculated that there might be innocent pastimes that could restore the “zest” to indolent headhunters in conquered corners of the Amazon who had been forbidden their favorite sport and grown degenerate in the lassitude of postcolonial angst. Maybe not; the glory they missed had not been and could never be apolitical, without being trivialized.

Pornographic and Hollywood villainy is neither apolitical nor uncensored, a sphere for indulging the senses that embodies the political and dramatizes the radical within the permissive bounds of the trivial, a call of the wild “for entertainment only.” Rousing, provocative, peculiar, destructive, the rise of a villain worth contending with is a spectacle that evinces appetites outstripping the world’s patience in all of us. For the stage villain is the evil genius we choose to identify with, the one who can only be outdone in our estimation by a hero of unusual charisma and supernatural prowess.

“The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,”

– Yeats, The Hosting of the Sidhe

Such a villain is not defeated – he is undone. He must hide in his strengths the seed of their own destruction, overreach in the fatal direction, foresee his own doom and collapse into nihilism, succumb to a performative defiance of what the world holds possible.

“The trouble with reality is that it anticipates the hypotheses that deny it.” These are the same expectations that explain why “not only does reality offer no resistance to those who denounce it, but it escapes those who take its side. It may be a way to take revenge on those who claim to believe in it in order to transform it: sending the zealots back to their own desire. In the end, it might be more of a sphinx than a dog.” Baudrillard again.

Codependency and authority

June 18, 2014

I find it difficult to look at the domestic violence crisis that precipitated my move to the Pacific Northwest as a productive displacement and a timely disruption. If my mother hadn’t been arrested, I wouldn’t have had access to the same kind of transitional support from my extended family that I needed to get a job and start living independently.

I should be glad her behavior came to a head in an incident that brought the attention of the police to a situation in which I had grown accustomed to feeling disbelieved and ignored whenever I reached out for help. She had been abusive before, but I had had extreme difficulty following through on the simple imperative of making a home somewhere safer. Instead I keep catching myself looking at the crisis as an aberration, something that ruined a perfectly stable living situation and turned my life upside down.

I can tell this is distorted thinking, that I had some sort of attachment disorder, maybe a codependent relationship with my mother. Difficulty distinguishing between stuckness and stick-to-it-ive-ness is probably somewhat normal (i.e., confirmation bias), but there was no way to make that toxic relationship work. It’s bizarre to miss the awful familiarity of it.

Codependency is an awkward way of describing a relationship in which my mother was both the breadwinner and the one abusing painkillers, but it does capture the learned helplessness I’ve become prone to, and the thoughtless way I relied on her for instrumental support while harboring nothing but resentment for the way she treated me. It’s possible she learned codependent relationship habits while living with my father, an alcoholic, and transferred those behaviors to me after he left.

If codependency is relationship addiction, I had withdrawn from other relationships on the perverse logic that only my assailant could “truly understand” what I had been through in the abusive relationship. She was the only witness to most of the abuse, and in that I invested the dignity of having endured years of bullying and death threats, as if it were a private club we belonged to in which the world was harsher and the stakes were higher, a club to which I had paid my dues.

Those I had confided in seemed to have accused me of blowing things out of proportion or of not having done enough to help myself, when my relationship with my mother was so emotionally taxing I didn’t believe I could handle the simultaneous stress of a job. I felt pressured to normalize my home life for appearances’ sake, a pressure so stifling I preferred to avoid social contact altogether.

“Though a good deal is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened.” – Thomas Hardy

On some level you nurse the hope that you’re merely being disbelieved, that the truth might finally come out and lead to a reversal of the injustice you’re so accustomed to, but it’s more than that, people are waiting for you to save yourself, and they’re not holding their breath.

Peter Weir directed a wicked psychological thriller about the claustrophobic intensity of being harassed behind closed doors and treated with bemused disinterest by those you turn to for help, in which the villain is a deranged plumber who comes across as a likeable eccentric to everyone but his victim. He said / she said disputes with no witnesses provoke conciliatory reactions from most informal arbitrators, insisting that the distressed party let it go to save everyone else the trouble of an investigation.

Asking for help coping with abuse that takes place behind closed doors means leveling accusations at someone who modifies their behavior when witnesses are present, and it is also special pleading for a favor – two strong reasons for friends to brush off the request as inappropriate, especially if it’s coming from someone who seems flustered or upset. The complaint will bring nothing but trouble, and lacks the dignity of confrontation with an adversity faced voluntarily, so everything about it is socially awkward.

The ego-centric social expectations of self-discipline militate against reaching out for help with relationship violence, and speaking out is often greeted with pressure to smooth things over and conciliate with the abuser.

