Reading Caroline Tully’s paper Researching the Past is a Foreign Country: Cognitive Dissonance as a Response by Practitioner Pagans to Academic Research on the History of Pagan Religions the other day, it got me thinking about the subject of “Cognitive Dissonance” generally and I quickly realised that it applies throughout the Occult, and is not just limited to neo-pagans experiencing problems with people looking a little too closely into the origins of their so-called “tradition.”
You can click on the above link to read a pdf copy of the paper but, as it is available for free, it is probably not worth doing so. *
It is not surprising that CD has general application in the occult, as the first academic to write about the subject did so after investigating the behaviour of a cult of whacked-out nutjobs. So here is my personal survey of topics generally covered under the CD-banner, with parallels drawn to the general magical community. See how many of these examples you can recognise from your own personal experience!
Effort-Justification, or: I belong to these weirdos why exactly?
A fairly well-known character on the occult scene, who is the head of an even more well-known magical order (amongst other things) once explained to a packed audience about how his organisation worked. For a start, he made sure that nobody joined the order until after they had jumped through hoops to do so. The explanation given was that this filtered out the time-wasters, making sure that only those properly suited to join would do so. He then admitted that, in his opinion, the study of magic would not necessarily make one a happier person.
Why then do people continue to belong to this magical order? It is what in CD-terms is known as “Effort-Justification” i.e. because they have gone to so much trouble to begin with – and perhaps they continue to go to trouble once in – they have to invent a reason in their own mind why it is worth it when the benefits are not discernible. By comparison with the example cited on the Wikipedia page, one may speculate that had the same magical order offered the exact same content, but not made the barriers to entry so high, the initiates would not enjoy remaining members as much, and would be more likely to leave.
We may laugh at the example given, but think for a moment: how many orders do you know that demand that their initiates work hard, but shy away from producing discernible results for their members? Given the fact that the bloke mentioned was so upfront and honest about his situation, I must assume that at least he was not being deliberately manipulative.
You’ve heard the story before. A cult-leader professes high moral values. The said cult-leader is exposed, quite often in a big-way. Do all of his followers desert him? Quite often, the answer is No - at least not all of them. Very often a hard-core of followers will deny the accusations, and quite possibly launch vehement ad hominem attacks on the people doing the exposing, accusing them of lying, having an agenda, etc, on the basis that because “Napoleon Is Always Right,” any evidence to the contrary must be false per se. An even harder-core of followers may go so far as to say that although the proscribed behaviour is wrong generally, it is right exclusively when Glorious Leader does it.
This type of thinking has been used in the world’s religions to justify things like genocidal massacres in the Abrahamic religions, to Tibetan Monks being absolved from quite brutal rape charges. Because the followers do not like to have their Belief Disconfirmed, they invent some convoluted reason to justify for their own minds why what is wrong is, in fact, right. It is also the reason why it is ultimately futile to discredit the leader of a magical order by showing that their claim to legitimacy is based on lies. One is never going to cause their order to collapse, and this being the case, there would be no point in me going to such effort, unless one liked bashing my head against a brick wall. Or of course one liked Blackmail for its own sake, as opposed to the money! (An example of Effort Justification, hehe ;-) ).
The Belief-Disconfirmation paradigm has wider application than just explaining why magicians put up with utter scoundrels running their magical orders. Take for example the line I wrote at the end of the section on Effort-Justification.
Given the fact that the bloke mentioned was so upfront and honest about his situation, I must assume that at least he was not being deliberately manipulative.
Thought: am I being objective, or am I making excuses for the fellow??? ;) On the other hand, there are other instances which I have observed in person and people talking about across the interwebby-type thing.
The classic example of Cognitive Dissonance was that of a UFO cult in the 1950s which had been expecting humanity to be wiped out on a certain date, with them as the sole survivors. Needless to say it did not happen. In response, the cult, instead of breaking up, convinced itself that the Aliens had deliberately spared Humanity in order to give it a second chance. The cult further decided that its new role was to spread their teachings to others, so in effect, their activity actually increased after their central Belief was Disconfirmed.
This is not just reserved to small cults: prior to the turn of the Millenium, the Y2K bug was supposedly a big-issue! When it did not happen, was it because the explanation that the computer boffins had done their job was true … or was it a case of Belief Disconfirmation? What indeed will people be saying when December 23rd 2012 comes and goes?
The unfortunate fact is that currently many magicians who ought to know better are disrupting their usual work by being overly concerned with the end of the world. The Mayan 2012 phenomenon may be a boon to new age publishers, but it is a complete pain in the arse to those who have to put up with the credulous.
Then again there is the phenomenon of prophecies which do not come true. I remember when I was a Kid, it was believed that Nostradamus’ reference to 1999 was thought to be to the end of the world. Post 1999, this all changed, with people explaining that the coming of the King of Terror did not refer to this at all. On a less spectacular scale, astrologers and tarot readers are everyday coming up with reasons why their predictions are not wrong just because they did not literally come true – and yet they still practice it. Cognitive Dissonance is causing them to accept shoddy quality in Divination, instead of challenging them to improve their skills.
Which leads on to:
Ah yes, the unfortunate moment when the hot chick refuses to get naked for you, even though Sitri promised that she would! If your experience of ceremonial magick is anything like mine, the results of your spell-workings will fall into one of three categories.
- A small number of spells which were spectacular successes;
- A large number of spells which had no discernible result;
- An even larger number of spells which had a result, but not necessarily the intended one.
Common sense ought to tell you that one should lump the third class in with the second, i.e. as failures, in order to learn and grow as a magician. Cognitive Dissonance, however, can cause some magicians either to lump the third class in with the first, i.e. as successes, or to invent a whole load of egregious reasons why the reason for the spell’s failure is not your fault.
Kids! The only way to improve as a magician is to take ownership of your failures – all of them. Ceremony disrupted by someone else? BULLSHIT! If you were a Master Magician, you ought to have prepared for that disruption and neutralised it. Stars against you? BULLSHIT! The whole point ofHermetic magic is that ultimately you can rise above the influence of the stars and planets! You are solely responsible for 100% of your failures, even the ones that seem to have been caused by someone or something else – because a Master Magician ought to be able to deal with that someone or something else.If you want to kid yourself otherwise, you are preparing for mediocrity. Conversely, when you do take ownership of your failures, only then can you rightly take credit for your successes.
* NB: This is a cognitive dissonance joke, if you hadn’t guessed. ;-)