01 September, 2020

Cognitive Dissonance

It is perhaps the worst feeling I have ever felt. Constantly reviewing my own thoughts, balancing the requirements of those I call friends against the tenets of the enlightenment spirit that I have so long held dear. I feel...so wrong. I have cognitive dissonance.

Yesterday I experienced the most embarrassing moment of my life thus far. It was during a board meeting, where we were discussing the medium- to long-term strategic plan of the organization. I was already feeling uneasy due to both personal and medical issues preceding the call. Suddenly, right when I was in the middle of explaining something, my mind went blank. I faltered, mid-explanation, and just couldn't go on. It was horribly embarrassing.

And yet it isn't the most horrible feeling I've ever had. As embarrassing as breaking down mid-explanation in the middle of an important board meeting was, it is nothing when compared to the cognitive dissonance that constantly barrages my inner self. I loathe feeling this way. Yet it isn't going away.

On the one hand, we have a terrible miscarriage of justice. People of the global majority are held back in so many ways, and we must do something to stop it. This is completely and utterly true; I have no doubt on this issue.

However, it is not enough to say that something is wrong, that something is unfair, that something is a travesty, and that it should be changed. There is also the issue of triage.

One of the tenets of effective altruism is the concept of not just doing good whenever possible, but discriminating which actions should be taken so that we accomplish the most good. Sometimes, this means that we consciously choose to allow some to be hurt, so long as it helps substantively more in the long term. Sometimes it means that we sacrifice some good now in order to create far more good in the long term. Sometimes it means staying in Omelas, not because we are callous, but because Omelas is not a minor village, but instead a collection of individuals so large that it perpetually overwhelms any considerations of what is going on in the village center.

I believe that the benefit of better taste from a burger is not worth the harm done to a cow by harming it. Yet when Burger King, a fast food restaurant who is responsible for harming many, many cows decided to sell non-meat patties several years ago, I was ecstatic. I gave them patronage many times, and I encouraged others to try out their veggie patty. I did this knowing full well that they still harmed many, many cows -- but I was nonetheless outrageously happy that they were making it easier for people to abstain from meat and still be able to eat fast food. They were making it easier for people to eat less meat, which I felt would, in the long term, help to reduce overall suffering. When impossible burgers came out, I went even more gung-ho, taking many friends and family to Red Robin and to Founding Farmers, so that they could see it become even more normalized. It's been fifteen years since I stopped eating meat, and these outreach efforts have caused at least three others to go vegan and many, many more to eat substantially less meat.

I suppose that if I knew the cow hurt by Burger King, I might not make this decision to be happy with Burger King so easily. There's something about the fact that I don't really empathize with such an individual cow that makes it easier for me to say: I care about reducing suffering in the long term, and so I'm happy with Burger King introducing a veggie patty, since it accomplishes this, even while they still are directly responsible for killing many, many cows. I can know what the right thing to do is, even while I may feel not that great about supporting what amounts to a murderous company in my eyes. But this cognitive dissonance is very light. No matter the emotion involved, I know that it is worth it in the end, and so the dissonance does not bother me very much.

Then I read White Fragility, and I just feel wrong. The author even predicts that we will feel wrong, and points out that this is the titular situation itself: they claim that because I feel this way, it proves the thesis. And I don't think this is wrong, exactly. It's true that racism is everywhere, including in me. I can even cite specific racist situations in my own life where I've taken conscious action to ensure that my actions didn't unfairly prejudice others. It takes active, concerted effort to be antiracist.

But... it feels very weird to take a just-so explanation so seriously. It feels extraordinarily improper to take what amounts to be an unfalsifiable thesis as though it had to be true. It really, really bothers me that one of the main tenets of this movement is that intent is not as important as effect, and so it is improper to use the principle of charity when interpreting others' comments. Sure, it remains obvious that effect matters more when people take action. But my feelings about the core ideas of the enlightenment spirit -- open discussion, free speech, believing ideas based on evidence -- clash so strongly with the precepts held by so many advocates today. A part of me feels like I know that we have to have fair, open discussion, and so that means we have to have spaces where it is not improper to look at ideas that make us uncomfortable. And so I think, perhaps mistakenly (hence the cognitive dissonance), that we should allow space for this kind of thinking within the effective altruism movement. I don't want ideas to be verboten there; I'd much rather stomp out the racism by proving its worthlessness with open debate.

And then I turn my head behind me, and I see my friends of the global majority. They appear deflated. Beaten down. Just reading a facebook discussion where people question these things takes the energy completely out of them. They are tired. They are exhausted from dealing with uncharitable racists so often that they can no longer give people the benefit of the doubt. They continually have to take up the burden, and it hurts them. And I realize: these speech acts hurt. My beliefs in free speech, in open discussion of alternative ideals, in debate and the presentation of evidence being the ultimate arbiter of what we should agree to as truth... These things hurt my friends. And I am torn.

Because on the one side, I still really do believe in the ideals of the enlightenment. Yet I also simultaneously cannot deny that allowing free open debate unambiguously causes extreme harm to my friends. And thus the cognitive dissonance.

I don't know if the Burger King analogy holds here. In a way, it is like knowing that their introducing a veggie patty is good, and simultaneously turning to see my cow friend get brutally slaughtered by an agent of Burger King. Is this what I am feeling? Do I know that open discussion of ideas is best, and yet I falter just because I happen to know these cows? Is it because I have friends that are black, and pakistani, and native, and hispanic? Is it just that I can turn my head and see their faces that I have this feeling of cognitive dissonance?

Or is it the opposite? The position taken in White Fragility is unfalsifiable. But it is also true. I know it. You know it. All educated people know it. You can't stay neutral on a moving train. It's undeniable. And so maybe it is my faith in logic itself that is being shaken here. The author of How to be an Antiracist says that these actions we are all taking are either racist or they are antiracist. The author of White Fragility says that even if we rail against their conclusions, this just proves them correct. Anyone well versed in philosophical argument will know that these arguments are by no means fool-proof. They don't have rigor. And yet: they are nevertheless convincing because they are right.

I know that my friends are hurt by the open discussion of ideas. So where does that leave my strong belief in free speech? So far, neither side of me has toppled the other. And so I have extreme cognitive dissonance. It hurts. When I speak up in favor of free speech, I feel horrible. Because the people hurt by it are my true and genuine friends. And when I speak up in favor of limiting free speech, I feel horrible. Because I can't help but to feel like the best way to stop hatred in the long term is to openly show how utterly stupid it is. But then I look at social media. I look at Chapelle canceling his show because actual racists weren't taking his humor as enlightening, but as evidence that their inner racist feelings are correct. I look at a police chief stating that we need to warehouse black people to stop them from breeding, who claims that he's tired of hiding the feelings that he thinks all true americans have inside but which aren't openly said because everyone feels they have to be politically correct. Free speech ain't working. These people are not being shamed into being less racist. They only hid their racism to fit in -- up until Trump was elected, and now they're coming out of the woodwork. The enlightenment ideals I have held so dear for so long... is it possible that the pendulum has swung so far into the direction of hatred that it actually would make sense to ban open discussion of these ideas in EA spaces?

This is, by far, the worst feeling I have ever had. It is far, far worse than the feeling of embarrassment I had yesterday when I froze mid-explanation during a board meeting and had to just abandon the floor. And that was the most embarrassing incident of my entire life.

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