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The Cognitive Dissonance of Bigotry

by Niklas Haas on July 16, 2020

Tagged as: life, politics, society.

While spending some time thinking about how the dynamics of bigotry and radical extremism evolve, I think I’ve identified a fiendishly inescapable loop: needing to intensify bigotry to escape cognitive dissonance. Allow me to explain.

Let’s start in the beginning. Nobody is born with bigotry, nor is anybody merely “a bigot”. Like all forms of stereotypical judgement, it’s a learned abstraction based on repetition, something that all humans are capable of. Now, I’m not yet entirely sure what catalyzes it. Perhaps you witnessed a member of group ‘X’ committing something unforgivable. Perhaps you were personally slighted by a member of group ‘X’. Perhaps you merely heard your peers talking about how bad ‘X’ are. Perhaps ‘X’ is just a convenient target due to their proximity and visibility. Whatever’s the case, suppose you’ve decided that group ‘X’ is the cause of problems in your life.1

Now, I’m not saying anybody who universally blames a group of people for anything is necessarily a bigot. I believe it’s possible, perhaps even commonplace, that these sorts of responses are frequent but typically temporary, and that the angry mood ends up passing. But for some reason, sometimes people hold onto their grudges, or perhaps they have such a repeat need to perform blame-shifting that ‘X’ keeps coming up as the same convenient target over and over again to the point where they’re less and less willing to let go of those grudges. Whatever’s the case, by some initial process, you’ve now come to intuitively link the very concept of ‘X’ with ‘bad’ itself, and this is where things start to get tricky.2

The vast majority of us are, essentially, moral people. We have a sense of guilt, a sense of compassion, an experience of empathy, and so forth - experiences that are made possibly chiefly by proximity and engagement. It’s the reason why we can effortlessly get dehumanizingly upset and insulting towards anonymous strangers online, but can’t imagine ourselves insulting somebody to the face with those same words. Essentially, we don’t want to be mean. And since accusing somebody via mere association with their group of being the cause of everything bad in your life is a very mean thing to say, the natural human reaction to these sorts of thoughts is for them to be mixed with guilt. It’s the sort of sense in which, essentially, everybody is a little bigoted, most of us just feel too conflicted about these thoughts to voice them, or keep silent because we don’t want to offend anybody. (Unless old age, brain damage, or intoxication removes our filter.)

This is where cognitive dissonance enters the picture. In our thought experiment, you don’t like feeling guilty, but have simultaneously managed to create a world-view (or even the inkling of a suspicion) that causes you guilt for thinking. The way we generally deal with cognitive dissonance is, essentially, by denying the perception of anything that would increase it, and instead filling in the blanks with something that doesn’t clash. Again, this is where coping styles may differ (even among the same person, in different situations). Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, we choose to just ignore all the bad things we’re witnessing about that group in favor of aggressively defending them instead, to avoid guilt for thinking uncomfortable thoughts. 3 What’s dangerous is those other times, where we instead decide to try and avoid contact with the group, so we subconsciously no longer have to consider them as ‘human’. This is the exact step in which what I define as ‘bigotry’ is born.

So, say this is what happens. You (at least subconsciously) decide it’s easier to close off your mind and stop paying too close attention to what it is you’ve decided to hate. Rather than live with the conflicting emotions of needing to hate another human being, you decide it’s easier to hate an abstract caricature, and defensively avoid or deny all sorts of exposure that might shatter this caricature. This is where the most prominent phase of the bigotry-reinforcing loop occurs: once you’ve decided that you need to turn somebody into a caricature, any exposure merely reinforces the caricature you’ve already decided to believe. But on the other hand, the more you decide to reinforce this world-view, the more you increase the potential guilt of “but what if I’m wrong and X is actually fine?”, so the more you increase the need to aggressively caricature them!

Basically, hatred breeds more hatred - you already intensely loathe something, so everything you perceive about them is further evidence that they deserve to be loathed. Once the loop has gotten to this point, it has all the hallmarks of radical extremism. You’re no longer able to engage in constructive debate, because any counter-argument to your beliefs, or even merely the expression of sympathy for ‘X’, must be immediately demonized as ‘siding with THEM!’, and your mind twists and distorts every word written into further fuel to hate ‘X’. Even the most innocent bystander of group ‘X’ must be immediately attacked and criticized, perhaps even killed, merely for being a member of that group that you must continue to hate in order to avoid the self-esteem crushing realization that you are acting in bigoted and insane ways. Sometimes to the point of even redefining what the word ‘bigot’ even means, so that you can further stave off any (self-)accusations of being bigoted - making sure that in your world-view, you are moral, and just, and true, and acting in the right.

Even worse, our brain learns to conflate different signals. That blood-boiling sense of anger you experience at the mere sight of ‘X’? That’s not hatred, that’s guilt/anxiety. Or at least, what’s left of it. An infinitely wiser man than I once pointed out to me that the things we get the most defensive about are the things we most fear being wrong about. The most radical of extremists are plagued by the most severe form of internalized guilt (misperceived as anger), which is exactly what drives them to the ability of performing such absolutely callous acts of disregard for the group they’ve utterly dehumanized. The feedback spiral has reached its peak, and war is inevitable, especially when the media is fundamentally designed to regurgitate the most controversial worldviews and segregate us into echo chambers.

