Cognitive dissonance

In Black Female Voices: A public dialogue between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry, Harris-Perry noted that being a black woman in the US means experiencing continual cognitive dissonance. The way society tells us the world works does not match up with black women’s actual experiences, and this dissonance can be painful and emotionally draining.

Sara Salem, in her article The feminist bubble, described her frustration at trying to get beyond just critiquing white feminism, in order to build transnational feminist solidarity. Salem explained that white feminism doesn’t refer to all white women who are feminists, and in fact it can include people who aren’t white; white feminism is feminism that focuses on the concerns of white women, especially white, middle-class, western women. It doesn’t focus on issues such as race, class, neoliberalism, or imperialism. White feminism says: “Let’s make women equal to men, but keep everything else the same.” According to Salem, white feminism has been thoroughly analysed, explained, and deconstructed, but this knowledge only exists within a particular bubble of activists and scholars; it has not become part of mainstream feminism.

Reading Salem’s article, I think part of the reason that mainstream feminism has resisted critiques of white feminism is that these critiques bring into question a lot of very basic unspoken assumptions about how the world works.

(I tried to think of some of these assumptions these are what I came up with:

– The idea that the police are trustworthy and do not abuse their power.

– The idea that racism in our society is the exception and not the rule, that a person who has good intentions and doesn’t mean to be racist, cannot possibly be racist.

– The idea that having a job is liberating, and that women who do unpaid caring work, domestic work or sustenance farming work are oppressed.

– The idea that women’s liberation includes having more women in high-profile jobs that give them a large amount of power over others.

I’m sure that there are many more that I haven’t thought of – that’s the problem with basic, unspoken assumptions – most of the time, you don’t know that you have them :)

We’re living in a time of rapid social, political, and economic change. Even the climate is changing. In 10 or 20 years, many of the things we take for granted now will have become just a quaint memory, and we’ll live in a world for which our lives thus far have not prepared us (just as, for example, my childhood in the 80s and 90s did nothing to prepare me for using the Internet).

Rapid, fundamental change is guaranteed to bring cognitive dissonance. We shrink away from the pain and discomfort that comes from recognizing that our worldview is partial, fragmented, contradictory, and flawed. However when we shrink away from the pain of cognitive dissonance, we miss the chance to take onboard new information that could help us gain a fuller, truer picture of the world we live in. Perhaps ironically, facing up to the flaws and contradictions in your worldview is a necessary step in the process of making sense of the world. It seems to me that, from the point of view of a relatively privileged person, part of the task of building the kind of transnational solidarity that Salem wrote about is to hear the stories and experiences of people whose lives are very different from our own, even if this means we must willingly go through the pain that comes with cognitive dissonance.