Unmasking Cognitive Dissonance

It is difficult lately to know which contemporary issue to address. Every morning, I wake to discover another potential disaster. (Today, it was the threat of “meth-gators,” which thankfully do not seem to be a likely threat as I’m pretty sure Steve Irwin would have been the only person capable of dealing with that.)

Today, my hometown mandated mask-wearing in public places and the uproar I’ve perceived—particularly within conservative circles—is frankly astonishing. I myself have an assortment of masks which make me feel like the world’s most floral-printed robber whenever I go to Costco, and I like to think that I’m making the best of it. My concern here, however, is not COVID-19, but cognitive dissonance. Mask-wearing is not the core issue here, but merely another manifestation of the deeper problem of human selfishness.

In more liberal crowds, I’ve seen the phrase “My Body, My Choice” recycled to support an individual’s decision regarding whether or not to wear a mask in public. However, I’ve seen people of the same liberal worldview declare that this mantra does not apply when that person’s choice might put another’s life at risk.

Pro-life advocates will readily see the irony here. (After all, it is human nature to see the flawed logic of the other side.) If total bodily autonomy is not ethical if it harms others, how can we condone abortion, especially beyond the point of viability? If it is not “my body, my choice” in this instance, why is it in another, when the death of a vulnerable human being is not accidentally infected but intentionally terminated?

Vulnerability is another point worth emphasising here. It seems a thing of the not-so-distant past to excuse ourselves from mask-wearing by insisting that only the medically vulnerable are actually at risk. If we are truly caring for “the least of these” in society—as current cultural movements, as well as a Christian ethic of neighbourly love advocate—this ought to move us to exercise even greater caution.

On the left, submitting to mask-wearing in order to protect the vulnerable is an act of great kindness, however, it is also an act of incredible irony. If caring for the vulnerable at the cost of our own bodily autonomy does not extend also to the most biologically vulnerable (e.g. the unborn, the newborn, the differently-abled, and the elderly) then this act of humility and respect toward others represents a cognitive dissonance worth careful consideration.

Now, as I’ve said before, it is remarkably easy to point out the logical fallacies of those with whom you disagree. However, it is vitally important to honestly consider the irrationality and flawed thinking of those with whom we more closely align. Until we examine our own cognitive dissonance, we can achieve neither harmonious dialogue nor rational disagreement.

I have observed many conservatives express anger that mask-wearing has been mandated. The irony here is that the very people who are most often pro-life are, in fact, exercising the same harmful autonomy which they claim to oppose. I am not here to debate the science or effectiveness of mask-wearing. It seems, though, that the refusal or reluctance to wear masks as demonstrated by certain conservatives is evidence of an underlying cognitive dissonance.

Another point worth considering is modesty. Many conservatives advocate dressing with a certain degree of propriety. A popular argument for the fittingness of this is that modesty is considerate of others who may find revealing clothing distracting or discomfiting. For the sake of consistency, these same people ought to endorse mask-wearing as covering-up out of consideration for others’ comfort and well-being.

I turn my attention now to conservative Christians in particular, who hold scripture as their moral authority and yet are subject to the same desire for autonomy as all of fallen humankind.

We all desire freedom, individuality, and comfort. While the Christian Gospel proclaims liberation from sin, is does not preclude liberation from civic and communal responsibility. Indeed, Jesus preaches submission to authorities and humility toward others, except in the case of moral wrong; unless government mandates would force us to harm our neighbour or renounce our Lord—and thus to break the two greatest commandments—we are not to oppose them. Put simply, Christianity does not provide political rights but, rather, bestows spiritual fruits; we are not promised autonomy or luxury, but are instead granted love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

In a way, Christians might adopt the phrase “My Body, My Choice,” inversely. If we are members each of the Body of Christ, our choices impact one another seriously and intimately, and we are called to love our weaker members as ourselves. Whether or not we find mask-wearing effective is irrelevant; what matters is whether or not we make serving our neighbours a priority. I wrote a year or so ago on the “radical” love of 1 Corinthians 10-11, in which Paul advises members of the Church to abstain from certain foods if they cause another member to struggle. The food itself was amoral—neither good nor bad—but caring for others through was and is essential.

The same approach might be taken with masks, which are—in and of themselves—amoral, though much-debated. Refusing to wear a mask in spite of the ethical or physical well-being of others, however, becomes an act of selfishness. Were Paul alive today, I have no doubt that he would wear a mask. To cling to our assumed “right” to wear or not wear a mask is to arrogantly disregard the humility and compassion to which we are called as believers. Regardless of whether or not going without a mask puts others at risk, is it really worth risking our Christian witness to rebel in anger against such a minor inconvenience?

As usual, my only hope with this article is to encourage you, dearest Reader, to honestly examine first yourself and then the culture which surrounds you. I am in no way innocent of irrationality, though I hope that together we can work to combat the cognitive dissonance which creeps into our reasoning, regardless of parties, positions, or preconceptions. Most of all, I hope that we will graciously challenge each other to think critically and to act considerately.