There are few things in this world more stable than a man’s self-image.
You might think, perhaps reasonably, that values and core beliefs are the heart of man – what’s right and wrong, how he ought to act.
You might think, if you’re more scientifically inclined, that facts are the core – bare understanding of the basic reality of the world from which people figure out the rest.
But the psychology of cognitive dissonance doesn’t work that way.
What is stable, rather, is the conception of self. Usually, but not always, this is based on flattery and conceit. I am clever. I am pretty. I am moral. I am loved by those around me (or at least those of good character and judgment).
Whatever you like about yourself, in other words.
And the rest of reality – morals, beliefs, the whole lot – typically gets fitted in around that. This isn’t to say that morals don’t actually matter, of course. Just that in this fallen world we live in, men make their rationalistions in quite predictable ways.
A beliefs-centred view says that a man starts with morals – that it is wrong to commit adultery, for instance. Believing this, he refuses to cheat on his wife. Having not cheated on his wife, he views himself as a good man and a good husband.
A self-image-centred view says that a man begins with the view that he is a good man and a good husband. He has a tentative view that adultery is wrong, and because he is currently satisfied with his wife (and also because there is no convenient way to have an affair with someone hot), he doesn’t feel the need to cheat on her. Having not cheated on her, he affirms the view that refraining from adultery is an important moral issue, and a key part of what makes him a good husband.
As long as a man doesn’t commit adultery, it’s very hard to tell these possibilities apart.
But what happens when a man’s marriage starts to deteriorate, and he ends up cheating on his wife?
The beliefs-centred view is a Dostoyevsky novel. It says that he will be wracked with guilt, and view himself as being an immoral and unworthy person.
The self-image centred view says that, rather, he will update his views on what is right and wrong to maintain his self-image. Having committed adultery, adultery must not be so bad after all, at least in the circumstances when he has done it. Perhaps it’s okay if the marriage has already broken down. Perhaps it’s okay as long as nobody finds out. Perhaps it’s okay if they were going to get divorced anyway. The beliefs about right and wrong can change. The only thing that can’t change, however, is his view of himself.
Like all models, this simplifies reality. Some people, especially the more introspective and intellectually honest, really do get wracked with guilt after doing bad things. Dostoyevsky didn’t imagine it out of whole cloth.
But looking at the world, how many husbands having affairs seem to be wandering around like Raskolnikov, torn up over their infidelities and unable to get up from bed? Is it more or less than the number that seem to have a spring in their step about finally getting laid again, and don’t seem much troubled by the fact that this flies in the face of the solemn vows they took years earlier?
And all of this has a lot to do with the leftist holiness signaling spirals that seem to characterize the early 21st century so vividly.
In order to gain status over one’s rivals, and signal ever greater fealty to the principles of progressivism, modern society has the need to change one’s opinion suddenly on all sorts of matters, firmly and publicly committing to the new zeitgeist and denouncing those not on board with the program. Cognitive dissonance being what it is, the targets of progressive ire are always those recalcitrants not on board with the current program today- the kulaks still to be beaten. The targets are definitely not the exact same progressives, like themselves, who in prior years held exactly the same views as the reactionaries they now denounce. Ever hear Bill Clinton being publicly seeking forgiveness for signing the Defence of Marriage Act? Ever hear liberals renounce themselves for voting for Barack Obama in 2008 when he opposed gay marriage, even as they renounce those who vote for politicians supporting religious conscience exceptions on gay marriage today?
The need to stay high status trumps the need to stick to one’s beliefs, so the old views get jettisoned. But part of one’s self-image is usually also that one is honest and upright, someone who believes things for good reasons, not a craven fool with no fixed principles who shifts his beliefs with the merest breeze of public opinion. And so having changed views, people are positively eager to forget that they ever held their previous views. Since bare facts about the world are also easy to manipulate in the service of self-image, this turns out to not be hard to do.