• pain silencing
• denial of emotions
• concealment of weaknesses

Not making a show of distress is important to avoid alienating people whose social commitments to you are casual or professional, not close and personal. But it’s typical of an abuser to isolate the victim from close friendships, so that only flimsy social ties remain.

The social isolation that results promotes cognitive distortions that are, themselves, isolating and confusing. Daniel Araoz describes “negative self-hypnosis” that produces catastrophizing delusions or excessively disastrous expectations as a process in which negative evaluations are accepted uncritically, revisited habitually, easily visualized as convincing expectations, with the ability to produce havoc in everyday life through effects on “mood, motivation, and behavior, limiting the individual in such a way that s/he cannot break through those hypnotic limits” (1982). He quotes The Reluctant Messiah (Bach 1977), “Argue for your limitations and, sure enough, they’re yours.”

I like the pantoum “kidding myself in Kuta, Bali” for its depiction of a dream within a dream and the experience of cognitive dissonance or denial in the face of disruption. Denial is a difficult concept to operationalize in metaphor, but I tend to see it as a pervasive force of nature, as intense as social pressure but internalized and more obscure.

“They’ve hired too many actors for the scene
The piles of bodies really are a laugh
The blood however excellently done
With limbs ripped off and bodies cut in half
I am the one in shock who laughs and claps

Confused? Concussed? A little drunk perhaps
At last it dawns, there is no camera crew
A man in white sticks something on my brow
He smiles and whispers sorry and departs

The frantic search for living victims starts
A second man comes close, and shakes his head
He smiles and whispers sorry and departs
I can’t accept I’m very nearly dead

A second man comes close, and shakes his head
I do not want to face my life’s conclusion
It’s just a film: my final self-delusion”

I have a working notion of attentional bias dancing through layers of cognitive dissonance in a non-linear system of veils that move because of those who are concealed and those who seek to be disillusioned, but can frustrate either or both in their own movements somewhat, and are inconsistent in which way they conceal one another and what moves among them that is not a veil.

The Prestige explores this sort of deception intricately, and includes pain silencing as a reason that cognitive dissonance can leave us unwilling to say something.

“One half of me swears … the other half convinced…”
“How can he not know?!?”

Refusal to believe the pain of another is real is what makes the trick bearable for the man who consigns himself to death but is remade as a double without having experienced the deadly last act yet. He refused to believe he could exist in both bodies, that there was no dodge for being the same man before and after the turn, for drowning every single time. This captures the self-destructive delusions of a psychopath to me, someone in denial about the consequences of their own actions.

So what have I been in denial about? Identification with your abuser feels empowering if going out on your own would be a step down in socioeconomic status, and that probably explains what’s bothering me. In a way I felt entitled to the rewards of living with someone as aggressively self-seeking as my mother, for having put up with her for so long, and I feel betrayed now that I’ve lost access to the comforts and conveniences concerned. I also had to rehome two family dogs.

But I think there’s more to it than just that. I also lost access to the vicarious experience of explosive anger so characteristic of life around my mother. I had been reliving childhood beatings and trauma through every tantrum, and crediting myself with having put up a resistance commensurate with the scale of each tantrums, as if I were accumulating points in a zero-sum game. I was addicted to stress.


Michael Ignatieff says of the role of revenge-killings in modern ethnic warfare, “revenge … is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honor their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect for the community’s dead – therein lies its legitimacy. … Political terror is tenacious because it is an ethical practice. It is a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect.”

Paradoxically, he argues “it is the very impossibility of intergenerational vengeance that locks communities into the compulsion to repeat. As in nightmare, each side hurls itself at the locked door of the past, seeking in vain to force it open.”

Repetition and futility characterized the one-sided feud in my mother’s house. She wanted revenge for her own childhood and she wanted it from me, and I stayed as a sort of vendetta for having been treated so badly myself, or to prove I was strong enough to take anything she could throw at me, to prove that she couldn’t win.

After she was arrested, she evicted me, and that settled it.

To really enjoy the greater freedom from abuse that comes from having left, I need a more stoic attitude towards materialism and the virtues of independence. There’s a fertile paradox in Stoicism that applies to my mixed feelings, I think. Stoics prize strength and fortitude to reduce the scope of situations in which they feel forced, yet cultivate fatalism about the limits of freedom and dignity.

Stoicism is like embracing the freedom to choose duty – recognizing constraints on individualism and cultivating the virtues of deferred gratification within those limits on self-aggrandizement.

Walter Bagehot gave this sense of moral conflict a poignant, earnest expression. He called the conscience the source of a religion of superstition that takes shape spontaneously within the mind, and in which “the moral principle … is really and to most men a principle of fear.” He felt little of “the delights of a good conscience … by vivid and actual experience.”

