Can we 'put a little space between what we feel and how we respond'?

Peter Sara writes on appealing to emotions, not reason. 

The recent reaction to the decision by the Rev Stu Crossan's congregation about same-sex marriage was entirely predictable (St Matthew's Anglican Church, Dunedin). These days, those who express points of view which are contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy are likely to get similar treatment.

The opinions or views themselves are not often carefully distinguished from their makers, so we see again and again instances of "playing the man, not the ball" (ad hominem) usually abusive, always disparaging and most likely bullying.

This is a serious issue for us all, because we will be asked to deal with issues which are divisive and controversial. Euthanasia and cannabis use reform are but two. Already the noise has begun on both issues and lines are being drawn. Positions are being taken and the machinery of influence will no doubt crank up through the usual channels of media, leading up to voting time.

The point of this piece is not so much with the content of the influencing campaigns or the arguments which will be presented for and against such issues, but with our responses to them. How should we behave?

Everyone likes to think that they are a rational being and eschew bigotry and ignorance. Kiwis see themselves as fair-minded and reasonable, and have an intense dislike of anyone or anything which attempts to deceive in order to win an argument. Con artists are not our favourite people.

But what if we are conning ourselves?

What if we manufacture our own spin and believe it?

Carol Travis and Elliott Aronson, both psychologists, wrote a book about this very topic: Mistakes were made (but not by me), which may well be worthy compulsory reading for everyone. The authors argue that self-justification is a universal human trait which can let us off the hook in ways which are acceptable such as not beating ourselves up about taking the wrong route on a journey, but which are potentially disastrous for ourselves, and others, if allowed mindless free reign. They go on to name the villain (described as the "engine of self-justification") as cognitive dissonance (dissonance for short). This in turn is described as a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.

They go on to show that rather than process information logically, we will instead commit "confirmation bias". By this they mean if the information conforms to our beliefs we will think it is useful and well-founded, but if it is contrary (dissonant), then we consider it biased or foolish. By that token, National Party supporters who continue to hold the ground at 45% have confirmation bias about the superiority of its policies, and that very bias confirms the confirmation bias in Labour supporters that National supporters are blind to the government's achievements.

The point is no-one is exempt from confirmation basis. Two solutions are offered by the authors: admit we are fallible and admit mistakes when we make them.

"By looking at our actions critically and dispassionately, as if we were observing someone else, we stand a chance of breaking out of the cycle of action followed by self-justification, followed by more committed action. We can learn to put a little space between what we feel and how we respond, insert a moment of reflection, and think about whether we really want to hold on to a belief that is unfettered by facts."

The second thought is about how we react to disagreement. Vince Vitale wrote in Jesus among secular Gods: "Sadly, because truth so often has been abused as power play, experience has taught us that disagreement goes hand-in-hand with devaluing. We have learned that the trajectory of disagreement is from disagreement to devaluing to intolerance to violence. In fact the opposite should be true. Disagreeing with someone who is being completely irrational is futile. Our bothering to take the time to disagree with someone should be a sign that we think we can learn from them, that there is enough truth in what they are saying that, with revisions, to believe their ideas could make a positive impact. My disagreement with you should be itself an act of valuing you."

It goes without saying that we should conduct ourselves with civility and respect as we encounter the winds of influence which may buffet our positions. May it be that we are quick to listen and seek first to understand, as we grapple with issues our ancestors would never have imagined.

 - Peter Sara is an elder at the Elim Church, Dunedin


Yes. But the macro/global influences make for tribal, irrational dispute. Not so much cognitive dissonance, as narcissism and the brutish imposition of Will.

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