Back to the Future: My First Lesson in Cognitive Dissonance

North central Pennsylvania is beautiful and temperate this time of year.  The day reveals a land of maze-like mountain ranges, each ridge roughly the same elevation.  Geologists describe this kind of rugged terrain as a desiccated plateau.  Here there are ridges beyond ridges lush with forest, waterways, bogs, valleys with farms, corn fields and cattle pens; and the sky blue with castles and archipelagos of cumulus.  At night the sky glitters sharply with stars while arches the diaphanous ribbon of the Milky Way.  The weather this time of year is almost always temperate and mostly sunny, except for occasional storm sweeping through, flashing here and there with electric yellow bolts, the earth and town rumbling with the thunder, and bringing fresh rain.

It is a good place to while away the summer, reading, thinking, and writing in my hometown of Smethport, Pennsylvania.  Despite the peace and quiet this small town of 1,700 souls affords, my summer was quite eventful.  I read some books: The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Creative Thinkering by Michael Michalko, Light in August by William Faulkner, A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris; the short stories “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” and “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick, as well as some by Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor and my childhood favorite, R.A. Salvatore.  The vicarious experience of reading alone made this summer educational, scary, thought provoking and an adventure.  It was also a good place and time to make lists of things to do and ideas to think.

Though my inner life, thought and dreams during this time were doubtlessly influenced by my reading list, there were also other interesting factors that sculpted my thinking.  My age is one such factor.  This summer witnessed my 36th birthday.  By the standards of our late 20th-C/early 21st-C society, I am far behind the social clock.  I should be married with children, well into a successful career, buying my first house, and talking to my neighbors about the stuff I bought or will buy, mowing the lawn once or twice week, complaining about either A) taxes or B) global warming, while finally devoting my non-working hours and expendable income to getting somebody who promises to solve either of the two elected president.  Of course there are now some progressives who say that it is perfectly okay to be a 36 years old living with your parents while web surfing 24-7 for that mythological good job.  Or better yet, be a real American and take personal responsibility: Work three part-time jobs while still being underemployed so you can live in the ultimate pimped up bachelor pad with 3 roommates.  And then there are those lucky spunky few who dare create a business of one’s own, conceived and virgin born, in this verdant land of freedom and opportunity.  That is where I should be.

Instead of leading a traditional American life, I am left with my own particular life.  It is one that meanders and questions and seeks, never satisfied and frequently worried.  Sometimes my life is stranger than fiction.  Other times it is more ordinary than life truly is.  This is a melodramatic way of saying that I like to think I’m different.

This summer in the beautiful Edenic-as-Edenic can be countryside of Pennsylvania is a case in point.  The small town has a fair share nice people and local businesses.   It is the seat of McKean County.  A statue of a Civil War soldier guards the center of town.  An old courthouse with a clock tower keeps watch over the town.  A lot of hustle and bustle from the local Marcellus Shale hydrofracking industry has reinvigorated much of the local economy, and local oil worker may take pride in the fact that their work of extracting fossil fuels has made America safer and more energy independent.  Just about everybody is happy.  And for those who are unhappy, say with their jobs, there are physician prescribed anti-depressants.  The people here are generally decent, hard-working, and involved in their community.  Many like too like to read, think and write.  And they apply their talents to making the town a better place.  There are even some local businesses that have thrived since before WWII.  And local business owners know they are job creators.  If it weren’t for them, there would be jobs, no money, no way to make a living.  We have them to thank for our daily bread.  It is a good place to live and if you are lucky enough to find a job or make one, work.

