by Rachel MacNair
Why did U.S. slaveholders insist on expanding slavery into new territories, despite existing political wisdom that keeping the practice out of places where it might encounter stronger opposition would be more practical? Why are there advocates for war, or for abortion and euthanasia, who can’t stand the idea of conscientious objection, even by few enough people that it has no impact on the practices? Why do people act so very belligerently that they end up harming rather than helping the violent institution they wish to promote?
The key to understanding this is a theory from psychology that fits right in to the way consistent-lifers think.
Consistency is a Psychological Need
Human beings seem to have a basic psychological need to have consistency, stability, and order in how they see the world. When information threatens their previous views, they feel uneasy. They resort to defensive maneuvers: screening out upsetting experiences, denying obvious facts, or – most importantly here – reinforcing beliefs by making aggressive and belligerent declarations.
In 1957, Leon Festinger introduced the theory of cognitive dissonance, and it helps explain a lot of otherwise puzzling behavior. Hundreds of studies have backed this up: people with ideas in conflict, or ideas and behavior in conflict, feel a tension. They’ll search for ways – sometimes markedly innovative ways – to avoid the discomfort of inconsistency.
That some wish to screen out unpleasant facts or ideas is hardly surprising. The reason cognitive dissonance has been widely accepted as an explanation for what would otherwise be bewildering behavior is that it explains dogmatic insistence on something that’s been proven wrong – and taking actions to reinforce the belief by getting other people to share it.
Irrational Behavior: U.S. Slavery
When slavery started to be criticized by a handful of people, and then by larger numbers, the slaveholders could have just ignored this. Instead, they insisted on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This aggressively expanded slavery. Northerners now had the spectacle of manacled blacks being led back into bondage. Slavery was harder to ignore – and seeing its reality was more effective than mere words from abolitionists.
Slaveholders’ biggest triumph, and biggest downfall, was the Dred Scott decision in which a slaveholding Supreme Court majority gave slaveholders everything they wanted. A lot of non-slaveholding people who would have been happy to just leave the whole thing alone were pushed into action. The distinction between slave states and free states became unclear, and indifference wasn’t possible anymore. The dynamics of the slaveholders’ drive had generated an opposition.
John Noonan comments:
Why did the slaveholders act as if driven by the Furies to their own destruction? . . . Why did they take such risks, why did they persist beyond prudent calculation? The answer must be that in a moral question of this kind, turning on basic concepts of humanity, you cannot be content that your critics are feeble and ineffective, you cannot be content with their practical tolerance of your activities. You want, in a sense you need, actual acceptance, open approval. If you cannot convert your critics by argument, at least by law you can make them recognize that your course is the course of the country.A Private Choice, New York: The Free Press, 1979, p.82
Abraham Lincoln recognized this dynamic in his famous speech at Cooper Institute in 1860. He was asked what would convince the slaveholders that his party had no designs on their property or the Constitution. He replied, “This, and this only: Cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them.”
Irrational Behavior: War
A common problem in wars is “effort justification”: the belief that if one has put resources and energy into achieving a certain outcome, that outcome must be valuable. More effort needs to be put in to protect and justify the effort already made. When the only alternative is to admit all the effort was wasted, especially to admit stupid behavior or poor judgment, then the effort must continue. The continuation of the American war in Vietnam for years after it seemed clear to many that the effort would not achieve the desired result is one of the most cited examples. Currently, we see this in the various parts of the “War on Terror” – especially America’s longest war in Afghanistan.
An emotionally gripping form of effort justification is the idea that we can only honor the bravery of those soldiers who died or suffered serious injuries by sending more soldiers to suffer the same fate. This argument distracts from looking honestly at whether the war can be rationally justified.
Irrational Behavior: Weaponizing Medicine
The sweeping nature of Roe v. Wade has been likened to Dred Scott. A gradual approach of opening up abortion was working, and may have continued to work. Roe brought a backlash which is still going strong about five decades later.
There was an initially successful attack on “informed consent” or “right-to-know” legislation, letting women know of fetal development and possible complications. In one of the many follow-up cases from Roe in the U.S. Supreme Court, the 1987 Thornburgh decision, which overturned the legislation, Justice Blackmun said the information wasn’t “always relevant to a woman’s decision, and may serve only to confuse her, and heighten her anxiety.”(Thornburgh, 476 U.S. at 762.)
Legally protecting people from getting information just because some think it might not be relevant is unprecedented. This established a constitutional right to ignorance for women. This case was explicitly overturned in the Casey decision of 1992.
On the startling idea that anyone with scruples about abortion or euthanasia shouldn’t even be allowed in the health field, Wesley Smith put it well in Pro-lifers: Get Out of Medicine!:
There is a reason that moral diversity is under attack in health care. When doctors refuse to abort a fetus, participate in assisted suicide, excise healthy organs, or otherwise follow their consciences about morally contentious matters, they send a powerful message: Just because a medical act is legal doesn’t make it right. Such a clarion witness is intolerable to those who want to weaponize medicine.
First Things, May 12, 2017
Having no pro-lifers in medicine would, of course, deprive those of us who prefer a doctor who won’t kill people to be the medical person touching intimate parts of our bodies. This attacks our right to choose our own medical care. But this is beside the point, because “choice” isn’t the point. To the intolerant, the very fact that we hold that opinion means we’re to be discounted.
We understand that belligerence and high intolerance best if we understand its origin. It’s not merely that people feel something strongly. It’s that deep down, they know there’s inconsistency in their thoughts and behaviors, and they can’t stand it. It’s too much tension. In general, the human mind has severe trouble tolerating inconsistency – and so it will practice inconsistency more belligerently, in order to pretend it isn’t there.
For more of our blog posts on psychological aspects of nonviolence, see: