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ALLY IN THE ACADEMY

Our national WTF moment

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Much has been written about how divided we are today. I agree that we are, although not so much on the either-or, right-left scale; it’s much more complicated than that.

There’s another way of looking at where we are as a country: People of all social, political, economic and religious persuasions are having continuous WTF experiences. And I don’t mean Whiskey Tango Foxtrot experiences, I mean the ones that find you trying (and failing) to make sense of things we see and read in the daily media.

One of The New Yorker cartoonist George Booth’s recent illustrations perfectly captured the mood of the country: A guy reading the paper and shouting at his dog, “I’d just like to know what in hell is happening, that’s all. I’d like to know what in hell is happening. Do you know what in hell is happening?” Meanwhile the dog is furiously scratching himself.

Some days I feel like the person who said they were experiencing life at the rate of several WTFs an hour.

Like millions of fellow citizens, my biggest WTF moment in the past couple of years was the November 2016 election. I’m one of those idealistic and, yes, naïve people who believed it couldn’t happen in the USA.

Trump-related goings-on have continued to make my head spin, as when in March, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama quoted the following on the House floor immediately after the Mueller report was issued: “For more than two years socialist Democrats and their fake news media … have perpetuated the biggest political lie, con, scam and fraud in American history.”

Brooks then read from Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Take a moment to let that sink in: a U.S. representative sworn to defend the constitution quoting Mein Kampf on the House floor.) “I quote from another socialist who mastered the ‘big lie’ propaganda to a maximum and deadly, effect,” he said.

Brooks continued to read the passage explaining the difference between the “big lie” and the “small lie.” People will believe the big lie more easily than the small lie, Hitler wrote, because “they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

Even when facts are presented to prove the propaganda wrong, he wrote, people would not change their minds, believing there might be some other explanation.

Brooks’ speech really got to me. It was an excellent example of how our president and his allies have managed to spread their infamous big lies. You know, the ones about the need to make America great again, that Trump’s achievements are the greatest in history, that migrant hoards are invading the country. And the biggest lie that propelled Trump into office: “I alone can fix it.”

WTF?

Talk about cognitive dissonance, one of the concepts I’ve taught my students and have written about through the years. Psychologist Leon Festinger came up with this concept in 1957, and it speaks well to this moment, now.

Consider the person who has been brought up to believe that America is the greatest country in the world, a country that offers more freedom than any other country on earth, only to find that, by many metrics, it simply isn’t true.

This can be hard on a person, as I well know. I’ve had my worldview challenged so often through the years that cognitive dissonance and I are fast friends. So many of us are experiencing cognitive dissonance today, and we need to learn how to help one another work through it.

One thing that might help is recognizing that presenting people with facts to prove a point often will not work (in fact, it might cement their erroneous belief even more). So we need to try another approach. I admit I’m not sure what will work; President Barack Obama found that a beer summit didn’t help much.

But having a beer with someone who has given you a WTF moment might work if you truly listen to why they feel and believe as they do. Listening well means ensuring that your fellow human being will feel heard. Just maybe this will mitigate the cognitive dissonance both of you are feeling and lead to authentic dialogue.

Am I being idealistic and naive again? Well, there’s a good chance.