So I spent my summer days thinking.  Sometimes I asked myself questions, and spent hours following a ball of thread to find its tentative answer.  Other times I used the internet to search for answers.  And sometimes I tried to ask actual people for theirs.  The problem with asking real life people difficult questions about the world itself  is that real life people like to provide answers based on their worldview.  This is not a bad thing.  Everybody is entitled to their own perceptions.  Everybody is the hero of their own story, and has a role in the greater narrative unfolding around them.  Reading novels from writers of different cultures and background helps us to understand and empathize with others.  This is what the study of the humanities is all about.  Yet asking people in vivo is an altogether different beast.   The answers they provide are true according to their creed, limited point of view, religion, political affiliation, scientific specialty, life experience.  But probing further could be seen as an attack, a challenge to their authority.  Digging a little deeper with a question might conflict with their belief system.  People could lose face.  Feelings hurt.  And then your motives for asking suspect.   In some regions of the American Bible Belt and sub-Saharan Africa, such critical thinking questions can get one accused of being a CIA agent or a Witch.

This is why I often keep my thoughts to myself and my mouth shut.  And I will refrain from ever trying to get a CEO to explain his definition of being self-made.  If he is a job creator, then who made the job creator?  Do they spontaneously generate?  Imagine the agitation produced if I had asked – preferably in a non-Holy Inquisition style of natural conversation — a job creator about his business, perhaps one of the oldest surviving one in America, which produces widgets made with metal and wooden components:

  • Do you alone make the products and ship them worldwide?
  • Do you work on the assembly line yourself?
  • Do you use the tax-payer funded and government research & designed internet to sell your products and find new customers?
  • Where do you get the metal components?  From overseas?  China?
  • Do the wooden components come from local forests?  Forests that exist now because FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps replanted this region, once denuded by the early 1900s lumber industry?

These occurred to me because many job creators seized upon soundbite of Obama’s:  “If you got a business, you didn’t build that…” played ad nauseum in the media echo chamber.  If the President truly meant what he said, then he too is revealing much about his worldview.  Unfortunately, when an authority figure makes a speech, one cannot stop him and ask him what exactly do you mean by that?  And we are left with multiple theoretical pro and con interpretations from experts and pundits.  Instead of pledging allegiance to other side and doing everything I can to harmonize with their point-of-view, I decided to think  more about what this surprisingly inarticulate comment had meant — not because I want to meditate and reflect upon “The Quotations of Chairman Obama” — but rather because I see it as part of larger conversation America is trying to have about the ideas of job creators, wealth, government, inequality, the future.

A significant number of business owners and CEOs style themselves as self-made job creators – as if God said, “Let it be” — and then they spontaneously generated into being.  These questions also occurred to me because, as I said, I am different.  So I refrained from asking questions of too many people this summer because I know from thirty six years of experience that this creates tension.  And those times when I do say something or ask something, there is usually a major crackdown from teachers, parents, bosses or peers quite wielding intellectual hammers or swords of shame or battle-tanks of dissent crushing.  Imagine how much wailing and gnashing of teeth would occur if some upstart 36 year old way behind the social clock asked leading questions that produced facts or reasons differing from one’s belief system.  The questions themselves are invasive.  The cognitive dissonance produced would be a total buzz kill in a town festooned with lawn signs like “America versus Obama,” and where people of all backgrounds believe wholeheartedly their chosen candidate will improve their lives.

I didn’t always call Smethport, Pennsylvania home.  At various times and in chronological order I have lived in: San Diego, California; Somewhere in Maryland; Springfield and Front Royal, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Huntsville, Alabama; Oxford, Connecticut, back to Alabama, and then onwards into my adult life: Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Sterling, Virginia; Burlington, Vermont; New Haven, Connecticut; and finally Smethport, Pennsylvania.  One of the most memorable places was actually quite similar to my current residence: Front Royal, Virginia — or more specifically, Apple Mountain.  That is where I had begun the first part of a lifelong lesson in cognitive dissonance and its effects on society and individuals.

I was in the third grade, circa 1984, during this time, and my family had recently moved there from the suburbs of Washington D.C.  Our new neighborhood was in a beautiful region of Virginia located in the Shenandoah Valley, and tucked in along the east side of Appalachian Mountains.  Thomas Jefferson’s estate of Monticello and his legacy, the University of Virginia, laid just about an hour’s drive to the south.

