What Republican Herman Cain’s presidential hopeful bid, former President Clinton’s Lewinsky affair, O.J. Simpson, and Clarence Thomas have in common is you asking, “What were they thinking?!” The French call it Mauvaise foi — “lying to oneself.” The teenager Ricky Fitts said it in the movie American Beauty: “Never underestimate the power of denial.”
In her book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), author Carol Tavris calls this lying to oneself “cognitive dissonance.” You might call it self-delusional when we think we can get away with something. Right now someone is lying, hurting, betraying, and they think they won’t get caught or that what they are doing is justified. Tomorrow, we’ll read about it in the newspaper.
When we want something too badly, Shirley Maclaine says, we can be corrupted. “How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass? You get him to take one step at a time, and self-justification will do the rest,” Tavris says. Thelma and Louise said it: “You become what you tolerate.”
What will you tolerate? Your grandmother said it: You get what you pay for.
According to Tavris, we self-justify our actions so we can live with ourselves. The organism will sustain itself. After all, “Of our maladies, the most wild and barbarous is to despise our being,” said 16th century French philosopher Montaigne. We torture ourselves with regrets. We agonize. Our mistakes get us down. We might actually be paralyzed for fear of making the wrong decision again.
Past failures stymie us; however, masking mistakes and bad judgment will also block, blunt and distort. Instead of taking responsibility, we blame. In sports, for example, “If you lose, you never blame yourself. Always somebody else,” professional boxing trainer Jackie McCoy told author Dave Anderson.
The fear to fail publicly is like walking back from the bowling lane feeling that everyone has seen your gutter ball. You scuff the lane with the toe of your shoe as if that explains everything. According to Canadian-American academic and politician S.I. Hayakawa, even conversation “is often a battleground in disguise on which we are constantly (and unconsciously) trying to win victories — showing up the other fellow’s errors.”
“Blind spots enhance our pride,” Tavris says. “People become more certain they are right about something they just did if they can’t undo it.” The Russian poet Pushkin said it: “Dearer to me than a host of base truths is the illusion that exalts.”
Self-justification serves (and preserves) what we have done, what we believe and who we are: our image of self. Gender, sexuality, religion, politics, nation, ethnicity — all create attachment bonds, protecting us, giving us preference. Identity, meaning and purpose as self-justification also serves this Us vs. Them mentality.
“The most destructive,” force then, Tavris says, is contempt. In a crumbling marriage, for example, each partner justifies their own stance instead of asking, “Could I be wrong? Could I change? Did I make a mistake?” “Self justification,” Tavris says, “is the prime suspect in the murder of a marriage.” You’ve heard this dissonance, reduction, retaliation: It’s not me, it’s her. It’s not my fault, it’s hers. If she was such a good wife I’d still be with her, wouldn’t I?
Bernie Mac said it: “I ain’t got no outside woman; I ain’t got no outside kids. I ain’t got no vices with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, stuff like that. Matter of fact, I’m clean. All I need is some sandals, a robe and a stick.”
Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.