12 March 2012

Cognitive Dissonance

Except we are hypocrites – we have always accepted domination, and pretended otherwise. This can be seen in how we relate to city police. Citizens pretend they control police, by electing mayors etc., and using laws to constrain their behavior. But citizens don’t notice or care that police are put mostly in charge of measuring their own performance, and of policing their own cheating. The predictable result is that police cheat and mis-measure their performance, and stand free to punish those who challenge them.
I was ticketed for speeding this morning, while on my way to church.  After getting over my anger, I spent a good portion of the day contemplating the broader social lessons to be learned from this experience.  One thing that occurred to me was how hypocritical we are when it comes to the matter of traffic laws, and more generally the police.

If you were in a room full of people and asked everyone who enjoyed being ticketed by cops to raise their hand, I doubt that you would get any takers.  Similarly, if you ask a room full of cops to raise their hand if they like pulling people over and ticketing them, I doubt you would get many takers, aside from a couple of sadists.  In short, no one likes getting tickets and, if my uncle and the handful of police officers I’ve talked to on this subject are any indication, no cop likes giving out tickets either.  Thus, the system is broken.

But why?  I believe the answer is simple:  schadenfreude. Quite simply, humans like to see other humans get their comeuppance, especially over perceived slights, like not following the rules.  The fact is, though, that none of us follow the rules.  We all speed, we never come to a complete stop at empty four-way stops, we occasionally cross over the lines, ignore safety warnings, we drive cars that aren’t up to safety regulations, etc.  And we can always justify doing so.  We each inherently recognize that speed limits are often pure nonsense, and generally irrelevant to the conditions at hand.*  We recognize that many rules are irrelevant in times of light traffic or clear conditions.  We know that most of the time, our behavior does not pose any harm to any other driver, and doesn’t even pose that much harm to ourselves.  We know this.

Yet, I would bet that most people would shudder at the thought of abolishing traffic laws (most conservatives to whom I’ve personally proposed this idea have done exactly that).  Sure, our driving can be trusted.  But it’s those other people you’ve got to watch out for.  We always have a logical reason for violating traffic laws, but other people do not.  We’re each above average drivers; it’s everyone else who’s an idiot.  Of course, we can’t all be right about this.  But, it’s amazing how we always want freedom for ourselves, but not for anyone else.  After all, we can handle it and they can’t.

The hypocrisy of this mindset is seen in its argumentation.  In the first place, everyone claims that driving is dangerous, which can only be proven on historical grounds (i.e. you have to define dangerous, then collect data that would support your claim).  What’s ignored is that driving is dangerous even when there are traffic laws in place.  In other words, traffic laws, in and of themselves, do not make driving absolutely safe.  Yet, the argument is made that we can’t abolish traffic laws else wise there will be no way to control the idiots on the road.  The observable reality, though, is that there is no practical way to control the idiots on the road.  Laws do not work, in an absolute sense (or relative one, for that matter).  And if you’re always going to have idiots causing wrecks and ruining others’ property, why bother with subjecting yourself to traffic laws?  They don’t make driving safe, in an absolute sense, and provide an inconvenience to you.

The cognitive dissonance, then, is this:  “we need traffic laws because everyone is an idiot, except for me.”  This is why we love traffic laws but hate getting pulled over.  The mere existence of traffic laws helps to convince us that there are terrible drivers out there, hence the laws.  We hate getting pulled over, though, because that forces us to confront out own cognitive dissonance:  either we are idiots, like all the other people to whom the laws apply, or everyone else are not actually idiots.  We are hypocrites of the worst order, in this regards, because we so desperately want to feel superior that we will lie to ourselves and impose upon ourselves a system that can only bring misery to everyone.

Fortunately, though, the system itself provides its own punishment for hypocrisy.  Namely, that the jackasses who support traffic laws are routinely subjected to them.  It makes them angry, but they would never in a million years ever consider getting rid of it, for then they would no longer feel superior.  And so, when they get pulled over, they reside in a hell of their own making, which, incidentally, makes me feel schadenfreude.

* For example, most speed limits are simply too low, as a good portion of highway speed minimums are higher than the posted speed limit.  From my personal experience, virtually all roads have speed limits that are too low for road quality and general vehicle quality. See here.

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