As part of my low level troll’s entertainment of provoking leftist cognitive dissonance, I enjoy sometimes asking progressives enamored of the latest fashion, such as transgender bathroom rights, exactly when they started caring about this issue, and why. They almost never have an answer to this. It may be only two years ago, but their mental distortions of ego-preservation are such that these origins are shrouded in mystery, and their own previous worldview is utterly inaccessible to them. What they think now, they must surely have always thought. The alternative would be to admit that their motive for joining this latest moral imperative (even if the current stance is presumed to be correct and virtuous) in fact rests with far baser motives – following fashions, fear of being denounced themselves, signaling their virtue. And admitting this would defeat the whole purpose.
Sure, when pressed, they can’t think of any actual conversations they held or actions they took on the crucial issue of bathroom policy before, say, 2014. But this was only because they simply hadn’t yet fully comprehended the scale of the injustice. This lack of comprehension until the New York Times came knocking might itself seem to be a blight on their moral record, but rest assured this kind of introspection is highly unusual, and nobody but the most reactionary cynics like myself is in a hurry to point it out either.
Provoking cognitive dissonance is fun, but it won’t change anyone’s mind. If you want to at least have a chance at that, you can’t fight self-image, you need to use it to your advantage. This is the judo strategy – using an opponent’s own momentum against him.
One way to do this is to force progressives to consider that they may not always be the one getting to do the judging, and will one day themselves be the judged.
In other words, take a progressive interlocutor, and ask them the following hypothetical:
Progressive causes change over time. For a long time, nobody cared about gay marriage, then all of a sudden they did. That’s fine. Let’s merely posit the following – that this process will continue. In other words, in 20 or 30 years’ time, it seems likely that progressives will have found some new moral point that they care about passionately, but which people today don’t care about at all. Who knows what it will be specifically, but assume that they will feel about it as strongly then as you, my progressive friend, feel about gay marriage now, and they will see the absence of this cause as a huge injustice. If you need to make it concrete, pick fringe views on some cultural trait and substitute it as needed as the possible change –allowing polygamy or adult incest, breaking up the family unit, lowering the age of consent to 12, mandating veganism, whatever. To be ideal, it has to be something wacky that you’ve probably never thought of, like giving the vote to children, rather than something you’ve already encountered like veganism.
So our progressive of 30 years’ time feels as strongly about this as you do today about gay marriage. You, on the other hand, believe everything that you currently do today. They will view you exactly the same way that you view people who opposed gay marriage in 1986 – as unbelievably hateful and bigoted, part of a society-wide cruelty that is almost unfathomable.
And at last, we have our question. Who’s right in this argument about voting ages or adult incest? Are you, dear progressive, hateful, bigoted and disgusting in ways you don’t even understand today, on issues that you’ve barely given any thought to, for reasons you can’t yet guess? Or is the progressive of 30 years’ time merely taking on extreme views that disrupt a reasonable and understandable social compromise today?
If it’s the latter, are you willing to commit every one of your current views to paper (no matter how infrequently you ponder them) for all the world’s future employers to see, and defend them when the social zeitgeist changes? You might get to be the Brendan Eich of 2025, fired for having an insufficient commitment back in 2016 to the cause of extending US citizenship to everyone on the planet or whatever.
At this point, one is left with only a few options.
Either one actually writes a blank moral cheque to the progressives of the future and says ‘Yes, I am hateful! I am bigoted in ways I don’t even understand! Forgive me, President Chelsea Clinton!’.
Or one admits that these changing views are not actually crucial moral issues, but in fact moral fads and fashions that people follow for reasons other than the inherent justice of the causes at issue. This, if acknowledged, begins the descent down a rabbit hole that ends up a long way from modernity.
Or one says ‘No, I’m pretty comfortable with how society is currently arranged, and don’t wish to upend everything for the whims of the progressive elite of the future’.
In the third instance, congratulations. You’re now a gay marriage opponent in 1986.
Whether this will actually change minds, of course, is far more doubtful. But I have gotten flashes of introspection out of this line of questioning, which may at least somewhat cause them to think twice about the next great trend. That’s the hope, anyway. The path to understanding is rocky and circuitous.