Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance and its subset confirmation bias are behaviours of which all of us are guilty, probably more often that we like to admit even to ourselves. We’re not perfectly detached, perfectly rational beings. All of us have variable tendencies to frame issues in ways that support our existing prejudices, and selectively ignore information that doesn’t suit us while highlighting facts that reinforce our beliefs and bemoaning the ignorant inability of others to see self-evident truth with the blinding clarity that we’ve achieved through superior wisdom, insight and sheer hard work in mastering the nuances of historical context that others are too lazy, stupid or venal to attempt.

Gerard Henderson in today’s SMH bemoans the failure of the left to understand or acknowledge the monumental injustice perpetrated on South Vietnamese government supporters/asylum seekers 30 years ago.

It’s a fair cop, I reckon (though see postscript). Certainly Saint Gough was wont to refer to Vietnamese refugees as “fucking Vietnamese Balts”, which hardly connotes either sympathy for or insight into their plight. And it’s no doubt salutary to be reminded of Labor’s wilful blindness towards the activities of Pol Pot as recently as 1979 1978.

But Henderson and many of his fellow conservative commentators are at least equally selectively blind to more contemporary events, to which honest, principled attention might actually make a real difference (unlike either Vietnam or World War I and Gallipoli). Where are the conservative commentators probing the true facts of the current and recent civilian death toll in Iraq? And when can we expect Henderson to write an opinion column about the signal failure of the Bush administration to properly investigate endemic abuse and torture of prisoners in both Iraq and Afghanistan?

Selective blindness is a threat to freedom. Patriotism doesn’t require us to remain silent about these sorts of prisoner abuses, any more than it requires us to ignore or make endless excuses for the ineptness of American post-invasion conduct in Iraq that allowed the Islamist and Sunni murderers to gain a strong foothold that it will take years to reverse even if it’s possible at all. Criticising US shortcomings and insisting on maintenance of basic standards of human rights is not treason, and doesn’t mean that critics are siding with Al Qaeda or treating the Americans as morally equivalent to the butcher Zarqawi. Right wing triumphalism and wilful blindness and amnesia towards American shortcomings are every bit as dangerous as defeatist, reflexive Howard/Bush-hating from the left.

PS – As Dave Ricardo points out in the comment box, it was substantively the Fraser coalition government that signally failed to take any effective action in 1979 in relation to the Khmer Rouge, mostly at the behest of the US whose interests weren’t suited. As a prominent Coalition apologist, it’s fairly breathtakingly hypocritical of Henderson to concentrate myopically on Labor’s failings in 1978, while conspicuously ignoring the Fraser government’s far larger role both then and subsequently.

PPS – On a different topic, but equally an example of cognitive dissonance, The Currency Lad attempts to exculpate the late Sir Joh with a dazzlingly post-modern relativistic reference to the Wran government in NSW:

Joh was considerably less “vicious” (used twice), if less elegantly so, than a Neville Wran and the corruption of the New South Wales police force in the glory days of Roger ‘The Dodger’ Rogerson was something Queensland’s Special Branch never even came close to matching.

Really? What an extraordinary statement! Nifty was certainly no saint, but his government wasn’t riddled with corruption from top to bottom like Joh’s mob. And, although the NSW police at the time were indeed spectacularly corrupt (as they had been to an equal extent under the Libs’ Bob Askin), there was little or no evidence of the frighteningly cosy links between police and politicians that characterised the Bjelke-Petersen government as uncovered by the Fitzgerald Royal Commission. Nor was there an endemic reign of fear, where police bashed, arrested and intimidated opponents of the government in a system that was, as Andrew Bartlett observes, a police state:

The worst aspect of the police corruption was not the kickbacks for illegal brothels and casinos that eventually dominated the media coverage it was the gross abuse of police powers to intimidate, harass and bash political opponents. The fierce suppression of political dissent generated a real and legitimate fear amongst a whole sub-section of the community, with the most powerless such as aboriginals bearing the biggest brunt. When police can get away with physically assaulting people at will with almost total immunity, you are literally in a police state maybe not as serious in scale as the South African regime of the time, but a police state none the less.

Indeed, if you’re looking for a passionate, detailed, and much more accurate restrospective on the John era than historian CL manages with the handicap of his cognitive dissonance affliction, you’d be well advised to visit Andrew Bartlett’s blog. His post also links lots of other blog coverage of Bjelke-Petersen era.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2021 years ago

“wilful blindness towards the activities of Pol Pot as recently as 1979.”

This must be a typo. The Australian Left supported the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, and ouster of Pol Pot, on human rights grounds.

