“You can observe a lot just by watching.” — Yogi Berra
Cognitive dissonance is, like “cellar door,” a lovely linguistic dyad. The words trip sweetly off the tongue, yet lose a lot in translation.
To open the cellar door (particularly if you live in a dilapidated Westside Victorian) is to descend into a dark and disorderly realm filled with dusty boxes of junk.
Cognitive dissonance keeps us from opening the door, looking at the junk with new eyes and tossing it out.
The phrase was coined by Leon Festinger in his 1956 book “When Prophecy Fails,” which examined the followers of an apocalyptic cult when the world failed to come to an end. It’s defined as the “feeling of discomfort when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs or values.”
You may have a basement full of useless junk, yet believe that you’re not a hoarder. You may have a head full of absurd, contradictory ideas, yet believe that you’re a rational person.
What do you do?
You can admit error and move on, or you can continue to float serenely down your favorite river — denial.
It may be uncomfortable to hold multiple conflicting beliefs, but building a whole new belief system is even more uncomfortable.
That’s why otherwise sensible Republicans claim not to believe in global warming or evolution, while steadfastly asserting that nothing makes a house safer than an assault weapon or two. That’s why Mitt Romney ran against his own record, and why Bill Clinton still believes he didn’t have sex with that woman.
Here in Colorado Springs, cognitive dissonance isn’t just an obscure psychological phenomenon, but the best way of describing the thought processes of those who lead us or aspire to do so.
They’ve never listened to Yogi. They watch, but they don’t observe. They remember our city’s glory days — the extraordinary population growth through the second half of the 20th century, the boom in high-tech manufacturing, the flowering of religious nonprofits, the steady growth of the military — and cling to the past.
Gay-friendly young professionals? A passing fad — those young people will come to their senses! Massive investment in downtown renovation? Another fad — all downtown needs is more parking!
Get rid of Martin Drake Power Plant? Delusional thinking! Raise taxes? Absolutely no way — we need to be the most business-friendly city in the country, with low taxes, minimal regulation and cheap utilities.
These truths are self-evident. We’re Colorado Springs, and our way is the best way.
Maybe so, but let’s look at some figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Unemployment rates, December 2012, selected Colorado metropolitan areas (not seasonally adjusted):
Colorado Springs, 8.8 percent;
Boulder, 5.5 percent;
Denver/Aurora/Broomfield, 7.4 percent;
Fort Collins/Loveland, 5.9 percent;
Greeley, 8.4 percent;
Pueblo, 10.5 percent;
Grand Junction, 8.6 percent.
We’re bouncing along near the bottom. We have a stagnant employment base, declining air traffic, 25 years of deferred public infrastructure investment, and a conservative leadership class.
Our principal asset may be an aging billionaire now focused on getting a National Football League team to move to Los Angeles. We’re a city that openly yearns for the noise, smell and environmental disruption of the oil and gas industry, apparently ready to sacrifice clean mountain air for the sulfurous tang of volatile hydrocarbons.
What about Fort Collins, Denver and Boulder? Their residents are everything we’re not — more youthful, exuberant, welcoming, innovative and ready to invest in their cities. They’re not prisoners of the past, but explorers of the future. They’re busy creating 21st century cities, not age-in-place nursing homes for cranky Baby Boomers.
We recycle the past. We’re busy devising plans to attract 20th century tourists, Mom & Dad & Buddy & Sis, eager to see the USA in their Chevrolet. We have no idea how to attract and retain smart young people. We listen to the hopeful jock worshippers who think that hordes would flock to an Olympic Hall of Fame/Wall of Fame. Talk about recycled ideas — that one was first proposed for a site on the Banning Lewis Ranch more than 25 years ago!
New leadership won’t solve our problems. We need therapeutic intervention on a city-wide scale. Or we can follow the path of least resistance and ignore the lessons of reality.
“If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.” — Yogi Berra