Movies & Science Tell Us We Aren’t As Divided As We Think

Featured image taken from Rolling Stone magazine.

Below is a piece I wrote that includes something new to this blog–some political commentary mixed with classic social psychology and cinema.  I originally began it at the end of October of 2016 with a focus on sociological and cognitive errors in Trump and Hillary supporters, as well as non-voters (rest assured, these foci and flaws apply equally to me as well).  As things have changed/elevated, this piece has evolved as well.

According to social psychologist, Leon Festinger, humans strive for internal consistency.  This means we generally put every effort into carrying out what we believe to be right or true, and disowning that which we believe to be wrong or false.  When a contradiction occurs—where we enact in something we know to be wrong, or disavow something we believe is true—cognitive dissonance can occur.  This is the psychological and mental stress that a person may experience when they find themselves at odds with…well…themselves…and it often causes them to go to great lengths to justify their self-contradiction rather than accept and explore why they violated their own values.  The purpose of this little Psych 101 tidbit isn’t to be a “fact of the day,” (although you’re welcome to take it at that if you wish), but rather a way of underscoring the unspoken emotional result of this election cycle.

The “spoken” result is clear.  Main stream media continues to provide piggish people platforms they often don’t deserve to continue the feeling that we’ve reached the point where “sides” need to be taken in this country.  The subsequent rage and fear of this “sides” narrative is almost palpable, but the jarring headlines have a secondary gain—they give us an out from looking within.  To wit, I know the KKK can’t stop celebrating, Trump can’t stand a good SNL impression, and some cultural groups simply can’t stand living with others.  What I don’t know is how well Americans are living with themselves, here in the bone yards of one of the most confusing, contradictory, disruptive, and destructive elections to date.

If you step back and look at the bigger (technically, biggest) picture of all, the “sides” narrative doesn’t hold up; there is one place where most Americans are engaging, sharing, and harmoniously existing both between and within themselves.  This place is not a church, a school, or a rally, but rather a movie theater.  According to Box Office Mojo, some of the most successful movies released in 2016 include characters like Steve Rogers, Harley Quinn, Bruce Wayne, Natasha Romanoff, and Wade Wilson.  Aside from sharing traits of bravery, humor, and varying degrees of selflessness, these characters helped haul over four billion dollars from worldwide box offices.  It seems that, when we aren’t debating politics, laws, rules, and beliefs, we’re gathering around the same proverbial campfire to indulge in some shared idealism of heroism.  It’s almost as if we are obsessed—these heroes dominate our theaters, televisions, bookstores, costumes, toys, and gifts.  Just examining this sheer volume, it’s clear that we can easily get on board with the same heroes and morals they carry—just not the same leaders.

Image result for picture of movie superheroes
Image taken from

There is one thing most media has yet to acknowledge—something that is likely the most controversial thing one can possibly say during an election cycle that redefined the word “controversial.”  It’s the fact morality isn’t something that just “one side” possesses.  Our entire country is completely consumed with the concept of morality; at least, that’s what our movies say about us.  Science does too; Jonathan Haidt’s research on the pillars of morality across the liberalism-to-conservatism spectrum shows people innately value similar morals, with some weighted more heavily than others (AKA–morality is not an either/or, but rather a multi-factor ranking system).  This means we aren’t actually naturally divided into “good” and “bad” sides.  We may possess personal tenets, philosophies, and unequal degrees of cultural awareness, but almost all of us still care about goodness and fairness.  We are capable of coexisting peacefully and equally, and our box office proclivities lead me to believe that we even want to.  So, what are the real barriers that keep us from working together right now?

It’s this question that brings me back to Festinger.  Regardless of which political news reel you follow, it’s inarguable that both main presidential candidates were divisive figures within themselves, and voting for either likely caused us to adopt some of this divisiveness within ourselves.  Trump’s crowd is easiest to catch mid-contradiction.  For example, he notoriously carries groups of people who identify as Christians, yet nothing of Trump himself, his actions, his campaign, or his presidency thus far have carried elements of Christian values.  Sexism, homophobia, racism, pride, xenophobia, and loving your neighbor much much much less than you do yourself are all precisely W.J.W.D.—What Jesus Wouldn’t Do.  Finding a Trump voter who is stuck mediating this disconnect between  values and actions on social media is like shooting fish in a barrel: Just look for the person vehemently insisting that they believe inequality to be morally wrong and becoming increasingly defensive when challenged on the fact that, despite said alleged virtue, they still voted for a president who virtually promised a pro-caste, divided America and who couldn’t even disavow blatant support from White Supremacists.

I can’t help but wonder if these proverbial Trumpian fish would be as easy to find if Clinton had won, as the consequences of internal inconsistency are definitely present (if less evident) in many left-leaning, social justice advocates as well.  Perhaps we can blame this on the fact that the country is currently awash in a wave of Republicanism so red you’d think we were communist Russia (wait…), but this doesn’t mean that all liberals are standing from a place of certainty, clarity, and content.  One truth, in particular, is that you can’t avoid a self-defeating debate if you’re an advocate for equality, anti-marginalization, and unity whilst simultaneously subscribing to the Basket of Deplorables broken school of philosophy–a social-media-driven mindset which really only exists for emotional catharsis rather than resolution.

This all leads me to the unpopular truth: Many people, no matter where they stood this past-November, betrayed their own core values this election and are now constantly reminded of the consequences.  It’s the pain and confusion associated with this internal inconsistency, as mentioned before, that typically leads us to chase information that justifies our own contradictory beliefs and avoid situations or facts that challenge our inner-discrepancy.  This is something social media picks up on quickly by tailoring what trends to our individual interests and beliefs, thus making it even easier to fall into “sides” that’s easily reinforced by confirmatory bias delivered via clickbait-fake news in 140-characters or less.  However, the “sides” between is us an illusion—it’s the “sides” created in ourselves that is likely not.  It seems like most people want to actually mean the “united” part in United States (extremist groups excluded), but I can’t help but wonder if it rests upon the ability to dismiss the cognitive dissonance that prevents us from accepting the inconvenient truth that we crave a hero, yet self-negotiated a leader we neither need nor deserve.

To revisit my proposed question: What are the real barriers that keep us from working together?  More often than not right now, it seems to be our own personal divisiveness and, possibly, a related fear of realizing we are wrong in areas that can feel awkward or embarrassing to be “wrong” in.  But, to give us all some credit, which battle is easier to fight—the one we have with each other, or the one with ourselves?  Perhaps more importantly, which is simply less painful to engage in?  Social science can also answer this–for the majority of people, it’s easier to believe others are what are “wrong” or “bad” or “uneducated.” “Taking sides” is comforting in this way–but it’s not the way to break down barriers.

This is the conversation I wish we could have right now, at a time where tolerance, introspection, and personal responsibility don’t make for popular headlines, yet do make for popular films.

How do people change?  

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