Dealing with cognitive biases part 1: cognitive dissonance, the mother of all biases

Celibate pedophiles and their allies face a massive uphill battle in the fight for understanding and education. In a world increasingly saturated with politically tilted news sources, it is easy for people to fall into the trap of seeking out and tuning in solely to sources that preach to the choir, so to speak. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate attempt to isolate ourselves from opposing views, but may be driven by an unconscious need to avoid cognitive dissonance. If you don’t know what cognitive dissonance is, it is essentially that mental discomfort we feel when we experience something—it could be anything from a thought or pattern of thoughts we’ve had to information or an event entirely outside of ourselves and beyond our control—that conflicts with a deeply held conviction or belief. We thus find that we are in conflict with ourselves, a very unpleasant state to be in.

To resolve this conflict, if the new information is correct, we should accept it and adjust our views accordingly. Often that is easier said than done though. We all like to believe that we are perfectly rational people and that we’re inherently able to separate what is true from what is false when faced with such a dilemma, but the fact is, we are heavily influenced by our own ingrained biases and aren’t always willing to accept the truth, at least not right away. Sometimes it takes years and an overwhelming amount of evidence for us to see things as they really are. British logician, writer and philosopher Bertrand Russell understood this fact of human nature very well:

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.

And sometimes we never accept the truth. So how do we get beyond this? Well, we start by recognizing that the truly wise individual knows that he or she does not have all the answers after all. Indeed, the very foundation of Western philosophy lies in this premise, for Socrates himself is reputed to have said, “I know only that I know nothing.” (Though it is actually unlikely that this phrase can be properly attributed to Socrates and probably precedes him.)  As the case may be, no less a wise man than Benjamin Franklin moderately echoed the sentiment in a letter to his parents:

A man must have a good deal of vanity who believes, and a good deal of boldness who affirms, that all the doctrines he holds are true, and all he rejects are false.

To be sure, no man obtains the wisdom of a Socrates or a Ben Franklin without being able to call into doubt that which he already believes when faced with new data, even if he believes it deeply. The man who has already made up his mind about a thing and is determined not to adjust his viewpoint out of some moral or political conviction will often be confounded when the true nature of reality is revealed to him, and the longer one holds a particular view on something, the more deeply rooted that view becomes. This phenomenon helps explain why older people tend to be philosophically conservative whilst younger people tend to be philosophically more liberal.

Does this mean that those stubborn older folks are wrong about everything? Obviously not. One doesn’t reach a ripe old age by always being wrong! It is probably safe to say that they are more often right than wrong, but therein lies the problem as well as the solution to this open-ended, ever-changing reality we live in: the things we do know for sure about reality are endlessly useful to us, and we therefore have good reason not to be wishy-washy about them. But since we don’t know what it is we don’t know (the unknown unknown), our tendency is to apply that stubbornness to everything we think we know, and that’s where wrongheaded prejudices are born.

Battling this kind of mentality is not, of course, unique to non-offending MAPs, but the fight is especially problematic for us because we are currently in the midst of a massive moral panic about child sexual abuse, one with no end in sight. There’s a lot wrong with the world right now, and a great deal of moral ambiguity and confusion exists out there, so there is comfort in the few moral absolutes left to society. The inherent wrongness of sex with children is one of those things that most people can agree on, so they latch onto it for all they’re worth. This is understandable, but unfortunately, as sound as the basic premise of the immorality of adult-child sex is, there still exists a good deal of moral gray area in the spaces tangential to this point, which is where people like me fall.

It can be difficult for people who need, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, to be fully invested in the black & white picture of this issue to comprehend that there exists individuals who are sexually attracted to children but have no desire to cause them harm. How much more difficult for those people to comprehend, then, that some pedophiles, even those with an exclusive or near exclusive attraction, can go their entire lives without ever sexually violating a single child. And how much more difficult still for them to process the fact that most people who actually do sexually abuse children aren’t even pedophiles! It must all seem so surreal to these folks, who are so fully committed to their simple and straightforward rationale of the universally sinister pedophile that they are willing to persecute those of us who aren’t even abusing children, who are struggling with our pain and loneliness in silence, who are perhaps even actively working to end sexual abuse.

All of that falls away with a single word—pedophile—and we become inhuman in their eyes, the easier for them to justify their hatred and violence towards us. Indeed, a young man named Vance Longobardi said in an email to me:

I just wanted to let you know that pedophilia apologists are perhaps the best argument in favor of genocide.

