At the library today, we were talking about one parent’s reaction to a book whose presence in school and public libraries is frequently challenged. Banning/challenging books is one of those behaviors that gets me thinking about human nature. There are as many different ways to split us up into two camps as there are people to split up, but this one has been much on my mind lately.
When something makes people uncomfortable, they either examine their reaction or they push the irritant away. ‘Why does this make me uncomfortable’ vs ‘I don’t like it make it go away.’ This isn’t just about art, of course, it happens with any sort of idea and in many different contexts. Another version, one which is on display all over our public discourse at the moment, goes like this: when presented with information that challenges their world view, some people will re-examine their world view in light of the new information, and some will reject, deny, or attempt to discredit the new information.
People in the first group tend to respond to people in the second group by throwing more facts at them, and then fail to understand why that doesn’t change their minds. When people are clinging to a belief, opinion, position, whatever, in defiance of the facts, more facts are only going to make them more defensive. Being able to ‘prove’ that they’re ‘wrong’ doesn’t prove anything to them except that the person with the ‘proof’ is their enemy and must be stopped, condemned, ridiculed, or ignored.
We’ve all experienced cognitive dissonance. You learn something that contradicts something you’ve already incorporated into your version of reality. To pull a handy example or two from my own life: you find out that your spouse is lying to you, systematically and habitually. I willfully looked away and pretended not to know, because I could not handle the implications, and it took several years to fully integrate that truth into what I thought I had known about my marriage. Another: you find out someone you like, admire, consider a friend, is abusing his/her partner/spouse. This has happened to me a couple of times, and I understand why some people just withdraw from situations like that rather than give the abused person the support they need. I don’t condone it, but I understand. It’s hard to face and accept the fact that someone who has always seemed like a decent person can be false and cruel.
It’s hard to accept that things you believe to be true might not be, and people that you believed were going to do the right thing, aren’t. It’s easier for some people to pretend that whoever is challenging their belief is wrong, malicious, or misguided. Sometimes, even when the truth is right in front of you, it’s easier to look away.
Here’s the thing - most of us spend time in both camps. Most of us can be flexible and adaptable about some things, and blindly rigid about others. Perhaps when we’re dealing with someone who is on the opposite side of this divide from us, it might behoove us to remember the times when we were being that way, ourselves -- if we’re actually interested in bridging the divide rather than just satisfying ourselves that we’re right and they’re irrelevant. Trying to shout each other down is getting us nowhere, and ignoring the other side until they go away isn’t much of a strategy, either. I’m not saying that those reactions aren’t justified - I don’t care if they’re justified. I care if they’re effective.
If something makes you uncomfortable, sometimes you just have to learn to live with discomfort. Some cognitive dissonances don’t ever resolve. Some people are nice to their friends and assholes to their family. Some ideas are scary. Some works of art are disturbing. Some arguments can’t be won, at least not by arguing.