The Future of History

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Cognitive Dissonance

If history has taught us anything, it's that making predictions is a bit of a fool's game.  But there's one prediction that, I think, can be made.  Change is coming.  This century will not look very much like the last one.  And that, for some people at least, is a problem.  Some people do not handle change, or the prospect of change, very well at all.

Take one of the most pressing and urgent issues facing humanity: climate change. Contrary to what some people would have you believe, there is little or no disagreement among scientists that climate change is happening and that mankind's activities are largely to blame.  However, some people see the implications of this as an infringement of their personal liberties, their beliefs in the infallability of the free market, their 20th century convictions.  The scientific data comes as a threat to their beliefs, their worldview.

When evidence, or data, or a theory, or a new idea comes along that challenges your deeply held convictions, you tend to experience something called "cognitive dissonance".  It's basically the inability to hold two opposing views at once.  There's your settled worldview, and then there's the new information.  You can't accept both (they're mutually contradictory), so you attack the new information.  And its source.  You make out that the scientists are in disagreement with each other, when they're not.  And then you reject science altogether.  You make faith the cornerstone of your thinking and reject all the evidence which shows your faith to be misplaced.

The problem is exacerbated by a trend that has been apparent over the past few decades.  It can best be described, perhaps, as a shift to the right (politically speaking).  One of the results of this shift is explored in a new independent movie, Compliance.  Basically, many people have been all too willingly placing far too much unquestioning faith in authority.  We have all been following unworthy leaders without daring to question what they say.

The institutions which should be challenging political authority - namely, the media (i.e. journalists) and academia - have failed to do so.  This is partly because success in those fields has come to be reliant on a willingness to comply, to conform, to accept and repeat hand-me-down beliefs.  Those academics and journalists who should have been questioning a rather threadbare and faith-based political philosophy have themselves been caught up in that same philosophy.  They cannot question, because they have been imposing their own belief systems on the students and readers, and demanding that those same students and readers comply and conform.

With regard to my recently published book about the historical Arthur - The King Arthur Conspiracy (published by The History Press) - it has been interesting to note that the most positive feedback has come from educated readers and academics who haven't subscribed to some formulaic notions along the lines of a consensus.  The most savage attacks have come from those who fear to question the consensus which has built up over recent decades (in line with the general shift in the direction of reactionary thinking and compliance with authority figures).

Or, if you prefer, the free-thinkers like the book.  Some of them love it.  But those who are trammelled in their thinking, and who cannot adjust to new information, have attempted to undermine it.  That is, they have experienced cognitive dissonance (information and ideas which do not square with their preconceived notions) and so they fight back, dismissing the message and vilifying the messenger.  Unsurprisingly, most of these readers subscribe to a rather imperialistic notion of King Arthur and resent the very idea that he might have been of Scottish descent.  There have even been veiled suggestions that The King Arthur Conspiracy was written purely to cash in on the debate surrounding Scottish independence - a suggestion which reveals the latent nationalism behind the 'consensus' view of Arthur.

The same problems hover around William Shakespeare.  Back in the 19th century, there was a great deal of scholarly interest in a death mask which was believed to be of Shakespeare:

The current consensus in Shakespearean circles, however, is that it is not Shakespeare's death mask.  The leading British authority on Shakespeare is usually pretty scathing of any suggestion that it might have been.  The thinking here seems to be something along the lines of: "If the death mask was Shakespeare's, I would be interested in it.  But I'm not interested in it, so it can't be of Shakespeare."

The death mask has been in Darmstadt, Germany, for many decades now, British interest in the mask seemingly vanishing at around the time of the first World War.

But, as I explain in my next book, minutely detailed scrutiny of the death mask and various acknowledged portraits of Shakespeare reveals something very interesting.  The chances of the death mask NOT being of Shakespeare are miniscule.  There are, quite simply, far too many unusual correspondences, too many unique features in common, for it to have been anybody else's.  To put it simply, this is the death mask made of William Shakespeare in 1616.  So why does the country's leading authority on all things Shakespearean reject the very possibility that it might be?

It's that same old problem of cognitive dissonance.  During a period of right-wing political retrenchment, of reactionary thinking, faith-based certainties and authoritarian judgements, an academic consensus surrounding Shakespeare has emerged (in its way, it's not too dissimilar to the nonsensical scholarly consensus surrounding Arthur).  Because the death mask does not fit into the model of Shakespeare that these academics have developed, embraced, and sought to impose on students and readers, then the death mask has to be rejected.  A proper study of the death mask would prove that it is almost certainly Shakespeare.  But the leading academics of the past few years don't like that idea, so it is consigned to oblivion.

Unfortunately - as with Arthur - this means rejecting all sorts of evidence out of hand and mercilessly abusing those who find such evidence.  The academics, you see, have spoken.  Arthur could not have been Artuir mac Aedain; the death mask cannot have been Shakespeare's.  These standpoints fit comfortably in with the current academic consensus (that is, voicing them means that you stay on the right side of the bigger boys, and don't face the wrath of the authoritarians), but they do nothing whatever for our understanding of Arthur or Shakespeare.

Part of the change that is coming, then, is that the intolerant academics who have dominated their fields for so long will be toppled.  Their beliefs - which they have insisted on everybody else paying lip service to - cannot be sustained in the face of the evidence.

But they'll fight tooth and nail, all the way.  Because for them - as with the climate change sceptics - it's not a matter of evidence.  It's all about belief.

No comments:

Post a Comment