It was the Australian Right, not least including then Prime Minister Malcom Fraser, which opposed the Vietnamese aking this action.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

Dave,

You’re right. I should have typed 1978. And even there, I’m assuming Henderson is telling the truth (albeit selectively), which is a dangerous assumption indeed. Nevertheless, I’m sure someone will tell us if he’s bullshitting. In fact that was part of the purpose of the post.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

My aging memory has Nixon * Kissinger ousting Lon Nol (?) and thereby making the entry of Pol Pot inevitable.

Also wasn’t madman Pilger who brought the horrors of Pol Pot to the West?

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

Homer, what was going on in Cambodia was well known in the west from refugees who managed to escape. Pilger got in with a cameraman and came out with the pictures to prove it (some of the stories were almost too awful to believe, and many people doubted they could be true).

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

Lon Nol fled Phnom Penh on April 1 1975, just in front of the Khmer Rouge who took the city a couple of weeks later.

Khmer Rouge atrocities were well-documented well before Pol Pot took power. As Wikipedia puts it in it’s Cambodian Civil War entry: “In March 1974, they captured the city of Odongk north of Phnom Penh, destroyed it, dispersed its 20,000 inhabitants into the countryside, and executed the teachers and civil servants. The same year, they brutally murdered sixty people, including women and children, in a small village called Sar Sarsdam in Siemreab Province. A similar incident was reported at Ang Snuol, a town west of the capital. Other instances of what Donald Kirk, described as a “sweeping, almost cosmic policy” of indiscriminate terror, were recounted by refugees who fled to Phnom Penh or across the Thai border. Kirk contrasted this behavior with the Viet Cong’s use of “a modicum of care and precision” in applying terror in South Vietnam (for instance, assassination of landlords or of South Vietnamese officials). Atrocity stories, however, were considered to be anticommunist propaganda by many, if not most, Western journalists and other observers; nevertheless, Phnom Penh’s population swelled to as many as 2.5 million people as terrified refugees sought to escape not only the United States bombing and the ground fighting, but the harshness of life under the Angkar'”

Pilger didn’t arrive in Cambodia till 1979.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

Thanks Geoff.
My memory is that bad afterall.
I wasn’t saying Pilger said it all straight away but after he said it the ragometer went up.

derrida derider
derrida derider
2021 years ago

This stuff about Labor’s hostility to Indochinese refugees is itself a bit of selective memory. Whitlam made his shameful “Balts” ejaculation in response to some in his own Cabinet, which was divided on the issue. The Tories were pretty united on it – they didn’t want any gooks here, thank you very much. To his credit, Fraser changed that.

As for failure to believe the early stories about the Khmer Rouge, that was regrettable but understandable given the quantity of offical lying in these matters we’d been subjected to.

C.L.
2021 years ago

Derrida answers your question about the Iraq body count Ken: “understandable given the quantity of offical lying in these matters we’d been subjected to.”

And the ‘Tories’ re-engaged with Japan, and Asia more generally, well before the Labor Party. Indeed, it was the Liberals who abolished the White Australia Policy – long before that Mickey Rooney mafiosi Al Grassby tied his first Windsor knot. Unions are blocking the entry of Chinese workers to this day, in the great tradition of Labor’s Mongolian Octopus.

On Joh: well, better late to a topic than never Ken. And it’s good to see a lefty-blog picking up the old Hendo-bashing cliche! Everyone else has moved beyond columnist fixation, but anyway…

Now, see here: you should stick to the law because you don’t seem to understand what historians do. What we do is look at the whole context and the whole history. We don’t claim phenomena spontaneously emerged when, quite obviously, they didn’t. As most of the justifiably condemnatory analysis of Joh’s career revolves around the abuse of civil liberties, we have to understand the roots of that derangement. That’s not relativism, its historiography. Do you understand that?

Queensland would have been well served by an Upper House of review throughout those years when governance here was getting well beyond democratic accountability. Unfortunately, Labor had abolished it. (While the governor was out of the state). For years Labor also corrupted judicial appointments, as has been demonstrated by Queenslandist historians. Labor also inaugurated the gerrymander (more properly, the electoral malapportionment) which – in combination with unicameralism – constituted the institutional fuel for Joh’s own excesses, as well as the ultra vires cabalism into which his government plummeted.

New South Wales was far more corrupt than Queensland, despite your lame defence of good ol’ Nifty. (Apparently corruption is OK if the heel concerned is something higher on the leftist pecking order than a peanut farmer). No evidence of Big League-like connections between government, police and crims in New South Wales, eh? That’s pretty funny.

You’ve also ignored and deliberately kept from your readers the significant – indeed, definitely negative – conclusions I made about Joh’s nature and premiership. I think you’d call that “cognitive dissonance affliction.” I’d call it being a mendacious bullshit artist.

Of course, some things really are relative. Criticisms of electoral injustice, for example, from a Democrats senator elected with 9 per cent of the vote who used to feel no compunction about derailing a federal government’s mandated right to legislate. (And who made the ethically thuggish claim last year that the people’s decision on 9 October would lead to bloodshed).