He argued that “a sensation of shame, of reproach, of remorse, of sin … is what the moral principle really and practically thrusts on most men. Conscience is the condemnation of ourselves. … the secret tie which binds the strong man and cramps his pride, and makes him angry at the beauty of the universe – which will not let him go forth like a great animal, like the king of the forest, in the glory of his might, but restrains him with an inner fear and a secret foreboding, that if he do but exalt himself he shall be abased; if he do but set forth his own dignity, he will offend ONE who will deprive him of it.”

In feeling constantly embattled at home, I enjoyed a sense of victory over this nameless threat, a self-satisfaction or release from bad conscience that came from always being able to compare myself to my mother, always feeling superior to her, but always enjoying the moral high ground of an innocent victim at the same time. Now my everyday life lacks a scapegoat for the mundane vicissitudes of anger and shame that normal frustrations provoke, and I have to make do without the purging excitement of my mother’s flights of rage.

I should be grateful for a taste of boredom, and for the safety taken for granted in this new normal. There’s potential for creativity in that. Maybe it just takes some getting used to.

“I don’t want to read between the lines”

January 22, 2013

Anne Carson describes in the audience a preference that unwholesome truths be articulated at a safe distance from the blunt encounters of everyday life – as the meat of catharsis in tragic drama, a blood price paid by the actors. “You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy with your own life. … The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.”

Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) wondered if learning to lean into the pain of cognitive dissonance helps, if it means not flinching from perceptions that challenge your self-assurance, not reaching for ways to rationalize the discomfort away, not trying to shrug off any challenge that was made.

But for all intents and purposes, there are silencing spells in real life, junctures of pain and denial at which the intensity of cognitive dissonance can make speaking out (or being heard) seem impossible. Moving around them is one thing – but pushing through them is considered a condemned effort.

Whereof one cannot speak,
thereof one must be silent.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

This preference not to have uncomfortable truths articulated in a way we cannot pretend not to understand is a sorry reason for the doctrine “show, don’t tell,” or the article of faith that some truths are the business of God to impose on each of us through revelation alone.

Can this be logical? Aristotle’s grammar of meanings in qualitative reasoning (The Categories) uses living beings as “primary substance” examples, not rocks or fingernail shavings, unlike the definition of substance used in thermodynamics to which the principle matter cannot be created or destroyed applies.

In this approach to logic, a living subject capable both of reason and of misunderstanding or dissimulation is implied. For such a subject, being and not being are unambiguous – only from outside the box is the existence of Schrödinger’s cat in living form uncertain.

Perhaps we have always known how to get ourselves boxed in by these irrational fears, and exasperate the man of action with notions about “not being” as an alternative to having substance that is possible to experience, and is to be feared. Of course, Herakles has a retort no different from the question for this commonplace: “Being and not being are very different things .. We’re all mortal you know. Think mortal.”

For believers like Aquinas, the coming into being and passing away of these observers meant there must be an untouched survivor and initiator of all effects – a magician or mathematician, but above all, one who knows better than the rest of us, whose view of the cosmos is not petty or defensive, one who has nothing to fear. A prior cause in a receding series of origin stories for cause and effect paths that seem to draw thin lines across the darkness in the passing along of perceptions that seem to have more than continuity of experience tying each to the next when ascertained in passing.


How can he not know?

Fear of some unspoken-for uncertainty that stands in the way of acting on reason for what it is worth? We want to see such a further capability in ourselves, but risk abandoning all that we are able to do in favor of what seems impossible, to wait on the unprecedented to show itself within ourselves instead.

In the Pythagorean cosmos described in The Republic, “the harmony of the parts of the cosmos, on the one hand, and of the parts of the human psyche, on the other, were seen as the basic elements of the same universal order” (from The Untuning of the Sky). All earthly music was an effort to evoke the more perfect music of the spheres, that is, the great sounds caused by the rushing past of the other planets.

None of us can see much of what lies ahead. What we do see coming can feel deterministic, but secrecy, miscalculations and ignorance hardly give rise to free will.

And even in “real life” there can be such a thing as a definite experience, a sense of certitude that defies all recourse to learned skepticism about one’s ability to make sense of the world as it really is. Something to write home about. Actors know too well that just because there are multiple solutions to the true interpretation of a role (hence, multiple solutions to the authentic delivery of a line), doesn’t mean the players can suit themselves.

Subjectivity by degrees, rather than an absolute sense of incommensurability, is how perspective-taking can be grounded in a shared interest in the real – instead of relying on the assumption that word games are played with tokens for which there are no shared understandings about their referents.

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”).