The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 1, Issue No. 1 pages 14-19 (Winter 1999/2000)
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946

jclcover1.jpg (4845 bytes)

Learn more about subscribing to the print version

img6.jpg (8759 bytes)


Cultivating Dissonance:
An Approach for Cognitive Dissidents

By Wrye Sententia

He who cannot obey himself will be commanded.

“Liberty” is a historically vexed term. It has served as the slogan of the well-intentioned bourgeois revolutionary as much as it has bolstered the bad-faith rallying cry of oppressive regimes and gluttonous global marketeers. The sometimes adolescent, and embarrassingly naive perception of individual “freedom” in the US has become a quasi-mythical doctrine of national privilege voiced in a Bart Simpsonesque deaf-tone: “I can do what I want, it’s a free country.” Even if those with a well-tuned ear to the hard American earth hear the tremors of convulsed civil liberties daily trampled, the public perception remains, by and large, that one can think and act with limited interference. Thought policing in the sophisticated West-world we live in replaces the sovereignty of individual choice with unwitting conformity under the enduring ruse of a rugged (even radical) individualism. Cognitive liberty, the right to control your own thoughts in all contexts, calls for a defense of freedom not as a means to dominate nature or fellow (wo)man, but as a means to facilitate understanding of beliefs and opinions that go against the grain. By focusing on “cognitive liberty,” we seek to refine the concept of what it means to think freely, while at the same time, vigilantly assert and defend the social conditions needed to do so.

Although to some it might seem a virtual luxury to focus on “freedom of thought” while so many suffer under daily realities of physical recrimination, poverty, and exploitation, many of these oppressive social conditions are system-looped consequences of manacled minds. The conditions of suffering real bodies are enmeshed with the machinations of institutional, ideological, and linguistic apparatuses that effectively “cog” our ability to think. Any number of knowledge processes are confined in a “free” society through established behavioral norms (self-policing), education (socialization), and legislation (juridical restriction). It follows that these normative restrictions affect the general social climate, regulating attitudes and beliefs through categorical assumptions passed on as cultural artifact. What are the perceptual restraints that limit the possibilities to think (more) freely in our indelibly hallmarked “free country?” How can we, as thought-full individuals, encourage approaches that will actualize a greater social harmony without replacing one set of restrictive ideological parameters by another of our own predilection?

Linguistic and social theorists, Freudians, Marxists, and all their concomitant theoretical post-hybrids, have delved deeply into what shapes the control mechanisms of human interaction and what orients our conduct. Invariably, the issue of the self in society centers on what you know or understand, on one’s mobius strip of consciousness and bodily knowledge, on what is ultimately, perception of the world. William Blake’s well-known prophesy of liberation, “if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite,”1 suggests the ideal of limitless prospects in thought. Those whose consciousness has benefited from radically alternative perceptive states (entheogen-induced or otherwise) understand what Blake is talking about. With an enhanced understanding of self and others, one can positively incorporate a liberatory epistemology into daily praxis. But what about those for whom sublime disorientation of self in the world doesn’t translate as enhanced freedom, but threat?

Clean Cognitive Conformity

In the 1930s, the doctrine of “mental hygiene” was seriously cultivated in public schools and taught in college to prospective teachers as a way to enhance socialization that would “help” the “difficult” child become socially “well-adjusted.”2 The transparent move to progressively sanitize thinking began as an Orwellian truth in the 1930s USA: “An individual who is to be happy and contented as a child and able to take his place as a well-adapted member of society must also acquire certain habits of conduct and thinking.”3 Under the banner of a scientific, systematized protection of the individual (she will be happier and more productive if she doesn’t feel different from her peers), nascent forays into the social psychology of “mental hygiene” betrayed a moral interpretation of behavior which, not surprisingly, strove to ensure social cohesion by manipulating the behavior and thoughts of the individual it claimed to benefit. The legacy of this puritanical penchant for the (perceived) cleanly in thought and in deed continues today in multiple contexts, (explicit in Jean Baudrillard’s hyperbolic praise “America, where even the garbage is clean”).

Power notoriously manifests itself against resistances, against the perennial “unclean.” Writing on the encroaching reach of state control over “delinquent” and “unsocializable” children, John Zerzan cites the 1982 prophesy of psychologists Castel and Lovell who anticipate the day (with glee?) “when childhood will be totally regimented by medicine and psychology.”4 Systems of behavioral control that regulate society through a coerced “freedom to” are just as bad as moralizing legislation that claims to protect through a “freedom from.”5 It is not much of an exaggeration to say that in certain civil liberty contexts the legitimization of state control in medicine, education, and the law continues today to be justified as “benevolent” acts of paternalistic protection—for society, from ourselves.

Dirty Dissonance

While the hypocrisy of indirect behavior modification may be less of a secret in today’s classroom, the undergirding assumptions for the necessarily positive values of “hygienic” mental adjustments re-emerge in discussions of cognitive dissonance theory. In today’s psychological terms, cognitive dissonance is a negative value, a point of contradiction that calls for a suturing of frayed realities in order to resolve perceived contradictions. Elliot Aronson explains that dissonance occurs “whenever an individual simultaneously holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions), that are psychologically inconsistent.”6 The classic example is that of a smoker who learns that cigarette smoking is bad for her health, and consequently either stops smoking (increasing consonance) or creates new beliefs that reduce the idea that smoking is harmful (decreasing dissonance).7 In either case, resolution means reducing multiplicity. This is the basis for Leon Festinger’s foundational theory in social psychology. He posits that because dissonance is psychologically uncomfortable, a person is motivated to reduce it and hence avoid, discount, or modify information likely to increase incongruity. The greater the magnitude of dissonance, the greater the pressure to reduce it.

