2007 - 2022

They’re Bombing You to Help You

Almost half the Ukrainian population have family in Russia. When they tell them they’re being bombed and killed, they’re not always believed. Cognitive dissonance theory helps explain why. Here occasional Bella contributor Jonathan Rowson talks to Sarah Stein Lubrano who has contributed a chapter on ‘The conundrum Cognitive Dissonance’ in a new book by Perspectiva Press called Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds: Crisis and Emergence in Metamodernity.
Here the interview is concerned with cognitive dissonance and the war in Ukraine (and much more). You can follow them on Twitter here @Perspecteeva or Sarah here: @SSteinLubrano


Jonathan’s project is called Perspectiva: “Perspectiva is a community of expert generalists working on an urgent one hundred year project to improve the relationships between systems, souls and society in theory and practice. We are scholars, artists, activists, futurists, and seekers who believe credible hope for the first truly planetary civilisation lies in forms of economic restraint and political cooperation that are beyond prevailing epistemic capacities and spiritual sensibilities. Our charitable purpose is therefore to develop an applied philosophy of education for individual and collective realisation in the service of averting societal collapse; and in the spirit of serious play and ambitious humility to cultivate the imaginative and emotional capacity required to usher in a world that is, at the very least, technologically wise and ecologically sound. We believe the world’s major challenges stem from a crisis of perception and imagination, and the failure of political culture to honour the fullness of reality. We are fascinated by the myriad ways in which our tacitly held worldviews shape our judgment, and how spiritual needs for security, meaning, and purpose indirectly create political and economic outcomes.”

Perspectiva’s new publication is ‘Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds: Crisis and emergence in metamodernity‘ (outline here). Sarah’s chapter is ‘The Conundrum of Cognitive Dissonance: on the uneasy relationship between agency and understanding, and why it matters’.




Comments (13)

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  1. Kevin Mulhern says:

    Thinking about thinking about changing the world, totally meta.

    To think about how we think about changing the world, or to think about how they think about changing the world? Is it not universally the same.

    1. 220323 says:

      It’s more a matter of thinking about how the world as consciousness changes or evolves.

      The phenomenological tradition in which Perspectiva is encultured holds that the only world one can know is the world that’s constituted in and by one’s consciousness (the experienced or ‘phenomenal’ world). What the world is outside one’s experience of it (the ‘true’ world or ‘truth’ – the proverbial black cat in the dark room) can’t be known directly by anyone; it can only be approximated ‘intersubjectively’ or socially through an ongoing and never-ending dialogue between our several ever-shifting perspectives.

      So, the political task for activists encultured in the phenomenological tradition is to work for a social order out of whose intersubjectivity or pluralism a just approximation of truth can be perpetually cultivated, a ‘just’ approximation of truth being one that’s continually been arrived at and overcome through a democratic dialogue or communication that’s undistorted by inequalities of power.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    I found that interesting, useful, informative, nuanced. There are a few things it only touched on or did not mention that I believe relate to the substance: role morality, displacement activity and news modality.

    Role morality is an ancient ethical concept, but even if perhaps philosophically unfashionable we can see it expressed in how to be a good parent, soldier, citizen. It provides shortcuts so we don’t have to think too deeply about the ethics of some choices we may make on a daily basis. But here, there are role moralities that come into conflict. The Russian mother who hears from her Ukrainian daughter that Russians have shelled her home town may be caught between two: mother and citizen. This is very common in civil wars too. But there is a further complication, if the role morality of citizenship is thought to separate into peacetime and wartime roles (I tend to think this is a false division, but the question is what people believe in). So the dissonance may be felt through the proxy of two conflicting roles.

    Displacement activity is also relevant here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Displacement_activity and relates to the impulse to action described in the video. Generally, it is much easier and less risky to criticise other governments (from afar) than one’s own (at home), or other people’s behaviour than one’s own (mote and beam), but that should conflict with the role morality for good citizenship (where, as Yuval Noah Hariri writes in Chaper 12 Humility in 21 Lessons, you start your critical process with your self and in-group). Indeed, role morality provides one common constraint on displacement activity; while you are in the role, it is always ‘on’.

