Thursday, November 30, 2017

Cognitive Dissonance (Brief Look at Satire, Part 4)

To quote myself:
The structure of [Widowers’ Houses, George Bernard Shaw’s first play] . . . falls into the classic romantic comedy pattern [boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl], ending with all the characters leaving the stage arm-in-arm to join in a pre-marriage feast, celebrating boy getting girl. . . . However, Widowers’ Houses does not allow its audience to savor the romantic reconciliation and comic resolution. As the audience celebrates the triumph of love, it must, at the same time, acknowledge the defeat of its own morality. The hero and heroine, after all, are going to set up housekeeping on the profits of a land swindle. . . .In allowing love to triumph at the expense of morality, Shaw gives the audience at the same time what it wants and what it does not want. He gives it a happy ending—and a continuing state of corruption. He gives it boy getting girl—and swindles moving forward. He gives the audience—in short—comedy and satire.*
I had occasion recently to talk to someone about Widowers’ Houses, and when I got home I had an epiphanic moment. “Cognitive dissonance,” I exclaimed aloud (and since there was no-one around to witness my talking to myself, I escaped being sent to the loony bin this time). “Why weren’t you in my ken when I wrote my dissertation in 1975?”

I immediately began an internet search of all things (OK, several things) cognitive dissonance-ish. Now it’s all around us, but when, I wanted to know, did the term pop up into our culture. It reminded me of several other words—tofu, cholesterol, tapas, fajitas**—that seemed suddenly to appear before me like rabbits magically out of a conjurer’s hat and to begin multiplying like you-know-whats. 

The term “cognitive dissonance” was introduced by the social psychologist Leon Festinger (who, I’m proud to say, shared the same alma mater with me) in his 1957 book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. My American Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1991) includes the term and dates it to 1957 (“psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously”). However, neither my American Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language: Second College Edition (1980) nor my British The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (1993) contains an entry for the term. Perhaps this is not really surprising. Although the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows the sudden explosion onto the scene of “cognitive dissonance,” the term itself seems to have taken a good while to move from the specialized realm of psychology into general usage. 

For example, the first use of the term by the New Yorker was in 1988; there were 14 uses during the 1990s, the other 27 uses (so far) coming in the 2000s.

For the New York Times, the 1960s saw 4 uses; the 1970s had 5. It was in the 1980s that the term began to find its way into more general use—20 mentions. And in the 1990s it exploded to 52. 

So with this historical research under my belt I could feel better about not having that useful term available when writing my magnum opus (though it really would have helped).

Besides using it to explain the satirical implications of the effect the denouement of Widowers’ Houses should have had on its audience, I would have called the term into action in the chapter on Man and Superman. That play concludes not with boy getting girl, but with girl snaring boy. To quote myself again:
Jack Tanner, M.I.R.C. (Member of the Idle Rich Class, as he calls himself), author of “The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion” . . . , socialist, and creative evolutionist, is the ironic exposer of the fatuous and false values of others.
Fall of radical talk on politics and morals, he skewers the conventional values of the other characters. But while he can rightly describe the landscape, he is blind to his own place in it. He expounds at length on the Life Force (that scheme of nature by which the female ensnares her prey to further the human species), casting his poet-romantic friend Octavius as Ann Whitefield’s love object—without realizing all the while that he himself is her target: 
[H]is philosophical insight does not compensate for his inability to escape [the Life Force’s] entrapment. The laughter at the end of the play is directed at Tanner, who is allowed by Ann Whitefield, his captor, to “Go on talking.”
The conventional-minded members of the audience can join in the laughter at the iconoclastic radical—but Tanner’s downfall (if we can call it that) only comes about because he is proved right. Right about men’s and women’s roles in the larger drama of life. But wrong about the not-so-small detail of knowing his own part in it.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” lamented W.H. Auden. Alas, that’s also true of Shaw’s satire in this play. The conventional audience should experience cognitive dissonance as the object of its derision is brought down only by the correct working out of ideas he has proclaimed. But “should” doesn’t mean “did.”