Of course, such people fail to see that they are simply repeating history, that all of these arguments have been used before against minorities of all stripes. The Jewish holocaust began with a public campaign to dehumanize the Jews and to attribute to them all sorts of bad traits and bad behaviors, including child abuse. Of course, Europe had a long history of oppressing the Jews before the Nazi atrocities, but what ultimately made the Nazi extermination campaigns possible was the media’s dehumanization of Jews. Looking at the media today, one can see a similar storm brewing with respect to pedophiles. It is quite understandable, then, that as a rule even non-offending minor-attracted persons (MAPs) are unwilling to out themselves in this environment. I am a rare exception to that rule.

Pay attention to what Vance said there, because it is a viewpoint that is not uncommon. Here is another which I snipped from YouTube:

Kathleen Winser

Notice how Kathleen distinctly says that ALL pedophiles, meaning offending and non-offending alike, are to be killed. She is essentially advocating a holocaust against minor-attracted individuals, though I doubt she would call it that. The internet is filled with examples like this of people unapologetically advocating for the mass murder of a distinct class of people. This much hatred and rage is clearly not driven by rationality. (When is advocating for mass murder ever driven by rationality?) At the heart of it is insecurity and fear. Fear is the Great Stupifier. It can reduce otherwise intelligent, rational and compassionate people to severe and simplistic thinkers. So naturally, those political forces which thrive on fear use their own media to exploit it. Certain right-wingers in particular are masters at exploiting fear: fear of outsiders, fear of those who are different, fear of big government, and so on. This is now what they have begun doing with respect to pedophilia.

When my first Salon article came out, the people who attacked me were by-and-large right-wingers. They claimed that the left has some kind of active agenda to promote and normalize “pedophilia” (by which they really meant sex with children). The truth is, I went to Salon of my own accord and pitched my story idea to them. They accepted. End of story. There was, and is, no organized agenda on the part of “the left” with respect to pedophilia. To suggest there is some conscious, organized effort by an entire political wing is really a reification fallacy, isn’t it?

But I digress. So, what is all this talk of cognitive dissonance about anyway? What’s the point of it? It is just this: if we, as non-offending MAPs and their allies, can better understand the underlying motives of our opponents, it makes us into more effective activists. For one thing, understanding leads to empathy, and as horrible as it may sound to try to empathize with people who hate you, I don’t think we are going to get anywhere by just talking at our opponents. We have to be able to understand where they’re coming from, why they feel the way they feel. Moreover, an empathetic activist is an intuitive activist, by which I mean, if you understand where your opponent’s head is at, then you can better anticipate what their next move is going to be, and you can prepare for it. This idea is actually rooted in Eastern philosophy and martial arts. I was in karate for many years, and on the wall of our dojo hung a paraphrased version of this quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

This point is more profound than it seems at first glance. Consider what Sun Tzu is really saying here. He is saying that, in order to win a contest more often than not, one should understand not only himself but his opponent as well. Understanding both of those elements is important. So, think about this: if other people have cognitive distortions that result from cognitive dissonance, then so too do we. We can never entirely rid ourselves of all of our cognitive distortions (indeed, we may not always want to), but we can be aware of them and guard against them. When we understand our own cognitive distortions, how they arise and why, then that’s half the battle right there. Sun Tzu even says as much. You see, at heart, none of us are really so different. Half of knowing what motivates others is knowing what motivates us. If we can correct for it in ourselves, then those distortions becomes clear as a bell to us when we see them in others. So work on your own distortions first; to do that, you must start by identifying your own cognitive dissonance. From here on out, we’ll be identifying and addressing specific cognitive distortions.

4 thoughts on “Dealing with cognitive biases part 1: cognitive dissonance, the mother of all biases

  1. For many people on the right of the political spectrum,it seems to me,any issue is just black and white,there are no nuances,ie empathy. When i have discussed issues with such people and I say “well what about “X” what would you do,if you were in the same position” they are often shocked and say “oh,I have never thought of that before” What interests me,is why some people stop and think and put themselves into the others position,and others don`t. How did I gain empathy,when my siblings didn`t? we have not learnt that just to ban and have laws against things, is not enough,it does not prevent illegal acts.we must try to understand. For most people the word pedophile equals illegal act already committed,and ignorance is dangerous,for you,as a celibate pedophile,and for society that fails to see the difference.thank you again for your courage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, right-wingers really do seem to have an empathy problem. Which I find ironic, given that most of them are Christians and empathy was pretty much the heart of Jesus’s message. Love thy neighbor? I don’t think most of these people who claim to be Christians today would know what love was if it bit them in the behind. I have a lot of respect for the Christians of my grandparents’ generation, but this modern stripe seem to be nothing but hateful and divisive. Thanks for your reply!

      Liked by 1 person

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