Spirited Debate Ends in Dissonance

Lauren Green Ashan

Part One of a new series, You Don’t Know Jack!

This weekend Buzzfeed.com asked, “is this the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done?” The post followed a segment from Fox News’ weekend show Spirited Debate, with host and “religion correspondent” Lauren Green.

In the interview, Green repeatedly asked noted religious scholar Reza Aslan, “So you’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”  Aslan tries to explain to Green, “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament and fluency in Biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just so happens to be Muslim. So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions.

Green: “Well it still begs the question why would you be interesting in writing a book about Christianity?”

Aslan; “Because it’s my job as an academic. I’m a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That is what I do for a living…”

This line of attack goes on throughout most of the nearly ten minute interview. Aside from Green falsely accusing Aslan of attempting to hide his faith, (which Aslan quickly points out he writes about his religious beliefs on the second page of his book and is talked about in every interview he has been asked to do.)  In the middle of the segment, Aslan attempts to change the direction of the conversation,

Aslan: “I’m more than willing to talk about the arguments of the book itself. But I do think it is perhaps a little bit strange that rather than debating the arguments of the book we are debating the right of the scholar to actually write it.”

But Green persists in this line of questioning by blindly pushes-on with the reading of an online chat comment from a Fox News viewer.

Taylor:  “So your book is written with clear bias and you are trying to say it’s academic. That’s like a Democrat writing a book about why Reagan wasn’t a good Republican. It just doesn’t work.”

Green: “What do you say to that?”

Aslan: “Well it would be like a Democrat with a Ph.D. in Reagan, who has been studying his life and history for two decades, writing a book about Reagan.”

Green: “But then why would a Democrat want to promote democracy by writing about a Republican?”

Aslan: “It’s unfair…I think that the fundamental problem here is that (you believe) I have some sort of faith based bias in this work that I write. I write about Judaism, I write about Hinduism, I write about Christianity, I write about Islam. My job as a scholar of religions with a Ph.D. in the subject is to write about religions. And one of the religions I have written about is the religion that was launched and founded by Jesus.”

Green: “But Aslan you are not writing about it from the point of view of an observer.”

What Green and most Fox News viewers can never understand is that unlike the right-wing, most people can use rationally fact-based evidence and come up with an understanding that is not tainted with their own personal beliefs.

However, the right-wing, and that includes most Fox News viewers, have fallen victim to a vast web of conspiracy theories that no longer permit them to look at anything that might cause dissonance. In the case of the above interview, we have no less than three conspiracies at work.

The first conspiracy is blatant. It’s the Islamophobic notion that all Muslims are out to kill Christians and that no Muslim can write an honest book about Christianity. Not even a scholar with a Ph.D. in historical religion. According to this conspiracy, only Christians can write an honest book about Christianity. And only Christians that support their particular strain of Christianity are truly believable.

The second conspiracy is just below the surface. It is widely believed by the right-wing that left leaning ivory tower academia is simply a tool for the greater liberal agenda. In spite of the fact that Aslan continued to insist he was simply an historical religious scholar writing about historical events, his argument fell on deaf ears with Fox News viewers. The simple reason why is that the right-wing will only listen to those they perceive as “not bias” and capable of promoting their right-wing agenda.

Which gets us to the third conspiracy, Aslan’s book is promoted by the liberal media and that is why the right watch Fox News in the first place. Fox viewers want to watch Green on air attack Aslan as a bias charlatan. Only Fox News will do this. To the right, Fox News is providing “Fair and Balanced” news as opposed to All other media sources on T.V. who refuse to attack Aslan. To loyal Fox News viewers, CNN, CBS, ABC, and NBC are all corrupted by liberal bias and therefore not valid news sources.

This past April, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Western Australia, published a paper in the journal Psychological Science. His work looks at the thinking behind conspiracy theories.  Soon after, Salon.com posted an interesting interview with Lewandowsky. Here is just one question in this most fascinating interview. I would encourage interesting in politics to read the entire interview.

Salon:What are the psychological forces at play in conspiracy thinking?”

Lewandowsky: “Basically what’s happening in any conspiracy theory is that people have a need or a motivation to believe in this theory, and it’s psychologically different from evidence-based thinking. A conspiracy theory is immune to evidence, and that can pretty well serve as the definition of one. If you reject evidence, or reinterpret the evidence to be confirmation of your theory, or you ignore mountains of evidence to focus on just one thing, you’re probably a conspiracy theorist. We call that a self-sealing nature of reasoning.”

In a recent study in PLOS One, an online academic journal, the psychologist Jay Van Bavel and his colleagues at New York University tested whether the political right or left wing thinkers were more likely to avoid cognitive dissonance.

In the experiment they asked supporters of George W. Bush and Barack Obama to write essays supporting the president they opposed. The test was designed to study, “the ability to craft logical arguments arguing positions you may not personally endorse.”

In the end, not a single Bush supporter would write a pro Obama essay while 28% of Obama supporters were willing to do so.  The study posted some of the comments by conservatives that refused to write a pro Obama article like: “Not for all the tea in China would I write that.” In contrast, the study suggests the Obama supporters who wrote pro Bush essays suggested, “This was fun!”

The following is an important excerpt from the above Van Bavel study at New York University:

“Although motivated avoidance of unwelcome or contradictory information is quite common, there are cross-cultural and inter-individual differences in the ways in which people respond to dissonance-arousing situations [31], [32], [33] and engage in selective exposure [34]. Individuals who are dispositionally high (vs. low) in the need for consistency are especially likely to report psychological discomfort in response to conflicting cognitions [35]. In addition, it appears that threat causes individuals who are high in authoritarianism to exhibit an even stronger preference for exposure to one-sided, pro-attitudinal information [36]. Low authoritarians, by contrast, prefer two-sided information even under conditions of threat.

Given that political conservatives possess stronger needs for order, structure, consistency, and closure and weaker tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity [21], it is plausible that they would be more strongly motivated to avoid the arousal of cognitive dissonance (and perhaps even the potential for dissonance arousal), in comparison with liberals. Consistent with this notion, a few studies indicate that selective exposure is more prevalent on the political right than the left [11], [13], [14].”

What happened on Fox News’ program Spirited Debate was simply yet another example of media organization pandering to their religiously bias, and increasing conspiratorial minded audience? While Buzzfeed.com might suggest Lauren Green’s interview this past weekend was Fox News’s most “embarrassing interview…ever.” I have a feeling we have a lot more embarrassing interviews to come.


1 Comment

Filed under Essays, Interviews and News Articles

One response to “Spirited Debate Ends in Dissonance

  1. I agree. I watched the clip and thought to myself that she seemed to be unprofessional. It felt like an argument to me not an interview. Great article Dean. Hugs.

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