Dissonance and Victimhood

Obama's longtime minister was the infamous Rev. Wright. One of the tenets of Wright's peculiar theology that shocked and outraged most European-Americans was that the AIDS virus was invented by whites to exterminate blacks. While this issue was swept under the American political rug by the mainstream media (Obama simply resigned from the church, and the issue immediately died), the question remains why so obviously a false and pernicious belief is so prevalent in the black community.

I would suggest that the answer is to be found in the well-established psychological theory of cognitive dissonance.

This theory has three tenets. The first is unsurprising: It is that people are acutely aware of cognitive inconsistencies in themselves and others. "Cognitive inconsistencies" are clashes among our beliefs, or between our beliefs and our actions, or between our beliefs and our observations. So for instance, if  I am a fundamentalist minister, and I'm having an extramarital affair, the theory predicts that I will be aware of that inconsistency between my professed morals and my actual behavior -- i.e., I will know that I am a hypocrite.

The second tenet of the theory is also not surprising. It is that the awareness of inconsistency is an unpleasant feeling -- a feeling of dissonance. It's not fun knowing that you are a hypocrite. The feeling of cognitive dissonance is so unpleasant that it pushes a person to try to restore consonance.

But the third tenet of the theory is surprising. It holds that to relieve this cognitive dissonance, people will employ two basic strategies. First, they will often try to decrease the number of inconsistent cognitions. Second, they will often try to increase the number of consistent cognitions.

As an example of the first, suppose I believe that bald men can't dance. One night, watching a dance show on TV, I see a bald fellow dance beautifully. I might just drop my belief that bald men can't dance, which would be the logical thing to do. But if the belief that is refuted by what I see is deeply held, or comes from a source I revere, I might not do the logical thing.

Again, faced with a dissonance between my behavior and one of my beliefs, I might alter my behavior. For example, upon learning that smoking is bad for my health, I could just quit smoking. But if it is very pleasurable, I might not want to do that.

This brings us to the second strategy for dealing with cognitive dissonance. Quite often, faced with his inconsistency, a person will try to increase the number of consistent cognitions. There are many ways this can be done. He may try to find other information that buttresses his preferred belief. Or he may concoct a conspiracy theory. For example, if I believe that satanic ritual abuse of children is common, and someone points out to me that there are no police reports that back this up, I may argue that the police are covering it up.

The theory of cognitive dissonance has been tested both observationally and experimentally for decades, and has held up well. But how does it shed light on the AIDS conspiracy theory held by African-Americans like Rev. Wright? Let's begin by seeing where the dissonance lies. 

If we take "an ideology" to mean any system of ideas that reflects the goals and interests of a specific group, I would suggest that the AIDS Conspiracy has its origins in an all-too-common ideology: the ideology of victimhood. Generally, the ideology of victimhood holds that your group -- whatever it is -- is oppressed by society, denied equal rights, and is the target of social attack. In the particular case of the ideology of Black Victimhood, it includes the view that African-Americans are beset by an unrelenting racist society, which works to oppress them in every way possible. As a result, according to this ideology, African-Americans are pervasively victimized by being kept out of high schools and colleges, wrongfully targeted for criminal prosecution, denied jobs, and discriminated in pay when allowed to work at all.

This ideology goes vastly beyond the awareness shared by virtually all Americans of the appalling history of racism in this country. No, it contends that little if anything has changed since the days of slavery, much less since those of Jim Crow laws.

This convenient victimhood ideology has proven to be a very powerful tool in getting policies enacted and politicians elected that are prized by many African-Americans. For decades now, the ideology has been used to get governments and businesses to institute racial preference programs (such as quotas and set-asides), which many in the African-American community view (rightly or wrongly) as beneficial. High-profile African-Americans such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have been able to use this ideology to run for office and get lucrative settlements from various big businesses for alleged patterns of discrimination. And the approach has helped get many welfare programs enacted into law.

However, this ideology of victimhood is dissonant with two salient facts about AIDS. First, AIDS infection rates are dramatically higher in the African-American community than in others. Looking at the CDC numbers for cumulative number of AIDS cases through 2005, African-Americans made up 42% of the total while accounting for only 13% of the population.

Second, AIDS is a behavioral disease. That is, you don't acquire it from being near someone when he sneezes, say, or by touching something he touched. No, you get it by making certain choices -- specifically, to engage in unprotected sex or to exchange used needles during drug usage. Again, the 2005 CDC statistics are clear: Of all cumulative cases through 2005, 65% (nearly two-thirds) were contracted during risky sex, 26% during IV drug usage, and 7% during both risky sex and IV drug usage. Only a miniscule 2% of AIDS cases were contracted from non-sexual, non-IV drug behavior, such as blood transfusions or prenatal transmission.

These facts are well-known, thanks in part to extensive public education programs.

Now, the cognitive inconsistency is clear and hard to ignore. If you think you and your ethnic group are victims, and therefore are not responsible for your actions, how then can you explain the vastly higher than normal rate of a behavioral disease in your community? You could just give up your ideology and accept that at this point in American history, whatever behavioral ailments afflict your community arise from choices freely made by the members of that community.

But that can be hard when the ideology of victimhood is so very useful as a political tool. So you invent bizarre conspiracy theories -- such that your community has had this scourge inflicted on it by -- the CIA? The DEA? The FDA? The IRS? Whomever...

The only hope that this particular conspiracy drivel will dry up is that it will be exposed to the light of the critical scrutiny. There is nothing quite so therapeutic as seeing a conspiracy theory held up to public scorn to make most of those who hold it start to relieve their dissonance in some other, more logical, way -- such as just dropping the ideology of victimhood. Whether this will happen under this president is unfortunately dubious.

Gary Jason is a contributing editor of Liberty.
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