Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cognitive dissonance can be your friend

This is my take on ideas that have been put forward by Brett McKay of the Art of Manliness. There is little, and possibly noting at all, original in what follows. 

Most of us start of thinking of who or what we would like to be. Which is to say, we don't start off thinking about what we would like to believe or about what we would like to do. We're usually neither stupid nor naive; we usually understand that being a certain kind of person requires certain kinds of behaviours and beliefs. But it is the being a certain kind of person that attracts us.

Typically, we do nothing at all about it. The chief reason for this is something we rarely consider and that is that we are already a certain type of person. We'd prefer not to think such a thing; we'd prefer to think of ourselves as individuals. But we're not. I'm a type and so are you. It couldn't be any other way.

If there is a thing that needs to be explained, it is the persistence of the belief that you are, or can be, or should be a unique individual. Part of the explanation is that this belief enables us to suppress cognitive dissonance.

Accept that you are a type and a question immediately arises: Are you any good at being that type? That's an unpleasant question. First and foremost, it's unpleasant because others are going to be better at it than you are. If you decide you want to be a manly man (and every man should) you will very quickly be forced to face the fact that other men are better at it than you are.

It's worth noting, that the same would be the case if you decided to become a dope-smoking dude. There will be others who do it better than you. "Better" is a funny word in this case because being a dope-smoking dude is a stupid thing to do and calling one better than another is like saying one disease is better than another. It matters what type of person you decide to be.

Until very recently, the observation that it matters what type of person we choose to be would have been regarded as so obvious as to not need to be said. It isn't anymore because we now pretend that it's better to be an individual. Attempts to be an individual always fail. We usually can see this more clearly in our friends than ourselves. We can see that their sense of style has certain sources. And we can also see that their beliefs tend to line up with the same sources. We know that we're no better. So why does the cult of individualism survive?

Because it allows to avoid facing the fact that we could be better. As long as I think I'm an individual, I have no objective standard against which to judge what sort of being I am.

Now, someone might object at this point that what I'm doing is encouraging people to compare themselves with others and that that is an unhealthy thing to do. It certainly can be an unhealthy thing to do. But it's also inevitable.

What we need to be able to compare ourselves with others in a healthy way is an objective standard and only by acknowledging that we are of a type will allow us to do that. And it is only by acknowledging that we are of a type that we will be able to face that here will always be some people who are better at being that type than we are.

What we need most of all, however, is the ability to recognize that we could be better at being the type of person we are. We all have strengths. Perhaps you are the sort of person weak people turn to. Great. But you could do it better and doing it better means recognizing that a certain type of man inspires that response and that you do better.

You can't know how much better. That is where comparing yourself with others gets unhealthy. Most likely, you will never be as good as some of the best examples of your type can be. And not just that, you probably can't ever be as good as some who are not the best. But you can be better and having to face that will create discomfort. That discomfort is called cognitive dissonance. It can be your friend.

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