And Shaw’s beautiful subtlety didn’t even have a name at the time.

*Normalvision: A Study of Bernard Shaw’s Satire

Monday, November 20, 2017

A Matter of Metaphor

In my previous blog post (“Up, Down, and Sideways”) I referenced an article by Peter Beinart on the Atlantic website a few days ago. The headline is “Trump Insults People From Afar, Then Praises Them in Person.”* Today I return to Beinart’s article to focus on a metaphor Trump used in his attack—from afar—on China’s economic challenge to the United States. 

“We can’t continue,” he proclaimed during a campaign stop in 2016 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, “to allow China to rape our country.” But on his recent trip to the Far East Trump told the Chinese: 
I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?**
So, rape isn’t bad after all—and no blame can be heaped on the rapist, who is “able to take advantage” of his victim for his own benefit. The blame, though, lies with the victim: in the case of the US versus China, Trump told the Chinese, it lies not on China’s government but on Trump’s American predecessors: 
I do blame past administrations for allowing this out-of-control trade deficit to take place and to grow.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by Trump’s sleight-of-hand in turning rape into something that’s positively praiseworthy—gaining an advantage over others. He himself has been accused by at least 16 women of a range of sexual assaults.***

In fairness, we must admit that he hasn’t defended himself by blaming his victims; instead, he and his flacks have claimed that all the accusations are “fake news”:
Trump has continued his denials in office, with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly telling reporters every accusation against him is a flat-out lie. He’s also used a press conference in the White House Rose Garden to lambast his accusers, saying in October, "All I can say is it’s totally fake news." 
He added, "It's just fake. It's fake. It's made-up stuff.”****
We can take it, then, that he wasn’t taking advantage in order to gain some kind of benefit.


To get back to the China vs. US economic situation. Perhaps we can turn Donald against himself and declare that those alleged Chinese "rapists" were not raping any other country but harmlessly pursuing their own good and that Trump’s Indiana claim, therefore, was “totally fake news.” There are no predators out there—sexual or economic—and thus no victims being taken advantage of either. 

Don’t you feel better?

(Assuming you haven’t read the news recently.)


Monday, November 13, 2017

Up, Down, and Sideways

I was impressed by an article by Peter Beinart on the Atlantic website a few days ago. The headline is “Trump Insults People From Afar, Then Praises Them in Person.” The article itself starts off thus:
When Donald Trump addressed South Korea’s parliament earlier this week, The Associated Press noted his “striking shift in tone.” After Trump journeyed from Seoul to Beijing, The New York Times made a video entitled “Trump’s striking change in tone on China.”But the change isn’t all that striking. It’s predictable. Trump insults people from afar and then praises them in person. He demands they change their behavior, and then forgets those demands when they’re in the room. He’s been doing it consistently for at least a year.*
Beinart cites four examples, three foreign and one domestic, of Trump, after having launched a severe attack from afar, offering sweet words to the attackees in person. The foreign examples are the Chinese, the South Koreans, and the Mexicans; the domestic example is his making mellow sounds at a black church in Detroit after “accus[ing] Black Lives Matter of encouraging attacks on police and suggest[ing] that African Americans were prone to voter fraud.” Just as the Associated Press and The New York Times had observed about the foreign excursions, Beinart points out that The Washington Post noted Trump’s “jarring shift in tone and message.”

