Think of Winston Smith in George Orwell's "1984." One day, constructing official reality at his job in the Ministry of Truth, the way a U.S. senator might change what he said on the floor by the time it appears in the Congressional Record, poor Winston encounters a telltale photograph of an event that, according to the party line, didn't occur -- couldn't possibly have occurred.
Uh oh. Being well-trained in rightthink, Winston throws the incriminating evidence down the memory hole. That should have been the end of it. But he's already been subverted. The memory of that photograph grates on his conflicted mind. His reality has been deconstructed.
I grew up reading the editorials in the old Shreveport Times and knew that separate-but-equal was the way to go when it came to race relations in the South.
Then one day, riding the trolley to school, when it came to a stop on Louisiana Avenue, right across from stately, whites-only Hamilton Terrace Junior High, the black kids in the back of the bus filed off. (They were called Negroes back then rather than Black or African-American, but that's a whole other column -- one about how we struggle with our identities.)
I looked down and saw that the pavement ended where the jagged street they took -- a muddy road, really -- began. I could easily picture the separate but unequal school that awaited them at the bottom of the hill. And I was jarred by what the psychologists call cognitive dissonance.
Two ideas were colliding in my young mind -- the long accepted assumption and the disturbing new reality. And my mind was changing.
I could never again believe that separate-but-equal schools existed in the real world. Or that, even if possible, they would be desirable.
That one image of a gravel road crystallized all the other separate-but-unequal sights I'd grown up seeing but never perceiving. It was a kind of epiphany.
First we get the static, the confusion, the ideological discontent, all the symptoms of cognitive dissonance, and only then -- if we're honest -- the stabbing clarity. We may not like what we suddenly see, but we can no longer deny it to ourselves.
How perceive reality, how separate wheat from chaff, the party line from the glimmer of truth?
I tell the journalism students I talk with now and then to stay open to those shining moments of clarity when they become aware of a certain . . . cognitive dissonance.