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In this week’s eSkeptic, social psychologist Carol Tavris reminds us that it is more important than ever to tolerate complexity and ask questions that evoke cognitive dissonance whenever a movement is fueled by rage and revenge. Tavris is the coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts .

I, Too, Am Thinking About Me, Too

by Carol Tavris

Sarah Silverman recently made a video in which she described the painful conflict she was feeling about her good friend of 25 years, Louis CK. Watch it and you will see cognitive dissonance in action: on the one hand, she loves and admires the man, and values their long friendship. On the other hand, she detests and condemns the exhibitionist sexual behavior that he acknowledged. Many of the people watching this video wanted her to reduce that dissonance by jumping one way or the other: disavow their friendship, or trivialize his behavior. In this brave embrace of her emotional conflict and their friendship, she did neither.

Our whole country is living in a constant state of hyper-dissonance: “my political candidate/my most admired actor/a brilliant artist/my dear friend has been accused of sexual abuses and misconduct; how do I cope with this information? Do I support him/see his movies/enjoy his art/keep the friendship or must I repudiate him entirely?” Living with dissonance and complexity is not easy, but surely skeptics, of all people, must try. We hear a story that outrages us and, just like true believers and justice warriors of any kind, we’re off and running, and once we are off and running we don’t want to hear quibbles, caveats, doubts, complexities. Thus, when the Guardian (Dec. 17, 2017) reported Matt Damon’s remarks that there was “a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation. Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated,” Minnie Driver blasted him: it’s not for men to make distinctions; “there is no hierarchy of abuse”; men should just shut up for once. “If good men like Matt Damon are thinking like that then we’re in a lot of fucking trouble,” she said. “We need good intelligent men to say this is all bad across the board, condemn it all and start again.”

No hierarchy of abuse? Really? That is one of the universal symptoms of revolutionary zealotry: go for broke, ignore gradations of villainy, who cares if some innocents are thrown over the side, we are furious and we want everything at once. No wonder those of us in the boring older generation, who have lived through cycles of anger and protest, are so annoying. “Wait!” we keep saying. “Be careful! Remember the stupidity of ‘zero tolerance’ programs in schools, where a kid who brings a pocket knife for show-and- tell, or a 6-year-old boy who kisses a 6-year-old girl, got expelled?” We have also learned that while there is a time and place for revolutionary zealotry, the hardest challenge comes next, because change will not be accomplished without allies.

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