We’ve seen it over and over again, as a movie cliché or a silly cartoon: The man is caught in flagrante with another women and, defensively, says to his wronged spouse, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?” It is the ultimate definition of cognitive dissonance.
While cognitive dissonance can make for good humor, in the real world, there comes a point when the human brain can no longer tolerate the loud noise of that dissonance. At that point, people have two choices: embrace the crazy or go for reality.
In his beautiful memoir, Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky describes the corrosive mental effects of living with overarching government lies. The government touted its incredible economic success, yet for ordinary citizens the reality was that they were living with another family in a small, rundown apartment unit, or that the stores routinely had empty shelves or long lines. Or the Soviet government boasted that it was a free and liberal nation, yet everyone knew that they had better not speak out against it lest they be hustled away on a dark night, tried in a kangaroo court, and sentenced to an eternity in a frozen gulag.
The government’s conduct was the living embodiment of Joseph Goebbel’s “Big Lie”:
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.
For Sharansky and other dissidents, life under the Big Lie was a malevolent clown house, with warped mirrors and unpleasant surprises around every corner. Reality could too easily become a meaningless construct, as you were repeatedly assured (at the point of a gun) that your empty store was a bountiful paradise and your fearful glances over your shoulder were just the inevitable price of “freedom.” What saved the dissidents from the insanity of cognitive dissonance was this: