You may have heard the idea that there are two Americas: one for white people and one for people of color. There are some really cool articles about that topic, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. When I say two Americas I mean that there is an America we believe exists and there’s the America that actually exists. To explain this, I’m gonna introduce a concept I learned in college while studying psychology: cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is when your beliefs and behavior are out of synch with each other. So you believe that smoking is bad, but you still smoke. Or you believe that abortion is wrong, but then you have one. Your brain and your body want to be on the same page and when they’re not, it causes intense amounts of confusion and sometimes fits of anger. You might also find yourself justifying your actions as a way of making yourself feel better about them. So whenever something happens that exposes this gap between your belief and behavior, it’ll usually trigger confusion, anger, and justification…among other things.
I believe that the U.S. is in a constant state of cognitive dissonance–we believe America is a lot better than she actually is.
For example, when Cuties came out this year, most of us were appalled and thought, “How could this kind of movie be shown in America?” There was confusion, anger, and justification. But what most of us don’t know is that this is the same country where 46 states allow child marriage. And before you think it’s not as bad as it sounds because 17 year-olds are legally “children”, 20 states have no minimum on the age. So you can literally be a grown behind man and legally get married to a three-year-old and half the U.S. would back you.
Let that sink in.
Cognitive dissonance doesn’t just apply to our morality, it also applies to our politics. It’s why the same country can elect Barack Obama and then immediately elect Donald Trump. It’s why we can destroy federal monuments because we hate racism, but then destroy a federal building because we love our privilege.
And each time there was confusion, anger, and justification.
But America’s cognitive dissonance doesn’t care where you fall on the political spectrum–it screws all of us over to the same degree.
If you’re more liberal, you might be tempted to think that America is not really Christian and point out that the founding fathers weren’t actually Christians themselves. You may think America is more secular and progressive at its core. But in reality, it’s not that simple. Even though the founding fathers weren’t really Christians, the Puritans were. So were the pilgrims. You still have to deal with the Three Great Awakenings that profoundly shaped American history that were completely and unapologetically Christian.
But if you’re more conservative, you may think America is Christian at its core. But you have to deal with the fact that the founding fathers were deists who believed more in reason than in their faith. You also have to deal with the fact that “One Nation Under God” was less about identifying with Christ and more about identifying against communism. Even if you somehow finagle your way around those issues, you still have to wonder: what kind of Christianity sanctions the genocide of Native Americans and the slavery of African Americans?
Things are not as black and white as we’d like to believe.
Some of us think America is like Superman: follows the rules, upholds the law, and is a godlike savior the world worships. Others of us think America is more like Batman: unorthodox, rebellious, and willing to break the rules for the right cause. But in reality America is more like Harley Quinn: talented, but dysfunctional, and willing to blindly follow abusive and charismatic men. She’s a mix of bag of good and bad who sometimes does the right thing and sometimes doesn’t. And the more we try to box her into one side or the other the more she confuses us.
So what’s a girl to do?
Cognitive dissonance only gets resolved when you either change your beliefs or change your behavior. So if we want to stop being so confused by how crazy America seems, we’d have to stop doing such crazy things(like criminalizing prostitution, but legalizing child marriage). Or, more effectively, we’d have to change our beliefs and just accept that we’re not as great as we think we are. At the end of the day, America isn’t all good or or all bad—she’s both. Because that’s what we all are.
So the next time you’re shocked at how ignorant conservatives sound or terrified by how violent liberals act, don’t be so quick to say they’re un-American. Because in reality all of that–the good, the bad, and the treasonous–is very much American. We won’t grow by clinging to the good parts and ignoring the bad, but by taking both the good and the bad and owning it all.