Consonance, toward which our order compulsion tends, is really then, a falsified position of security based on that which can be rationalized, or logically explained in a self-serving way. This outcome is necessarily, according to dissonance theory, a truncated truth—fabricated from a semi-conscious desire for consistency. Much work in psychology has elaborated the theory of cognitive dissonance. But most of this experimental work, as I understand it, addresses more why cognitive dissonance occurs and how it is overcome, rather than whether or not we can (and should) cultivate dissonance as a praxis. Because disconsonant beliefs can trigger self-reflection, they are a powerful starting point to heightened social awareness and political agency.


At the December 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) Summit in Seattle, Washington, diversely motivated protesters rallied to express their outrage at the self-proclaimed legitimacy of the WTO, which claims its own high-stakes authority as a “necessity” for “free trade.” Within the globally-groping purview of this self-appointed regulatory power, cognitive liberty is already being harnessed in a world-wide economic arena. With what they call “TRIPS” (the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement, the WTO has taken upon itself the international regulation of “intellectual property” of indigenous peoples through the patenting of their knowledge, their seeds. “[TRIPS] consolidates the power of Western drug and biotech corporations, as they appropriate traditional knowledge that previously had been commonly held and exercise monopoly control over any new extensions to that knowledge.”8 Not surprisingly, this ruling favors Northern nations over Southern nations with fewer resources, and presumably less WTO clout.9 By targeting the WTO’s dubious claims to “non-discriminatory,” “free” world-trade, protesting activists drew attention to the dissembled gaps (in labor laws, public health and environmental concerns) that characterize this world trade organization’s all-too-hygienic rationale and unprecedented usurpation of global sovereignty. Despite media constraints, the protesters succeeded in exposing what I call the WTO’s occluded social dissonance—a collective cognitive dissonance—which the WTO attempts to assuage through a rhetoric of enhanced economic expansion. Where normative practices and regulatory procedures belie sutured inconsistencies in touted claims of ethics and justice, the social system dissimulates its dissonance. In short, to short-circuit the self-serving lies of a “well-adjusted” social system (and its increasingly global mechanisms), we must first refuse the pedestrian conformity (even in our own thought processes) that locks the social system and us, in place.

From Dissonance to Dissidents

The dissident’s historical role has been to deroutinize thought in the interest of metamorphic social change—from this, to that—particular set of “freedoms.” Cognitive liberty, as I see it, is not a metamorphic, but an ongoing heteromorphic process, contingent on a relentless re-vamping of diverse patterns. To promote autonomous thinking in ourselves and others calls for a deliberate flouting of totalizing gestures in thought and practice, or as Georges Bataille calls it, thinking “in perpetual rebellion against itself.”10 In his preface to Declaration of a Heretic (1985), Jeremy Rifkin has expressed the hope that the next generation will come to see that human consciousness is capable of choosing from an array of approaches to knowledge, an array of possible futures. “We stifle freedom of inquiry” he writes, “and undermine the great potential of human consciousness only when we steadfastly refuse to entertain new ways of re-imagining our world.”11 By cultivating and promoting enantiomorphic self-reflection, we can push toward a more ethically viable social reality, to far more multifaceted freedoms.


1 William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 14.

2 See, for example, Percival M. Symonds, Mental Hygiene of the School Child (New York: Macmillion, 1935).

3 Ibid., 1.

4 John Zerzan, Future Primitive (Autonomedia & Anarchy Series: Anti-copyright, 1994).

5 See Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, for a fictional account of such coercive legislation in a dystopic USA run by religious fundamentalists (Boston: Hougton Mifflin, 1986).

6 Elliot Aronson, The Social Animal (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1988), 116.

7 As with all accruing theoretical systems, there are subtleties in how psychologists conceive of this process of dissonance reduction. I have deliberately limited my discussion to the two most conceptually accessible forms for the purposes of a generalized argument. For further explanation and an overview of experimental trends in this area, consult Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology, eds. Eddie Harmon-Jones and Judson Mills (Washington: APA, 1999).

8 Stephanie Guiloud and Chris Dixion, “What is the WTO?” ( [Accessed: 22 December, 1999].

9 For details on the flaws in the decision making process/power of WTO see Giloud and Dixion above. The WTO’s own description of TRIPS suggests such inequities: “Special transition arrangements operate in the situation where a developing country does not presently provide product patent protection in the area of pharmaceuticals.” “[WTO on] Intellectual Property” (www.wto.orgtellec/intell2.htm) [Accessed: 10 January, 2000].

10 Georges Bataille, “Un-knowing and Rebellion,” in The Bataille Reader, eds. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 327.

11 Jeremy Rifkin, Declaration of a Heretic (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), x.

Wrye Sententia is the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethic's Director of Operations. She is a Ph.D. candidate in English, with an MA is Comparative Literature. Her academic work focuses on utopian literature and theory.