By the way, are you somehow referring to the legalisation of brothels when you make mention of the “John era”? That’s an unclosed chapter y’know.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2021 years ago

It is just absurd to say that Wran’s government was more corrupt than Bjelke Petersen’s.

One Wran Minister was convicted and jailed for corruption. At least four Bjelke Petersen Ministers were jailed, would have been if they hadn’t died first, or hadn’t had a political ally on their jury.

Where CL may have a point is on the comparative corruptions of the two police forces. In terms of just being on the take, the NSW cops were probably worse. Where the Queensland cops were particularly, and perhaps uniqely, malign was the combination of their own corruption and their full integration into the National Party’s corruption and, to put in mildly, authoritarian tendencies. The criminal interests of the corrupt Queensland cops were fully aligned with the criminal interests of Bkelke Petersen’s corrupt ministers and the political interests of the National Party. The NSW cops were more apolitical. It was business as usual for them no matter who was in power.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

“You’ve also ignored and deliberately kept from your readers the significant – indeed, definitely negative – conclusions I made about Joh’s nature and premiership.”

I linked to your most recent post, which in turn linked to your earlier one. It was marginally more critical of Joh than your most recent effort, but only marginally. About the most trenchant criticism of the evil old rogue you managed was that he “behaved extremely foolishly towards 1970s Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod and self-indulgently accepted the treacherous electoral boundaries originally concocted by the Labor Party.”

I’m sure people can read for themselves, and I’m equally sure anyone who bothers will conclude as I did that your posts on Joh have little to do with “historiography”. They’re meek apologias for a politician who richly merits the infamy with which most people remember him.

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

I don’t think it was offical lying that was the problem, derrida. It was more that commentators and academics, etc. didn’t want or couldn’t bring themselves to believe the refugees’ stories. A common line at the time, as I recall, was that refugees could be expected to make up stories about atrocities in order to get asylum. There was also a degree of ideological resistance. Chomsky was an extreme example, but there were others.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

CL, you have your history wrong. The police force was really corrupt under Askin and Hanson.
Them were the days of Illegal gambling establishments , blonde bombshells giving out good free booze and you never left after winning a large pile.
The police force was corrupt under Wran but it was well down from the previous levels.
It wasn’t used for political purposes as it was in QLD but that may have been Lewis.

mark
2021 years ago

CL, you’re starting to sound a little like EP there. Ken dislikes Joh Bjelke-Peterson because he’s a lefty and Joh wasn’t? Nothing to do with the man being corrupt! Ken dislikes Gerard Henderson because he’s a lefty and Henderson isn’t? Nothing to do with the man being an ideological hack!

Dave, AIUI we have:
VIC – shoot first, ask questions as a last resort
NSW – the best police force money can buy

Obviously we need some saying for QLD!

I haven’t heard anything about cops in TAS, NT, WA or SA (ACT’s cop doesn’t rate a mention), perhaps someone could furnish a stereotype or two…

saint
saint
2021 years ago

I think the NZ police have just signed up for a new stereotype

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

typical Kiwis, head in the sand!

C.L.
2021 years ago

Mark: Whenever someone’s struggling at Troppo they make a comparison with Evil Pundit. It’s offensive to one of the sphere’s more intelligent and likeable personas, besides being a flacid, desperate and Godwin’s Law-like debating ploy.

To the extent that I understand your points, I’d just say that, actually, I didn’t particularly like Joh. A man more distant from my own culture would be hard to find. I always liked Gossie and voted for him when I could. There’s no way I’d vote non-Labor up here. Unfortunately, the Opposition in Queensland is a pathetic joke.

simon
simon
2021 years ago

My favourite topic. ;)

No it doesn’t look like we are rational beings, more likely we use something called bounded rationality or at least partly non-rational.

I wonder if the skills of looking at both sides of the story or being critical of your own perspective is more frequently found in those of those who have moderate views compared to the extremes?

The other bias that should be considered is social institutional bias. Many of the extreme GW sceptics/anti-environment advocates think that the whole environmental ‘doom on and gloom’ story is promoted by scientists and institutions who are so biased that their work contaminated by that bias.

It certainly seemed to happen in the 1920’s with race and eugenics so why not now?

Lastly -and this is my own idea- that there is a ethical bias which makes a person feel/judge that their moral position is rational and justified, often downplaying harms/negatives in their moral perspective while highlighting the harm done by others as an obvious reason why they are wrong or morally inferior. Combine that with cultural and attitudinal blind spots you can easily justify one act while condemning another that for all practical purposes is identical.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2021 years ago

Oppositions everywhere are usually pathetic jokes but that doesn’t mean you can’t vote for them.
They usually turn out better than you expect because they actually weren’t that pathetic.
Eg each time there has been a change of Government in Australia

C.L.
2021 years ago

Voting for Keith Wright rather than Joh could have been a bummer, though. Especially at the parliamentary creche. Silly Queenslanders.