Beinart’s article brought to mind the expression “kiss up/kick down,” which came to prominence in 2005 during the Senate confirmation hearings of John Bolton for the post of United States ambassador to the United Nations. The assessment was made by Carl Ford, former chief at the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research.**

At that time Steve Inskeep interviewed on NPR Ken Lloyd, author of Jerks at Work: How to Deal with People Problems and Problem People, about “kiss up/ kick down people”:
INSKEEP: The word `bully' has been used sometimes to describe John Bolton. Again, without endorsing or decrying that, let's talk about bullies for a minute. What happens when you have a bully in the workplace?
Mr. LLOYD: When you have a bully in the workplace, it's almost like that same bully on the school yard. This is a person who stamps his feet, pushes people around, demands that everything be done his or her way. It's a very similar kind of behavior.***
People who “kiss up/kick down” have no internal strength of character, since they use force only against those weaker than themselves, while becoming smarmy ass-kissing, bootlickers to those superior to them. I identify this as a question of Verticality:
Trump’s actions, I perceived, were of a different order. They demonstrated what I named Horizontality: the farther away one stands (distance being what Shakespeare called “the region cloud”) the safer one is from retaliation when one launches attacks against other people.****  Move close to the person you attack and expect a blow to the mush—unless one suddenly becomes all strategically forgetful and mealy-mouthed. The person who attacks from afar can only be labeled a coward; the same person smarming up close exhibits his gutlessness.

Combined Chart:



**** Internet trolls are obviously cowards, as the Web provides infinite electronic distancing between attacker and attackee. Consider the famous cartoon by Peter Steiner in The New Yorker, July 5, 1993:

Thursday, November 9, 2017

God Damned (Again)

This post is a riff on an article by Osita Nwanevu entitled “Today in Conservative Media: The Texas Shooting Victims Were Praying to Be Killed,“ published earlier this week on ( 
All the quotations are taken from that article.


In my previous post (“God Damned”) I tried to offer a way for God to retire from the scene so as to avoid being blamed for the ills of the world. I’m afraid that the responses of the right-wing (actually we all know it’s the wrong-wing) media and their assorted pundits (as reported by Osita Nwanevu) have forced me back to the keyboard.*

Here, for instance, is David French’s call to prayer in the supposedly thoughtful (as distinct from the rabble-rousing Trumpmaniacs) Conservative rag The National Review:
It’s as simple as this: God is sovereign, and every good and perfect gift comes from Him. . . .If there’s one thing that’s clear from the spate of mass killings in the United States, it’s that we need God to move.
Let’s parse this:

Everything good comes from God. But there’s a hell of a lot of bad going on, witness this church mass slaughter that French’s response is all about. Now, the way to make things right is to pray to God “to move.” Which means, it seems, that the deity is sitting on his haunches letting all this bad stuff go down and needs a prayerful poke in the ribs to eliminate this killing madness from the world. 

That he has not done so up to now suggests to my mind, if French is correct, either an indifference to man’s suffering or an actual maleficent delight in the misery of his creatures. 

Poor God! As I wrote in my previous post, here he is getting the blame again from a supposed believer in him. (An atheist wouldn’t have written what French did.)

Let’s turn to Hans Fiene at the Federalist and his piece entitled “When The Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers.” (We will leave aside the shaky usage here of the term “Saints.”) 

“It may seem,“ wrote Fiene,
on the surface, that God was refusing to give . . . protection [from worldly evil] to his Texan children. But we are also praying that God would deliver us from evil eternally. Through these same words, we are asking God to deliver us out of this evil world and into his heavenly glory, where no violence, persecution, cruelty, or hatred will ever afflict us again.
OK, let’s parse this one:

So when the gunman opened fire and killed the Texas worshippers, he was the instrument by which God was answering the prayers of the faithful, who desired, above all else, to be heaven-bound and free from the very evil that was sending them there. Thus God works in mysterious ways to perform his good deeds, such as contracting with a mass murderer to riddle the “Saints” with rifle fire, sending, at random, some to their heavenly sanctuary, leaving others maimed in hospital, awaiting a new weapon-wielding deliverer.

There’s more in Nwanevu’s article, but that’s enough comment from me. My head hurts, and my heart goes out to God. What did he do to deserve such believers?


*Remember the unofficial motto of this website:

“Fools rush into my head, and so I write. (Alexander Pope)