Rethinking Al Franken

Recognition is the first step to overcoming biases and dissonance.

Take a moment and ask yourself how you feel about this picture. It shows Al Franken groping Leeanne Tweeden on a film set in 2006 when Ms. Tweeden was sleeping. You will relate either to me or Franken defenders, as I will explain.

To me, this photo confirms what I already believe about Al Franken. He is a bigoted comic who has raved for years with disgusting sexual comedy that, frankly, make sexual predating a joke to be made at the expense of women. I look at the picture above and think, “Of course.” It confirms my impression of Franken to be true.

Most Minnesota voters think differently about Al Franken. They are experiencing shock. Someone they admired and put into office as a champion of women is contradicting himself, and the picture seems to prove it. The picture doesn’t confirm their beliefs; it challenges them. There is tension in their worldview at the moment. Two conflicting elements of her reality are clashing right before their eyes.

For me, confirmation.
For Minnesota, clash.
Exact same picture.

It would be a mistake to say that we’re all crazy, but that is the accusation coming out of both camps. Conservatives find it unbelievable that liberals don’t see the obvious assault in the picture. Liberals want to investigate or take some time to analyze the context of the situation.

Does this whole conflict appear insane to you? To me and my world of debate and persuasion, it makes perfect sense. Allow me to explain.

Conflicting Psychological Phenomenon

There are two psychological phenomenon happening to millions of Americans, from both the pro- and anti-Franken camps. I’m experiencing confirmation bias. This occurs when something happens before my eyes that confirms that which I already hold to be true. Al Franken groping a woman while she sleeps? Of course that makes sense. Franken has been joking about these things for years. I may even think the proof of the picture will finally convince liberals that their beloved Franken is a hypocrite.

Pro-Franken folks, however, are experiencing cognitive dissonanceThey see the same picture and their worldview is shaken. Their cognition (their thoughts and beliefs) are experiencing discord, disharmony, dissonance. They respond by trying to find reasons or justifications to reconcile their beliefs with the picture that is challenging them. Someone they thought to be respectful of women is clearly assaulting a woman. There must be an explanation for this.

Millions of people are looking at the exact same picture and experiencing two opposite phenomenon: confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.

On my side of the aisle, the picture proves everything. On the Left’s side, all sorts of reasons are being weaved into their minds (it was just a joke, it was before election, Trump is worse, etc.). I see these as weak excuses, Franken-supporters see them as possible rationalizations. I will return to the picture to confirm my beliefs (confirmation bias), and Minnesotans will extrapolate long explanations to justify their contradictory views (cognitive dissonance).

These phenomenon are usually no big deal. I love Minnesota, and their convictions are mostly good and pure. But when millions of Americans experience these phenomenon together, mass delusion can happen, and this delusion can be extremely harmful.

Take one of the excuses being thrown out there to justify Franken’s groping: “It was a joke.” (At the time I’m writing this, this is the exact excuse being touted by Arianna Huffington.) What kind of culture does this create for women? Can men violate a woman’s body as long as it is a “joke”? Should women just brush it off and go along with it?

I don’t think so. And I’m not saying Minnesotans think so, either (in fact, I know they don’t). But the consequence of excusing the “joke” is a serious one. I believe my understanding of research—which this picture is a perfect example of—can bring an answer to all sorts of modern delusions.

Significance of Research

Recognizing these two phenomenon is the first step to dealing with them. Whichever side of the political aisle you’re on—Franken lover or Franken hater—it helps to recognize your own psychological assumptions. Recognition is the first step to overcoming biases and dissonance.

If I were coaching you in debate (as I have done countless champions over the years), I would coach you to always “let the research guide you.” It is a founding principle of case building in academic debate. I don’t coach kids to find research to confirm their biases. Likewise, I don’t coach kids to hide or ignore research that challenge their beliefs. I tell them to follow the research. Be brave, strengthen your analytical muscles, and “let the research guide you.”

“Let the research guide you” is a framework for combatting confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance:

  • If the research confirms your biases, great. If not, change your biases.
  • If the research agrees with your beliefs, great. If not, change your beliefs.

Problems arise when you do the opposite:

  • If the research confirms your biases, great. If not, distort or manipulate the research.
  • If the research agrees with your beliefs, great. If not, create excuses to keep your beliefs intact.

The former, not the latter, is my worldview. I let research guide me. I hold to beliefs that I have seen my research confirm, and I reject beliefs wherever my research fails. Some beliefs I am quite sure of, and some I’m not so sure. The research hasn’t guided me to confirm quite yet. And that’s okay.

The picture of Al Franken groping a sleeping woman is extremely confirming research. I’m quite settled, whether or not it confirms my bias, that Al Franken should go. It is unsettling to know that people are excusing it away. It will excuse further misbehavior.

The only response that is plausible in my mind is demanding Al Franken’s removal from the Senate and for Minnesota hold a special election to replace him. (And at the time of me preparing this article, some progressive organizations are making this call.Any other response is justifying assault and the degradation of women. It is that simple.

I’d love to hear what you think. Please post below.