On being … severe cognitive dissonance

By Ingrid Sapona

I never took psychology in school and I remember that when I first heard the term “cognitive dissonance”, I didn’t know what it meant, so I looked it up. (It might well have been before Google and certainly before Wikipedia.) Even after doing so, I didn’t understand it. I knew it had something to do with holding contradictory ideas in your mind at one time. I found that puzzling because we all hold dozens of ideas in our minds at the same time, and many of them are contradictory.

But, the past couple weeks I’ve come to understand what cognitive dissonance means because I’ve started experiencing it. Sadly, my understanding came because of the news related to someone I had long-revered: Charlie Rose.

Before I go on, for those of you who need a Psych 101 refresher, here’s a brief description of the term from Wikipedia:

In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is a consequence of a person performing an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values; and also occurs when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.

For years I’ve been a huge fan of Charlie Rose. I found him to be the best interviewer, bar none, on t.v. His breadth of knowledge was remarkable. Even more amazing, however, was his curiosity. His interest in all sorts of things served as a model for anyone who aspired to try to understand the wider world. I had no doubt that his manner and style played a big role in getting all sorts of guests to open up in ways few other interviewers can. His technique was disarmingly simple: engage guests in wide-ranging, meaningful conversation. He did this by showing interest in them – which always felt very genuine – and what they had to say.

And yes, I was enamoured with his mild southern accent and charm. And, having watched him interview – and flirt – with many, Catherine Deneuve and Diane von Fürstenberg are two examples that come to mind, I’m sure I wasn’t the only woman who found his manner attractive.

So, when CBS suspended him (and shortly thereafter fired him) for alleged sexual harassment, I was stunned, shocked, and saddened. Clearly, I wasn’t alone. If you need any proof that others – some of whom knew him professionally and socially – felt the same way, watch the video of Gayle King on CBS This Morning on the day after the announcement. Indeed, it was King’s clear inability to reconcile how Rose behaved toward the women who made the claims with her own experience with him that first brought the notion of cognitive dissonance to my mind.

How could Rose, a man who seemed so supportive of women in general and respectful of them when he interviewed them, be the same person who traipsed around naked in front of women who worked for him? Or who called women staffers to describe his fantasies about watching them swim naked in his pool?

But, when there are multiple reports by different women who all have similar stories, it’s hard not to believe them. Couple that with Rose’s apology for inappropriate behavior (albeit he said he didn’t believe all the allegations were accurate), it’s no wonder I’m experiencing a severe case of cognitive dissonance. (I imagine there are many who feel the same about the news of Matt Lauer – or … well, fill in the blank – there are certainly a lot to choose from these days.)

The truth is, the Charlie Rose story isn’t the only source of my feelings of cognitive dissonance. Trying to figure out what to make of the flood of allegations that has emerged has also been a source of tremendous mental discomfort. All the different commentaries swirling around is enough to make your head explode. There are those who doubt the veracity of some of the accusers (folks who ask: Why did it take them 10 years to come forward?) and of course, those who blame the victims. Fortunately, there are also a number of folks talking abut the idea that sexual harassment is as much about power as it is about sex.

But the real source of my cognitive dissonance is my wonder if this is, indeed, a turning point – or a “moment”, as CBS This Morning co-host Norah O’Donnell said the day after the Rose suspension. I want so badly to believe that all these stories will make a difference and that things will change, but I don’t see that happening unless we address what’s really at the root of all this: the fundamental inequality that exists between the sexes.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


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