A Texas Republican, using my least favorite rationalization (#22. Comparative Virtue, or “It’s not the worst thing”) to excuse the party’s intentionally insulting anti-gay platform, could argue, “Hey! At least we don’t want gays to be stoned to death!”
In a Facebook exchange last year, Esk indeed endorsed, without espousing, killing gays:
“That [stoning gay people to death] goes against some parts of libertarianism, I realize, and I’m largely libertarian, but ignoring as a nation things that are worthy of death is very remiss…I never said I would author legislation to put homosexuals to death, but I didn’t have a problem with it.”
Contacted by Oklahoma magazine to clarify his remarks, Esk did indeed, saying:
“That was done in the Old Testament under a law that came directly from God and in that time there it was totally just. It came directly from God. I have no plans to reinstitute that in Oklahoma law. I do have some very huge moral misgivings about those kinds of sins…I know what was done in the Old Testament and what was done back then was what’s just. … And I do stand for Biblical morality.”
Before going further, I have to give Esk integrity points for not claiming that he was taken out of context or misunderstood. He was honest, he accepted responsibility for his words, and he didn’t try to “walk back” his statement, as is the current fashion among all the Washington politicians we should not trust. His courage and candor are admirable.
If only he weren’t a hateful, ignorant fool.
Candidates, leaders and spokespersons like Esk are why the Tea Party may never be more than a fringe movement. A responsible, thoughtful, respectable political group would immediately drum out someone like Esk, rejecting his irrational, ugly and violent hostility to gays in unequivocal terms, just as it should convincingly condemn the racists and Neanderthal sexists in their midst. Because they don’t and won’t, however, the Tea Party, and if it doesn’t watch out, the Republican Party, will be doomed by a powerful phenomenon it obviously doesn’t understand: Cognitive Dissonance.
As psychologist Leon Festinger showed a half a century ago, we form our likes, dislikes, opinions and beliefs to a great extent based on our subconscious reactions to who and what they are connected with and associated to. This is, to a considerable extent, why leaders and celebrities are such powerful influences on society. It explains why we tend to adopt the values of our parents, and it largely explains many marketing and advertising techniques that manipulate our desires and preferences. Simply put, if someone we admire adopts a position or endorses a product, person or idea, he or she will naturally raise it in our estimation. If however, that position, product, person or idea is already extremely low in our esteem, even though his endorsement might raise it, even substantially, his own status will suffer, and fall. He will slide down the admiration scale, even if that which he endorses rises. If what the individual endorses is sufficiently deplored, it might even wipe out his positive standing entirely.
The implications of this phenomenon are many and varied, and sometimes complex. If a popular and admired politician espouses a policy, many will assume the policy is wise simply because he supports it. If an unpopular fool then argues passionately for the same policy, Festinger’s theory tells us, it might..
1. Raise the fool’s popularity, if the policy is sufficiently popular.
2. Lower support for the policy, if he is sufficiently reviled, and even
3. Lower the popularity of the admired politician, who will suffer for being associated with an idea that had been embraced by a despised dolt.
This subconscious shifting, said Festinger, goes on constantly, effecting everything from what movies we like to the clothes we wear to how we vote.
Here is a simple version of Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Scale:
Now imagine that a moderate Republican–let’s call him Rocky— rates the party at around +7 on the scale—a good positive rating. Then he finds out that the Republican party has a candidate running under its banner who is on record as believing that stoning gays to death is the right thing to do. This opinion is anathema to his concept of reason and fairness, so much so that it is literally off the charts—a minus 15 or 20 or even a hundred. Festinger’s theory tells us that Rocky will be simply incapable of simultaneously holding the GOP at a +7 while the GOP is sponsoring a candidate who holds a view that is so deep into negative territory. Rocky’s cognitive dissonance must be resolved, and the way it is likely to be resolved is for the Republican Party to be pulled down on his subconscious scale, probably below zero.
There are sometimes other ways of dealing with dissonance. President Obama’s supporters who are disappointed and even personally harmed by Obamacare may try to keep their hero high on their scales by disassociating him from the negative connection that would otherwise force them to lower his score. Thus they convince themselves that an agent with a low score—the Republican House—is really responsible for the fiasco. Now a low rated agent, not Obama, is attached to the health care law. This means that both Obamacare and the GOP can stay in negative numbers—no dissonance there!—while the President stays high.
A reader asked me off site whether it was ethical for the media to highlight dumb and offensive quotes by state legislators, the most flagrantly idiotic of which do seem to be Republicans. My view: sure it is. The media does this, without knowing the technical process, to lower the Cognitive Dissonance score of the Republican Party…reporters also tend to try to keep Democratic party scores high by somehow forgetting to mention the party affiliation of corrupt, criminal or embarrassing Democratic politicians, like Ray Nagin, Bob Filner and others whenever they can get away with it. Never mind journalists’ bias and motives, however: parties deserve to fall down the scale when they allow racists, bigots, ignoramuses, bullies or dimwits to represent them. And if a party is too insensitive, mean-spirited and stupid to realize that good, fair Americans don’t want to be associated with groups that allow candidates like Scott Esk to be associated with them, it deserves everything Cognitive Dissonance has in store for it.