Cognitive Dissonance

The Confederate Flag, Guns, and Cognitive Dissonance

Why do we have contradictory beliefs about the Confederate flag and guns?

Posted Jun 25, 2015

The mass murder at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, S.C. has raised numerous questions that Americans have either failed to recognize, or ignored, or repressed. What does the Confederate flag symbolize, why does it still wave? What does yet another act of terrorism with a gun tell us about cognitive dissonance about guns in our culture?

The Confederate flag is a symbol of home, family, and pride for many people. That does not mean, however, that it is not also a symbol of inhumanity, slavery, and segregation for most Americans. The failure to recognize that both sets of contradictory emotions co-exist is an example of cognitive dissonance.  Reducing complex issues to “either or thinking” ignores the complexity of reality and keeps the dispute alive rather than resolving it.

The belief that Southerners were fighting to defend their homes is an example of how half-truths are used by politicians to trick citizens into acting against their own best interests. The enduring toxicity of the half-truth is like radioactive decay—a long ongoing process.  Half-truths have such long lives because they make use of cognitive dissonance. They are by definition, half true as well as half false.

What are some of the cognitive dissonances Southerners face with respect to the Civil War? 1) In the South, the war is frequently referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression.” The South started the Civil War by firing on Fort Sumter. Who started the war is forgotten while Northern invasions necessary to end the war are not.  2) The South was fighting for states’ rights, not slavery. South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession notes that the Northern states were getting more and more hostile to slavery, northern states were interfering with the return of fugitive slaves, and New York state refused to allow slave owners to bring their slaves with the when they travelled to the Hamptons, or anywhere else in NY state. The SC Declaration of Secession also objected to northern states allowing blacks to vote and abolitionist societies to exist. Furthermore, the declaration of session demands that no state was to permit free assembly if the discussion threatened slavery. The SC Declaration of Secession makes it abundantly clear that from the very beginning, the Civil War was fought over slavery. Mississippi also made it clear that slavery was the issue, as did Georgia. (3) The Confederacy: The Confederacy was not united in its resistance against the Union. The state of West Virginia was formed by Appalachian Virginians who refused to fight for slavery and joined the Union as a new state in 1863. In addition, nearly a quarter of all Union armed forces came from the South.  4) The Confederate Flag. The confederate flag was redesigned several times. The flag most commonly used and recognized is not one of the three flags designed to represent the Confederate states, it is a “battle flag,” used by confederate army units—including Robert E. Lee’s.  Any flag representing the confederate states, however, represents “The Lost Cause”—i.e., an insurrection against the constitution of the U.S. Confederate flags disappeared from history until the civil rights movement. Recent pictures Of Dylan Roof, the shooter in Charleston, illustrate the symbolic importance of the flag—in one picture he holds the Confederate battle flag and his gun; and in another, he is burning the American flag. The Germans have dealt very differently with their problematic history by banning any display of the Nazi flag or the swastika. 

The argument about the display of the confederate battle flag is a sign that, perhaps, finally, the country is addressing some of its cognitive dissonance about the Civil War. We cannot display the battle flag of the Confederate Army and maintain that it is only a symbol of honor, pride, and love of country without simultaneously acknowledging that for millions of Americans it is also a symbol of slavery, inhumanity, segregation and repression. To have the courage to admit this cognitive dissonance requires the strength to admit wrong and to bear shame. Bearing shame requires courage. Americans proclaim loudly that we are “the home of the free and the brave.” Are we? Do we have the courage to admit that keeping the Confederate flag waving is offensive to millions of people not only here, but also across the entire planet? Recent events suggest that finally we are doing the right thing about the confederate battle flag—take it down. As Robert E. Lee said himself, "Madam, do not train up your children in hostilty to the government of the Unites States. Remember, we are all one country now. Dismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring them up to be Americans."

As far as guns are concerned, the US is steeped in cognitive dissonance. We live in a country that prides itself on law and order. However, once again, the nation faces the question of insufficient enforcement of gun laws that allow guns to be sold to individuals who should not have access to them either because of mental issues or police records—cognitive dissonance. These laws would be enforced if there were sufficient penalties for failing to enforce them—e.g., substantial fines and/or prison sentences, which would increase with the number of victims. Dylann Roof bought a gun despite the fact he was on probation—cognitive dissonance.  Every year 10,000 children are injured or killed in the US with guns—cognitive dissonance. Between 1963 and 2010, an estimated 166,500 children and teens died from guns on American soil, while 52,181 U.S. soldiers were killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars combined in the same period. Every year 100,000 people are shot in the US—cognitive dissonance. 

If a disease were causing this number of injuries and fatalities and nothing was being done to stop it, Americans would be in the streets protesting; government officials would be voted out of office; but because this is a gun issue, it isn’t dealt with—cognitive dissonance. The US Surgeon General was not confirmed for months because he referred to the US rates of gun violence as a public heath threat—cognitive dissonance. Atlanta has the same gun rate murder as South Africa, Chicago as Guyana, New York as Argentina, Baltimore as Guatemala, Miami as Columbia, Austin as Cambodia, Los Angeles as the Philippines, Minneapolis as Paraguay, Washington D.C. as Brazil, New Orleans as Honduras—many American cities are as unsafe as third word countries with drug wars—cognitive dissonance. And why aren’t there any European countries listed in this comparison? Because our firearm homicide rate is 6.6 times greater than that of Portugal, which is the highest of Western Europe. If you live in a big US city, or even in some states, you are not free from the fear of being shot—cognitive dissonance. While large numbers of US citizens are buying guns to protect themselves, we are killing ourselves and our kids in  by the hundreds of thousands with our guns—cognitive dissonance. When will enough be enough?