Rafe
2021 years ago

Not disputing the stuff that Geoff took from Wikipedia but beware of the source because there is no checking of details and you can go in and change them yourself if you don’t like them (talk about rewriting history).
Someone put up a post on myself and other relatives, when they found out some went in and deleted or made major changes because they didn’t agree. Mine is ok but I just went in and made a couple of minor changes to convince myself that it can be done.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

I agree. With Wikipedia it’s always sensible to check out the references – with Google it’s not that difficult.

derrida derider
derrida derider
2021 years ago

“A common line at the time, as I recall, was that refugees could be expected to make up stories about atrocities in order to get asylum.”

Hmmm – I seem to recall that line being used rather more recently than during Pol Pot’s time, but not by lefties.

As for your belief that it wasn’t offical lies that caused the scepticism, you might recall that this was the era when the term ‘credibiliy gap’ was coined.

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

True enough, dd. To do credit to the left, though (why should I want to do that?) it may have also been due to the fact that some of the stories sounded as if thery came straight out of horror comics: killing all the teachers, killing anyone that wore glasses because they were ‘intellectuals’, etc. I think there was a certain amount of honest disbelief.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

derrida, in fact that was also the response of the US government, as Samantha Power documents extensively in her excellent book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”.

http://ksgfaculty.harvard.edu/Samantha_Power

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

Do you want to share a thumbnail sketch of what the author says about Cambodia, Mark? It’s not readily available from your link.

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

A quick google on Power indicates that her argument is that while the US government knew about genocides from the Armenian to the Rwandan, the US government chose not to take action in particular case because it was not deemed to be in the interests of the US government (and nation) to do so. That’s a fair point, but it neither equates to an argument that the government lied about what was going on, nor that there was not sufficient information in the public arena to alert the public to the seriousness of the situation in Cambodia – which was dismissed by people like Whitlam, if Henderson’s account is to be believed.

Apparently Power is now upset that her thesis is being used by those who defend the invasion of Iraq, on the grounds that what Saddam did to the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs was a form of genocide preventable by the US.

A quick google, as I say. I look forward to being better informed.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

I don’t really have time to go into further detail at the moment, Rob, and I read the book early last year, but my recollection is that she said that the US government was well informed about atrocities in Cambodia from a number of sources – Catholic priests, intelligence. Basically for reasons of state – maintaining a balance between Chinese and Russians, and an unwillingness to get involved in SE Asia so soon after the end of Vietnam – nothing was done. She also talks about how long the US and other Western governments continued to recognise the Pol Pot regime and support its continued seating as the representative of Cambodia at the UN.

As I remember it, it’s a very well written and exhaustively documented book. Won a Pulitzer, I think.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2021 years ago

“I look forward to being better informed.”

Our hopes and prayers are with you on this quest. But if you persist in looking at the world though left/right googles (a bit like those red/green 3-D paper spectacles) I think it’s unlikely you’ll end up being well informed by memorable standards.

But if yer already happy to know that what you know is right, then I’m surprised yer out looking for others who could question this. Maybe it’s some kinda kinky SM eschatogical shit yer into?

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

I’m not disputing that book was (is) a good one. I just don’t see what it’s got to do with ‘official lying’ about Cambodia which I took to be the point you were making in response to me and dd.

Why does Power assume it’s the US’ responsibility to sort these things out (Armenia -> Rwanda) – because it had the military power and no-one else did? The US tried that in Somalia, remember? Suppose the US had re-invaded South East Asia to prevent further KR atrocities – I hardly think the left or the anti-war movement would have approved. The left does not approve of the concept of the US as global policeman. Where was the much-vaunted UN? Why wasn’t it down to them?

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

That was a pretty stupid comment, Nabakov. Do have something intelligent to say about Cambodia?

“..some kinda kinky SM eschatogical shit..” sounds like it could be fun but it’s hardly the point.

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

“Do *you* have…..” that should have read.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Rob, this is the point. Who is the UN? It’s dominated in influence by the US – and in particular the Security Council.

The UN Convention on Genocide, whose lack of teeth is the topic of Power’s book provides that any state (in this case Vietnam would have been the obvious one) can act licitly when genocide is being committed. The US knew genocide was going on and actively sought to prevent the UN from defining the situation as such.

I hope that’s clear enough now.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2021 years ago

“That was a pretty stupid comment, Nabakov. ”

No need to be shy though Rob, about claiming credit for it’s inspiration.

“To do credit to the left, though (why should I want to do that?)”

Speaking as a very red-blooded capitalist, I’d say it’s overenthusastic and one-eyed little kerns and gallowglasses like you Rob that do more harm than good for our long term attitudinal change campaign.

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

Gallowglass? You flatter but to deceive, Nabakov.