Vital Signs

Bushwhacking Johnny

At dinner, ten-year-old Johnny is sullen and uncommunicative.  It has been a bad day.  His parents pass off his ill humor as “going through a phase.”  Actually, it was an easy day—taken up with “another stupid school assembly.”  Johnny had sat there, bored, listening to people drone on about diversity and tolerance.  When a lesbian took the stage, Johnny and his soccer buddies had guffawed.  Later, the school counselor cornered him at his locker: “You’re a big boy now, Johnny.  Your Mom and Dad are from another generation, you know, so it’s not surprising they wouldn’t be tolerant of gay people.  You can make up your own mind.  You wouldn’t want someone looking at you and your friends as ‘dumb soccer jocks,’ would you?”

Johnny has been subjected to cognitive dissonance, a tactic often used to mold public opinion.  Not only does the technique neutralize unwanted input, it’s a nearly foolproof method of manipulating groups for political ends.  An adult subjected to it at least has the benefit of maturity and experience.  He may recognize, however belatedly, the cause of his annoyance.  Johnny, however, is too young to weigh matters, so he broods.  His confusion may fester for months below any conscious level of awareness.

Technically, cognitive dissonance is “a stressful...

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