The new neighborhood was quite different from our suburban origin, which many years later I would return to find that it had metastasized into one giant suburb.  In the ten years before the autumn of 2001, the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. sprawled  out to engulf much of the old horse farms, countryside, and Civil War battlefields of northern Virginia.  The countryside was rapidly converted into parking lots, big box stores, malls, commuter towns, country clubs.  But this all wouldn’t happen until the future.

In the third grade I wasn’t worried about the future of the Virginian countryside.  Instead, I was busy exploring it with my new friends.  Apple Mountain at that time was a wilderness, vast and mysterious.  It was a good place to play cowboys and Indians, hide and seek, ride bikes, look for arrow heads, fish, and build tree houses.  The mountain itself was riddled with game trails that became our secret paths.  And there were many dirt roads that branched off from main paved one leading up the mountain.  Some of these roads led to nowhere:  vacant lots, dead ends, and somebody’s deserted log cabin.  Whether we took dirt roads or game trails we discovered all sorts of fun places to explore: abandoned farm houses (haunted), a padlocked shed with a nearby horse cart and satellite dish (a secret spy base), a cluster of abandoned trailer homes in the middle of a dark forest (their owners kidnapped by UFOs), an unfinished house (our secret fort)—with only its cinderblock foundation completed and open to the sky, and a cache of cinderblocks considerately left by unknown tomb builders for our own constructions.

At the bottom of the mountain was our bus stop with a wooden shelter next to a rack of mail boxes.  Every school day, we all raced our bikes down the mountain, ditched them in the woods, and seemingly spent a good amount of time just waiting for the bus to bring us to Leslie Fox Keyser Elementary School.  There we would carefully place our books and backpacks in a queue and wait for more kids to arrive.  The bus stop was an interesting place to play before school.  There was yet another abandoned farm house nearby.  There was a drainage tunnel as big as a troll cave underneath the bus stop itself.  That was also a good place to hide our bikes.  We dammed a nearby stream with sticks and stones, only to find after school that somebody or something had destroyed it.  Above the creek was a grassy hill where we sometimes played King of the Mountain before school.  But one autumn morning we found that there was something else waiting for us at the bus stop.

The stench of meat rotting in the morning was the first thing we noticed.  There off to north edge of the bus stop where a field of golden grass had grown waist high, partially obscuring a graying deserted farm house, something brown with sleek fur, slender legs and a white tail laid unmoving.  Flies buzzed around it.  We approached.  Somebody grabbed a stick and poked the stiff carcass.  Nothing happened.  It was a deer somebody had shot the night before.  Two bullet holes pierced its neck and flank.  For the rest of the fall term we watched it decompose, often speculating on how anyone could just shoot an animal and then leave it.  Soon after our discovery maggots appeared.  And then appeared more and more of them, as white bone and earth-colored muscle and organ rotted in the sun.    Almost within two months there was nothing left but sun bleached bones and some patches of fur.

This was a problem.  I could not for the life of me figure out where these maggots came from.  They just appeared mysteriously out of thin air and began eating the dead.  I thought perhaps this was one good reason why coffins were created – it wasn’t just to keep dead people from getting dirty – but more importantly, to keep us the bereaved from seeing these ghost white alien worms creatures spring to life and go to work on their loved ones.

After this revelation, I told all my friends at school.  I had what my third grade teacher, Mrs. Waters, told us was an “Aha!” eureka moment.  Excitedly, I told everybody I knew about this information.  They said that was gross.  I agreed, and told them about the dead deer and the maggots, and still they refused to believe me.  I had a great idea and nobody would listen.  It never occurred to me that I should ask an adult.  The idea got shelved, and I went on with an otherwise merry childhood of riding bikes, town soccer, Friday night sleepovers, and whole Saturday mornings enthralled with cartoons like The Smurfs, Loony Tunes, and the Mighty Orbots, subjected to commercials for toys and sugar cereal, and bitterly exasperated with School House Rock and public service announcements interfering with my cartoon day.

