The Prophets vs the Cognitive Distorters

Current Affairs

Anne Applebaum, writing in The Atlantic traces how institutions turn aside from one set of values and take up another. It has to do with small changes to the way we perceive what is acceptable behavior, a willingness to go along with a group rather than rocking the boat.

Applebaum describes how this worked in East Germany during the Soviet Occupation:

Why Do Republican Leaders Continue to Enable Trump? – The Atlantic:

In the 1950s, when an insect known as the Colorado potato beetle appeared in Eastern European potato fields, Soviet-backed governments in the region triumphantly claimed that it had been dropped from the sky by American pilots, as a deliberate form of biological sabotage. Posters featuring vicious red-white-and-blue beetles went up all across Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. No one really believed the charge, including the people making it, as archives have subsequently shown. But that didn’t matter. The point of the posters was not to convince people of a falsehood. The point was to demonstrate the party’s power to proclaim and promulgate a falsehood. Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie—it’s to make people fear the liar.

These kinds of lies also have a way of building on one another. It takes time to persuade people to abandon their existing value systems. The process usually begins slowly, with small changes. Social scientists who have studied the erosion of values and the growth of corruption inside companies have found, for example, that “people are more likely to accept the unethical behavior of others if the behavior develops gradually (along a slippery slope) rather than occurring abruptly,” according to a 2009 article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This happens, in part, because most people have a built-in vision of themselves as moral and honest, and that self-image is resistant to change. Once certain behaviors become “normal,” then people stop seeing them as wrong.

She then applies this to the way that the Republican establishment gave turned away from the sorts of things they had lobbied for, small government, limited change, no deficit spending, etc to the present attitudes.

But this has more applications than political science or the current political crisis in America. It’s true in schools, churches and denominations, non-profits, for-profit corporations, fraternal organizations, etc.

The disappointing thing here is that it’s well understood how to pollute a culture yet it’s rarely resisted effectively. 

The word prophet means “the one who sees what is coming”. Perhaps if we listened to the words of the prophets more closely, both the historical prophets and the contemporary ones (and paid less attention to the “court prophets” who support an unjust society) we’d be able to more regularly resist those who would turn us to their purpose.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...