Why is it— that the worst prudes have a secret contradictory sex life— that, as Henry Higgins said, would make a sailor blush?
That's the question on every lover's lips this morning. We lie on our beds, reeling from the latest domino spill of gay Republicans who can't seem to get enough rough trade in-between roll call votes to crucify homosexuals.
These people defy rationality.
So what is their motive? Even after they're caught with their hard-on in the noose, they still rebuke the notion that they are anything but a traditional, heterosexual, monogamous married man— you know, with a "wide stance."
Social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson, and his colleague Carol Tavris, have devoted their lives to such motives, which they call "cognitive dissonance."
Their new book, with the irresistible title: Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, is all about how everyone has moments when they rationalize behavior that conflicts with their beliefs about themselves.
It can be as humble as the reasons why people excuse their cigarette habit, or as jaw-dropping as when a president ignores the terrible truth of a war he never should have started. Cognitive dissonance is at its highest conceit when The Emperor Dons New Clothes.
We can't rid ourselves of cognitive dissonance— it's part of our humanity— but we can become aware of its nature, and learn how to bring it to the curb.
I asked Elliot if he'd talk with me about Cognitive Dissonance Poster Child, Senator Larry Craig...
SB: How does this guy manage to face the camera, not to mention his wife, and deny such egregious behavior?
EA: If there is one thing I have learned from doing experiments on cognitive dissonance it's that the human mind is infinitely flexible. People can find a way to justify almost anything.
SB: Why do they so often get a free pass? Polls are showing that these sex scandals barely make a dent on electoral support.
There's plenty of voters who "hates gays," and vote for this sort of bigot. Yet after their boy gets arrested for illicit gay sex, the same voter still hates gays, and still votes for the hypocrite. What is going on?
EA: Without the theory of cognitive dissonance, these behaviors would seem incomprehensible. Even WITH the theory, they're not easy to explain— but the theory provides us with a few insights.
In our book, we make the statement that everyone can spot a hypocrite except the hypocrite himself. We should expand that to include those who are deeply committed to the hypocrite.
SB: Break it down for me; how do people's brains react when they get caught doing one thing they've forbidden to everyone else?
EA: Most of us are pretty good at compartmentalizing. So, for example, if a man grows up thinking that homosexuality is sinful and evil, and then begins to feel an attraction to men, he, at first, denies, it— even to himself.
He gets married, has children, so as to convince himself that he can live a "normal" life.
Then, if he has a few adventures (say, in a notorious airport men's room), he convinces himself that even though he did that, he is not REALLY a homosexual, he's just having a little adventure— in much the same way that an alcoholic convinces himself that he simply "likes to drink," and could give it up anytime if he wanted to.
SB: A lot of public health issues relate to this...
EA: Yes, a couple of decades ago, when the AIDS epidemic was just getting started, I was trying to find effective ways to get sexually active people to use condoms.
In the early days, a great many people believed that AIDS was a disease confined to homosexuals. The people who were most difficult to convince to use condoms were men who believed it was a homosexual disease AND who believed that they themselves were NOT homosexual, even though they occasionally engaged in sex with other men.
That dissonance-reducing belief was so powerful that guys were risking their lives to hold onto it!
(If I hinted at the fact that engaging in occasional sex with other men put them at risk of getting AIDS, they got angry and threatened to do me harm— because they felt that I was insulting them).
SB: But back to the politicians—
EA: They are examples of true compartmentalization:
When YOU do it, it's homosexuality, but when I do it, it's just an adventure.
This not only allows Craig, (and the others), to continue to engage in these behaviors from time to time, but it also allows him to continue to speak out against gays and against gay marriage, etc... with a clear conscience.
He has effectively reduced dissonance— until he gets caught.
But even when he gets apprehended, he can continue to hold the belief that he isn't really a homosexual. It is important to understand that, in most cases, the guy is not simply trying to pull the wool over OUR eyes; rather, he has succeeded in pulling the wool over his OWN eyes.
SB: Doesn't he ever have a Come-To-Jesus moment where he realizes what a fraud he is?
EA: If that self-deception begins to fray. and becomes untenable to himself— he can fall back on the position always available to religious fundamentalists— that he is a good person, but the devil made him do it.
If he prays hard enough, and seeks forgiveness, that the Lord will forgive him and cleanse him. And, if the Lord can forgive him, he expects the rest of us to forgive him also.
SB: Yeah, and then they send out a fund-raising letter...