It was only five years later in an 8th grade biology class – this time at Great Oak Middle School in Oxford, Connecticut – that the question of maggots and the idea of spontaneous generation came up again.   We learned that up until the middle of the 17th-C the idea that maggots were self-made, arising naturally from decaying corpses, was conventional wisdom dating back to the time of Aristotle.  But thanks to the experiments of Francesco Redi, this idea became obsolete.

The Italian physician, naturalist, and poet conducted a series of experiments using three jars of  meat: one covered with gauze so that air can enter, one sealed so air could not enter, and one jar completely open to the air.  Flies appeared and buzzed around the open jar, and maggots on the meat soon thereafter.  But maggots were absent from the sealed jar and the one covered with gauze.  For Redi and other natural philosophers of his day, these observations disproved the theory of spontaneous generation; maggots do not arise from the dead; they in fact are the larvae of flies.

The significance of learning this tidbit of history in an 8th grade biology class did not dawn on me until many years later when I became somewhat of an adult in my mid-20s.  As an 8th grader I was disinterested in science and school in general, becoming more and more interested in girls, escaping the tedium of school, peer pressure and bullies.  One thing that kept me going was immersing myself in other worlds.  I escaped iton the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and R.A. Salvatore, a new and unknown New York bestselling fantasy author  at that time.   As I look back at that time in my life and the Redi’s historical experiments, I realize that people during the mid-17th-C had to change their ideas about how the world works.  If I had been cognizant and mindful during that time in the 8th-grade, I would have realized the disconnect between how maggots “happened” and Redi showing otherwise.  If I had been thinking at all, I might have realized that the facts learned in an 8th grade biology class conflicted with my intuitive experience as a 3rd grader.  And I would then have had to do something to resolve this incongruence of ideas.

During Redi’s time – like in our times – there had been people who refused to accept as valid the results of his experiments.  Perhaps some of them were experts invested heavily in their Aristotelian worldview.  They may have written treatises on spontaneous generation, held well paid positions as court appointed sages or as university lecturers.  They made a career of supporting the status quo, devoting their entire lives to this one particular worldview.  And now this radical upstart blasphemes; saying everything they had believed needs to be revised at best or discarded at worst.

Those confronted with this crisis would find themselves at a road diverging in a dark wood.  There would be an easy road and a more difficult one.  The latter involved updating their worldview, expanding their horizons, opening their mind, listening to dissent and alternatives, critically evaluating their contents, and a willingness to explore the unknown.  The former road seems much easier — but arguably requires a similar amount of time and energy.  The so-called easy or low road involves grasping at straws, floundering in ignorance, doing whatever is necessary to protect their worldview as the ends justify the means:  up to and including attacking and insulting an opponent’s worldview and character, and throwing money at mercenaries (both martial and intellectual soldiers of fortune) who would also do whatever it takes to protect your worldview.  And if that doesn’t work then a good old fashioned political purge is still on the table.  Of course the easy thing to do is just do nothing at all.  Why not just set up at camp out at the fork in the road and let those who care duke it out?  But that is the subject for another essay…

So here I am in the future.  It is the year 2012 a few days before the fall semester, and America is preparing to express itself at the ballot box in an upcoming presidential election.  And in two days time I will return to China where I teach English at a university, trading the fresh air and beauty of the Pennsylvanian countryside for the noisy, hot and crowded megalopolis of Chengdu in the province of Sichuan.  It would be quite easy to say that these two colliding worlds are different and opposite each other .  Though both I think have more in common than meets the eye – the subject of another essay.  So while Americans everywhere will express themselves come November, I will do the same through writing on this blog.  At least this is my hope: That the government will listen to its people – as opposed to say, eavesdropping — and I will actually be read on this blog.  But I am skeptical, escaping into the wilds of the Far West to do the best I can with the time given me.  This may irk some readers of my blog, but it is me nonetheless.