Octavia Nasr, a CNN editor and reporter for two decades, just got her walking papers for a 140-character tweet reading, “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” The problem is that this particular “giant” was an anti-American, anti-Israeli terrorist who advocated suicide bombings and who encouraged terrorist acts by Hezbollah. In an explanatory blog post that failed to save her job, Nasr blamed the limitations of Twitter, and explained that she didn’t really admire him, just his stance against the abuse of Muslim women.
Maybe. When you say you respect a terrorist, it is hard to argue that you really meant that you admire his cooking skills, or liked his position on global warming. This is the peril of the cognitive dissonance process, which makes it hard to admire one aspect of someone’s life or character without letting that admiration moderate a negative opinion of the individual as a whole. [You can read about how the process works in this earlier Ethics Alarms Post.] The same forces work in reverse: if you detest one thing a person has done, it is difficult to hold on to your admiration of the rest of him. Clarence Darrow said, “Hate the sin, never the sinner,” but that’s easier said than done.
It is likely that Nasr’s admiration for the late cleric’s stand on a topic she felt deeply about did cause her to respect and admire him. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that this might well make her less disapproving, not only of him, but of the other things he stood for, or, perhaps, the fact that she didn’t feel especially strongly about his anti-Israel and anti-American positions made it possible for her to admire him for his stance against violence against women. In either case, it seems likely that she really did admire him, and that her blog post came from her head, not her heart.
The tweet, however, proved that she was conflicted, and that her objectivity regarding the Middle East could no longer be assumed or trusted. As an editor for CNN, she would therefore make CNN less trustworthy. She had to go.
Cognitive dissonance can alter our opinions and attitudes without our realizing it, which is why it is an essential tool of leadership, advertising, marketing, politics, propaganda, brain-washing and indoctrination. What happened to Octavia Nasr could happen to any of us.
In fact, it probably has already.