But perhaps things don’t need to be so gloomy. And rather than merely pointing out the existence of a problem, I think it would be more interesting to try and think about how to solve it. You may have noticed that I’ve been very careful in writing this article to avoid writing about ‘bigots’ as though they were a separate type of people. This is something that applies to you and me. We are all prejudiced, we are all biased, and we are all very prone to bigotry. The most important thing separating us in this regard is what we choose to insert for ‘X’. Maybe for some it’s ‘jews’, ‘black people’, or ‘women’; but for probably far more it’s ‘[the other party]’, ‘[the other generation]’, ‘[the other class]’, ‘white men’, ‘SJWs’, ‘gamers’, ‘hippies’, ‘nerds’, ‘hipsters’, ‘vegans’, ‘incels’, ‘feminists’, you name it - and for some it even ends up being ‘normies’ altogether.4 The process, I think, is universally the same, and thinking you’re immune to it is the first step in the trap of falling into it. Incidentally, I suspect that at least some readers may, at this point, feel uncomfortably called out and decide to invert everything I just said as a sign of me being affiliated with ‘X’ and hate me instead. It’s those readers that I most wish the capacity to self-reflect and realize that I’m not trying to make you feel attacked, that’s your own brain’s doing.

Instead, notice something important and similar about all of these examples of “things to hate”. They’re all things that are very familiar to us, yet almost exist in a bizarro parallel-dimension with which we never end up interacting normally. The ultimate way to prevent bigotry, I believe, is contact. Notice a group of people pissing you off? Try and spend more time with them. Come to understand their world-view. Acknowledge their shared humanity and emotions. Avoid that ‘pissing you off’ turning into ‘hatred’ before it’s too late to still do that. And most of all, avoid paying close attention to the outrageous caricatures the media would like to present to you. Of any group of people, the ones that make the headlines for the things they say/do/commit will be the most extreme and egregious examples that some click-hungry writer managed to cherry-pick. One of the most important effects of globalization is that the media never runs out of ways to generate controversy.

Similarly, a pattern I see repeating itself is that the most extremely divisive writers are, almost inevitably, never actually in much contact with the group they’re complaining about; and the more absurd their distorted world-views are, the more likely you are to find their writings. It’s why you can find troves of angry writers complaining loudly about how male sexism is the reason why women are underrepresented in the engineering disciplines despite not once having ever attempted to enter an engineering discipline. Or how white people end up with day jobs posting loud articles about how (other?) white people’s discrimination is the cause of black people’s suffering, despite a majority of black people believing otherwise. (I’m sure you don’t need me to link to similar examples of “right-wing racism”, which I’m admittedly not sure I really want to be researching. I guess there’s my own biases revealing themselves.)

So, at the end of the day, where is all this leading? Having so cheerfully identified the mistakes of others, what can we actively and consciously do to avoid making them? Well, ultimately, I think this can be abstracted to a form where the following two bits of discipline are key. If there’s only one thing I want to leave you with, it’s this:

  1. Be consciously aware of which opinions are your own and which opinions you merely received from others, and remind yourself of this fact frequently. Whenever you read something, commit to memory not only what you read but also who the person was that claimed it, lest you end up conflating it as your own idea.

  2. Any time you notice yourself noticing a trend, set out to challenge it. Rather than looking for more evidence to confirm your suspicions, look for evidence to contradict them. Only hold onto those hypotheses you utterly fail to disprove.

Whether that means trying to spend more time constructively engaging with a group of people you suspect of being boring/evil/annoying/stupid, or whether it simply means questioning the validity of any statement that seems to be “true because people around you are saying it’s true”, constant self-doubt is the path to objectivity. And lastly, if you’re ever faced with two alternative interpretations, and one of the two makes you extremely uncomfortable, that’s the one you should begin by assuming is true. Even if only to think it fully through, to its conclusion, and then consciously decide how you want to use the resulting information. Beware the delegation of fears and anxieties to the subconscious.

  1. Which, incidentally, requires at least a somewhat cultivated self-serving bias, a reasoning style I think is relatively common in bigotry. (But also one that most healthy people have, because, sadly, the ones that don’t, generally end up depressed.)

  2. Again, this is an effect observable in everybody to some degree, and not yet what I define as ‘bigotry’. To use an example, studies show that virtually every white person, no matter how un-biased they think they are, has a harder time mentally grouping faces of black people with positive attributes than with negative attributes. At some level, this still implies an associativity in the brain between ‘black person’ and ‘bad thing’. You most likely have this bias as well, which I think is incredibly important for us to be aware of.

  3. Which really makes it rather ironic when somebody, say, vehemently defends a minority against criticism. It’s almost like an admission of guilt for thinking those same X-ist thoughts about them; thus needing to defend them to stave off cognitive dissonance and feel better about themselves again. Not that this is a bad coping style, mind. It may well be necessary for a healthy society. Just something amusing to keep in the back of your mind, if you ever end up unfortunate enough to come face to face with somebody loudly proclaiming their moral superiority over you.

  4. I can personally recollect having gone through a good chunk of these throughout the phases of my adolescence, mostly being dictated by which echo chamber ended up determining my world-views at the time. But, incidentally, out of all of those, only the treatment of ‘normies’ as the out-group really led to adverse effects on my life, loneliness, isolation, depression, etc. - none of the others did. Which is part of what enables me to begin reflecting on this, but also what worries me. Essentially, there’s nothing that motivates us to stop being bigoted as long as we surround ourselves by an engaging enough group of people willing to reinforce it!