Friday, November 16, 2012

Cognitive dissonance

I was reading an issue (November, Volume 13 Number 11) of the BBC's "History" magazine a few days ago, and in their "Milestones" feature (I believe it's a regular thing in which they highlight events which happened in that particular month throughout history) I ran across a small entry that caught my eye. It was a vintage black and white portrait photo of an elderly woman in old-fashioned garb, with white type over her black dress reading "Short-lived senator Rebecca Felton, c1922".

Intrigued -- because I had not realized there were any women serving as Senators that early in our country's history -- I looked online for more information about her. It turns out that she was an advocate for women's suffrage… and a racist. Here's the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on Felton:

"Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton (June 10, 1835 – January 24, 1930) was an American writer, lecturer, reformer, and politician who became the first woman to serve in the United States Senate. She was the most prominent woman in Georgia in the Progressive Era, and was honored by appointment to the Senate; she was sworn in on November 21, 1922, and served one day, the shortest serving Senator in U.S. history. At 87 years old, 9 months and 22 days, she was also the oldest freshman senator to enter the Senate. As of 2012, she is also the only woman to have served as a Senator from Georgia. She was a prominent society woman; an advocate of prison reform, women's suffrage and educational modernization; and one of the few prominent women who spoke in favor of lynching."

I don't think this term existed in her time, but immediately upon reading this, the phrase "cognitive dissonance" (defined, again on Wikipedia, as "the state of people when holding two or more conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment") leapt into my mind. Of course, given the descriptions of Rebecca Felton I found online, it seem unlikely -- though not impossible -- that she ever experienced the effects of cognitive dissonance. It is quite bizarre that someone who could easily recognize the injustice done to women in, for example, their not being allowed to vote, could also be totally blind to the injustices inherent in her own racist beliefs.

Humans are -- or, perhaps more fairly, can be -- truly strange creatures. -- PL


Mark H said...

Fascinating posting Pete. I have never heard of Rebecca Felton. Did I read this correctly? Did she only serve for one day? Do you know why she served such a short time? That is bizarre.
It is strange that she would be for women's suffrage yet, think the lynchings where a good thing. It is really hard to understand what goes through peoples heads sometimes. It makes me wonder what made her shape such conflicting beliefs in her mind.
This was a very interesting read. I will have to look up why she only served for one day. "Cognitive dissonance" seems like a very appropriate term for this woman's beliefs. Great posting, thank you for sharing.

Mark H said...

Her one day as a U.S. Senator seemed to be the result of political maneuvering.
"In 1922, Governor Thomas W. Hardwick was a candidate for the next general election to the Senate, when Senator Thomas E. Watson died prematurely. Seeking an appointee who would not be a competitor in the coming special election to fill the vacant seat and a way to secure the vote of the new women voters alienated by his opposition to the 19th Amendment, Hardwick chose Felton to serve as senator on October 3, 1922.
Congress was not expected to reconvene until after the election, so the chances were slim that Felton would be formally sworn in. However, Walter F. George won the special election despite Hardwick's ploy. Rather than take his seat immediately when the Senate reconvened on November 21, 1922, George allowed Felton to be officially sworn in. This was due in part to persuasion by Felton and a supportive campaign launched by the women of Georgia. Felton thus became the first woman seated in the Senate and served until George took office on November 22, 1922, one day later."
-Source Wikipedia

Mark H said...

After reading some of quotes by Senator Felton I feel disgusted. I am trying to be understanding of the context and time in which she said such things. There were still many people in the 1920's who believed black people where, as Senator Felton herself said "Human Beast". I can not wrap my mind around that blatant racism.
You said that humans can be strange creatures. I could not agree more. After reading up on Senator Felton I am reminded that humans can be ugly creatures too. There is a lot of ugliness and hate throughout our history. We sometimes give into the worst ideas and, the worst beliefs out there. Sometimes even good people can have that ugliness in them. When the President was elected in his first term someone close to me in my family said something that shocked me. He said to me "We don't want an (n-word) leading the country." I was so ashamed of this person for saying that. This is someone who I have love and respect for. Someone who I believe is a good person. On that day he showed that vain of ugliness. I gave him hell for saying such a stupid and absurd thing. I believe when someone is being ugly and ignorant, we should call them out on how stupid they are being. To this day it still bothers me that he said that. I did not realize how much racism was around me until the President was elected.
You still saw hints of it in the last election. On your “TMNT” blog, on your “Vote Today” posting, there was a gentleman that posted “But hey he has dark skin and a personality cult. No need to worry about competence”. I found that to be a totally ignorant statement. I think the author of that posting was the one who was focused on the President’s “dark skin”. I don’t think he understood that people like you or I voted for the man he is, what he stands for and, what he has done. His skin tone is not even in the equation. Again, I think when people say ignorant things like that we need to call them out on it. We need to point out how simple minded and ugly it is to judge a person by there skin color.
On a bright note I have been seeing people getting less tolerant of stupidity in politics. We did see Todd "legitimate rape" Akins and Richard "pregnancies from rape are a gift from God" Mourdock loose there bids for the Senate. I thought it was great to see the American people reject stupidity. It was also great to see that when they said things that where stupid they where called out on it. It gives me hope for the future.
After reading up on Rebecca Felton I feel like I can put a lot of things going on today in politics in a better perspective. I don’t think Senator Felton was necessarily a bad person. I just think her ideas towards black people where completely insane. I don’t know what made Mrs. Felton come to such absurd conclusions about black people. Was it the times? Was it the way she was raised? I don’t know. I am grateful that I live in a period where the majority of people would not tolerate such crazy, racist, nonsense. I’m grateful that I live in a time where the belief that “All men a created equal” is stronger than ever. I’m grateful I live in a time where if a standing U.S. Senator said something as ludicrous as "young blacks" are "half-civilized gorillas," they would be shamed and forced out of office.

Mark H said...

When I hear the call for “Taking America Back” it really makes me think. What do these people who say this want to take America back to? After reading up on Mrs. Felton I am reminded that our past has never been perfect. We have lots of ugliness in our past. There has never been a time in our history when we have been perfect. There is nothing in our past that I would want to go back to. To make “A More Perfect Union” we need to move forward. I would not want to go back to a time when Woman could not vote and, lynchings where ok. I would not want to go back to a time when a black person could not sit next to me on a bus. This write up really has me thinking about how far we have come. It makes me realize how much ugliness we have overcome. Thinking about it gives me hope that my country is going forward. I can see a future full of hope for all of us. We can overcome fear, bigotry, and hatred. (I think stupid will always be here unfortunately.) We really have come a long way since Senator Felton’s time.
Sorry about the long rant Pete. It’s Saturday morning and, I have a lot of time on my hands this morning. Again, thank you for sharing this post with us. As you can see it has got me thinking. Have a good one! -Mark