    News modality is a tricky one, and very likely prone to recency bias. If you have just watched a debunking of a fake video or image, which explains exactly how the deception was created, you may be significantly less likely to trust the next video or image on the news, but as explained in the video discussion, people do act variably for lots of reasons, and have different modal senses or opportunities anyway. But an audio telephone call does not carry the same evidential imprint as a segment of digital video. Perhaps in emergency conditions, people generally expect information to be degraded, so shaky off-centre mobile footage or audio interrupted by white noise and screaming may seem more plausible, but then people may have watched ‘found footage’ movies and become literate in that genre’s creative style. Or played realistic computer war games, or used image-editing software.

    1. 220323 says:

      Role morality is certainly unfashionable as a prescriptive ethics, but it’s still widespread as a descriptive ethics.

      Role morality is the notion that people sometimes fail to live up to their own ethical standards because they see themselves as playing a certain role that excuses them from those standards. The classic example is of the SS prison guard who was only following orders when s/he murdered the prison’s inmates.

      It’s unfashionable as a prescriptive ethics because ‘the Death of God’ has disabused us of the prejudice that we are justified in acting against our own moral inclinations for the sake of obedience to a higher good. It’s still widespread as a descriptive ethics, however, because we still find people who act ‘as if’ morality is still about acting in obedience to some higher good or guiding authority. The ‘Death of God’ is the gospel that there’s no longer any guiding authority higher than oneself in deciding how one ought to live one’s life.

      And displacement activity is certainly relevant here. Displacement activity is the performance of an act that’s inappropriate to the stimulus or stimuli that evoked it. It occurs especially in situations of powerlessness when one is moved to respond to some stimulus in an appropriate manner but lacks or is denied the ability to do so. Prioritising moral judgement over crisis relief (turning on someone who has knocked someone else down rather than helping the casualty to get back on their feet) can be seen as an example of displacement activity.

      And news modality is certainly relevant to public relations and the management of our knowledge and expectations in relation to crisis events. The manipulation of our minds through the ways in which we acquire our information, and the cynicism that flows from our increasing awareness of this, contributes greatly to the powerlessness and despair that obliges us to seek recourse in displacement activity.

      However, a still further issue that no one’s mentioned yet is the diffusion of responsibility. The diffusion of responsibility makes us less likely to act because we believe (correctly or incorrectly) that someone else will or should do so – and, in particular, those who are ‘to blame’/whose ‘fault’ we perceive it to be. Again, the attitude that it’s ‘them’ who should be doing something about it, rather than ourselves, deflects from our powerlessness to respond to the suffering of others by making that suffering the responsibility of someone else rather than our own, which only further increases our powerlessness.

      1. Adrian Roper says:

        I liked this. Thanks.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Adrian Roper, I think the above is a somewhat unfair mischaracterisation of role morality, though. In the video, the example was given of the often problematic and sometimes toxic role of ‘how to be a man’, but there are many instances where roles are forced on people and/or apply greater or additional burdens. The classic cases involve third parties and bystanders, such as the principles of in loco parentis (the duty to act in the role of a good parent when actual parents are absent) and the duty to rescue, where the law draws on common ethical practices that apply to certain roles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_loco_parentis
          I say duty, but it is the role that comes first. This biological core of ethics is common to social animals, think meerkats.

          1. 220324 says:

            The ‘unfair mischaracterisation’ of role morality is David Luban’s, whose chapter in Lawyers and Justice: An Ethical Study (Princeton, 2018), on the conflict between common morality and role morality under the adversary system and how this conflict becomes a social and political problem for a community, is the current standard treatment of the concept.

            Would you care to elaborate on your bald statement that Luban’s treatment is not only a ‘mischaracterisation’ of the concept but also a vicious one?

            (Probably not.)

  3. Derek Thomson says:

    Anyone fancy a pint?

