Thursday, December 15, 2011

Essential Lies

¡Hola mi Gente!
If you want nice, or polite, or anything like that, I am not the person. I make my own mother cry sometimes...
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Essential Lies: Self-Deception

I catch people in lies all the time. In fact, most of my one-to-one interactions are a series of steps walking people back through their self-deceptions. What I help facilitate is a process of deconstructing self-justification, which is a lot different from lying. It’s a tricky proposition, especially when most people are convinced they are justified. It’s almost comical and I get a lot of my humor from such interactions. I remember sitting in a graduate level counseling class and watching film of people saying no with their lips, but actually nodding their yes at the same time!

We all know and hear of the transgressions of public figures caught lying. There was Ronald Reagan, on national TV stating outright he had no prior knowledge of the Iran/ Contra Affair. For those that don’t know, Iran/ Contra was essentially an attempt to bypass the constitution and create a shadow government in order to wage an illegal war.

Old Ronnie lied. On TV.

Henry Kissinger, who’s being sought as a war criminal outside the U. S., famously said, “Mistakes were made,” when questioned about the Vietnam War. Mistakes were made? While we’re at it, where are those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction our young men and women died for? Of course, most people are more familiar with the tempest in a teapot known as the Lewinski Affair and Clinton’s infamous “I did not have sex with that woman” lie.

As human beings, we all share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral, or just plain stupid. While we all like to point at public figures, most of us will never be in the public spotlight when we lay our own eggs or the skeletons in our closet rattle. Our decisions will most likely not affect the lives of millions of people, but whether on a grand scale or our personal canvas, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to say, “I was wrong, I made a terrible mistake.” The higher the emotional, financial, moral stakes -- the harder it is.

It goes deeper than that: Most people, when confronted with evidence to the contrary, do not change their point of view, but justify it even more strongly. If your frame of reference for a table is mistaken and I show up with evidence to show you your life-long frame of reference is not consistent with reality, you will chuck the evidence (reality) and keep the frame. I realize that at this point you’re probably thinking that this is not you, but that’s bullshit. You do it too, because it’s the way we are wired to perceive reality. We create frames of reference -- sort of like maps that help guide us through life. So please, let us dispense with the “That’s not me/I know someone like that/ I used to be like that… ” bullshit inner commentary.

I was at a conference a couple of years ago in which I was presenting irrefutable evidence that mass incarceration actually serves to make us less safe as a society and the DAs and prosecutors in the audience had a collective fit. The more I was able to counter their questions and the more I was able to show how their assumptions were not in alignment with the empirical evidence, the angrier some of them became. One young woman from Mississippi, who had just presented a slide show on how efficiently her office was locking (mostly black) people up, stormed out when I showed where illegal drug activity in her county had actually increased.

The poster boy for clinging to discredited belief is Curious George W. Bush, or Dubya (Texan for "W"), as his fans liked to call him. Dumbya (as I call him) was wrong in his claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He was wrong in claiming that Saddam was linked to Al Qaeda (though many Americans still believe this shit). He and the rest of the fact-challenged neocon goons were wrong in predicting that Iraqis would be dancing in joyous rapture welcoming the U.S. invasion. He was wrong in predicting that the conflict would be over quickly. He and his incompetent administration was wrong in its gross underestimate of the cost of the war, and most of all, he was famously wrong in his photo-op speech six weeks after the invasion began, when he announced (under a banner reading MISSION ACCOMPLISHED) that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”

Whew! How wrong can one person get?!!

Even as late as 2006, with the war going bad and Iraq sliding into civil war and sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies released a report that stated the Iraq invasion had increased the risk of terrorism, Dumbya said to a delegation of journalists, “I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions.”

::blank stare::

Bush has to justify the war in Iraq (and the concurrent war in Afghanistan) because he has too much invested in it already -- the blood of thousands of lives is on his hands. Of course, like my attractive but obstinate prosecutor from Mississippi, when proved wrong for his reasons for going to war, he made up new ones: getting rid of a very “bad guy,” fighting “terrists,” promoting peace in the Middle East, “bringing democracy to Iraq, and finishing the task [our troops] gave their lives for.” In other words, we must continue the war because we started the war.

This is deception so powerful that the present conservative in office, president Obama, sees a need to continue the justifications. In fact, Afghanistan is his war and more have died there under his watch than the previous stooge. The frame of reference for war in American is such a powerful metaphor, so wedded to its economic outlook, that many, many Americans cannot even fathom an existence without war.

As a nation, we are so addicted to war that most people reading this, or looking at the shattered body of the Iraqi child above will find a justification for it. And I'm not talking about some loony Pee Farter Beckerhead or Palinite here. I am referring to suburban mothers, to people who consider themselves liberal even.

Bush was not so much a “decider” than he is a self-justifier. Like most politicians, he’s a master at avoiding responsibility and speaking in the passive voice. And while we rightfully look at his behavior with alarm and horror, what he does is no different than what we all have done at one time or another in our lives. We stay in unhappy relationships because, after all, we have invested so much time in making it work. We stay in a job that deadens our spirit and look for reasons to continue staying because we are unable to see the benefits of leaving. We self-righteously create a rift with a friend or relative over some real or imagined slight, yet we see ourselves as the pursuers of peace and righteousness – if only the other side would apologize.

Self-justification is not the same as lying or making excuses. There is a difference between what a guilty man will say to the public to convince them of an untruth (“I am not a crook!”), and the process of persuading himself that he did a good thing. In the latter, he is lying to himself. That is why self-justification is more dangerous and powerful than a regular lie. It allows people to convince themselves that they did the right thing.

If you're wondering how it comes to be that a large swath of the American electorate votes and advocates against it's own economic interests, understanding this psychoneurological mechanism explains a lot. The more ideologically invested one becomes, the stronger the impulse to justify it, regardless of the cost. Scam artists are notorious for being able to exploit this impulse.

Self-justification is the reason that everyone (except the hypocrite) can see through a hypocrite. It allows us to create that separation between our moral lapses and someone else’s. It’s those people out there who have it wrong, not us. That’s why many of you reading this want to comment how much you’re not like this. If you have ever uttered, “There was nothing else I could have done,” or “I was doing the best considering the situation,” or “That bitch got what she deserved,” then you have probably justified some bullshit at one time or another.

None of us can live without making mistakes. But we do have the choice to say, “This is not working out here. This is not making sense.” To err is human, but as humans, we have the choice between covering up, or fessin' up. People are constantly pointing to external factors and that’s just another form of self-justification. People are also constantly saying we should learn from our mistakes, but how can we learn unless we first admit that we made any? How long will it be your mother’s fault? When will it stop being your ex’s fault?

The good news is that by understanding how this mechanism works, we can defeat the wiring. But that’s for another day, another post.

My name is Eddie and I'm in recovery from civilization... 

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