  4. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    As someone who did a Masters’ thesis almost 40 years ago on ‘cognitive dissonance’ (25 years before Metzinger produced his book!) I found this very interesting. I was impressed by Ms Lubrano as she tried to lead Mr Rowson through what is a complex topic. And, credit to him for putting his own ignorance and preconceptions on show – I would that more of us were prepared to do so, particularly myself!

    I think that he suffered from two misconceptions.

    Firstly, he seemed to think that ‘cognitive dissonance’ is a bad thing. I think that cognitive dissonance is something we experience all the time throughout our lives from when we first emerged from our mothers’ wombs. Resolving cognitive dissonances is something we do many times each day and is an essential part of us continuously adjusting our ‘selves’, to what the world seems to be at instants of time in specific places. Of course, the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ is a human construct in the way ‘gravity’ or ‘evolution by natural selection’ are, which have proved useful and practical theories to make sens of the world. Cognitive dissonance will play a significant role in restoring a peace, of sorts, to Ukraine and Russia for a period of time and to the rest of us, at some distance as the effects of the war impact on us in our locations.

    Secondly, he spoke of the concept of ‘self’ as if it were a fixed thing rather than something which we are continuously recreating and equally being factors which cause others to recreate their own selves. On a mundane level, for the past 50 years, my wife and I have evolved selves which have enabled us to live in a continuously changing world in which each of us has been, individually, changing which has enabled us to coexist relatively harmoniously for that period.

    One final point which I felt that Ms Lubrano might have introduced when she was discussing the personal stress which we feel when we want to do something but do not know what, is to have referred to the philosophy of Stoicism, which deals, amongst other things, about coping with this feeling. Existentialism is useful in this regard, too.

    Thank you for an intersting podcast.

    1. 220325 says:

      Indeed, we used to call cognitive dissonance ‘aporia’ back in the day, which is that state of puzzlement or perplexity we find ourselves in when our existing beliefs, values, or attitudes lose their consistency or coherence. Aporia was the goal of the Socratic dialectic because its practitioners believed that it was falling into this state that enabled one to grow ethically rather than stagnate in unexamined prejudices or habits of thought.

      In postmodern times, aporia/cognitive dissonance is to be actively pursued as a strategy for breaking the total hegemony that the ‘false consciousness’ of capitalism has come to exercise over our beliefs, values, and attitudes. Artists have been among the vanguard of those who promote aporia/cultural dissonance for reasons that Theodor Adorno developed in his Aesthetic Theory.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    There is another aspect to this.

    Apparently in WW2, in one night twitchy anti-air gunners fired over 1400 rounds at a total absence of Japanese aircraft over Los Angeles. The only damage to the city was self-inflicted. In the UK, we have been long regaled by stories of the London Blitz, but how many civilian casualties were caused by friendly fire? Perhaps half of the 52,000 British civilian casualties during German air raids were caused by British anti-aircraft shells, according to one estimate:
    Something to think about, when calls are made for more heavy weaponry to be put into the hands of militias. I remember long-past discussions with friends and colleagues who would say “thank goodness we don’t live in the USA or so-and-so would have a gun”. Sometimes we may have more to fear from our neighbours and defenders in war, few of which have any incentive to confess to lethal mistakes.

    1. 220326 says:

      Indeed, SD! According to the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs, around 2 million people – roughly the population of Slovenia – were already exposed to the threat of landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) in eastern Ukraine. As of 2020, Ukraine ranked fifth in the world for civilian casualties as a result of landmines and ERW, and in the top three for antivehicle landmine accidents. That makes Ukraine already one of the most landmine-contaminated regions in the world. Between the beginning of the conflict in 2014 and the latest count in 2020, over 1,190 mine/ERW casualties were recorded in Ukraine. And these were only the verified casualties; the actual number is likely to have been much higher. Now that the conflict has escalated to other parts of Ukraine, exposure to the threat of landmines and ERW will also have escalated accordingly, and it will take many decades to clear the land of this contamination.

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