We all looked to the sky and spotted the faint streams of red light as the chilled air blushed our cheeks. “It’s Santa flying away in his sleigh,” one of the girls declared and the others chimed in with their own declaration they saw it too. The excitement was contagious even with the suspicions the jolly fellow may have been an uncle dressed in the traditional fluffy suit.
My childhood best friend’s birthday fell in December, naturally there seemed to always be a Christmas theme. After the holiday ornament making and cake tasting, Santa Claus arrived to deliver candy canes and listen to each girl’s present requests. Once Santa left the house there became an urgency to determine his authenticity and spy on him, five and six-year-old girls in party dresses and ribbons, raced down the steps and out the front door to the driveway. Half expecting to see a middle-aged man ripping off a beard getting into a beat-up old Chevy, I was utterly confused by the lights in the sky and reaction from the spectators.
In my home there was no truth to Santa Claus, he was as fictional as The Cat In The Hat. Don’t get me wrong, we still had Christmas. The “magic” of Christmas came in the form of everything else; cookies, cocoa, lights, snowman making, present wrapping, singing carols, holiday crafts, tree decorating, holiday greetings in the mail and being together with family. We all loved the Christmas season without the belief of a mystical man breaking in through the chimney to fill our stockings and snack on our cookies. It wasn’t because Mom and Dad felt a burning desire to secure our safety and avoid stranger danger, for fear we would habitually approach old men in white beards. And it wasn’t with the mentality to make sure we knew they worked hard to provide instead of giving credit to this imaginary creature. My parents, especially my dad, made the decision not to fuel the story of Saint Nicholas in the spirit of honesty. They simply didn’t want to lie to us.
Their intentions were in a good place, except every other pupil in my early elementary school class did have parents who made them believe in Santa Claus. Kids behaved because parents had warned not to get on the naughty list. The man, the myth was reality for my classmates and I my naïve mind could not comprehend how it was true for them and not for me. I began thinking Santa must be visiting everyone else’s house but mine. It didn’t make any sense when my reality didn’t match those around me. When my curiosity about this discrepancy reached a bursting point I took my concerns to my parents. My dad, the always logical man, attempted to reason the explanation beyond what I could comprehend at the time. He asked me to question how it could even be possible for a single person to travel to every home around the world in one day. Still trying to conform my thoughts to the popular opinion of my classmates, I tried to justify it and sometimes tried to believe in Santa Claus even if just to fit in.
At varying points of age, all children learn the truth of Santa Claus and only then do they notice the signs were everywhere all along. My disorientation from reality was relieved when fellow students and friends gained their own insight. Truth isn’t always an easy adjustment to make, I know for many kids it was nights of crying themselves to sleep to know their beliefs were a lie. I suspect too, each of those kids assimilated to finding a new happiness in the Christmas season.
When looking back on my early childhood conflict between what I knew to be true and what my peers saw as real, I now know the word for it. Cognitive dissonance is the term to label the feeling of stress when two contradictory beliefs are co-occuring. It is a theory which has long been studied in psychology to recognize the emotional discomfort humans experience when facts counter beliefs. The parallel to my Santa experience and today’s American culture is tragically obvious. While Santa Claus is no longer part of the belief, many Americans do hold true to a context of society which is not reality based and does not align with the facts. Except it’s not parents telling us how to think, and it’s not Santa Claus we are told to believe in. Citizens respect and accept the framework created by mass media, many place full trust in getting an accurate story about the most relevant news stories. Dedicated viewers, intending to be well-informed, are guided how to think based on what is shown and more importantly what is omitted. Most American’s don’t question their disillusion since it correlates with the popular opinion (much like I did with my classmates), even when confronted with details not supported in the “official” story. The believers see America as being free and equal, they believe the American Dream is real and everyone has the same fair opportunity to achieve it. I’d like to share this as a reality, except unlike my confusion about Santa, I can see through the present fiction.
In the last few weeks I have been absorbed with the turmoil in our country; viewing news programs, livestreams, monitoring social media and reading articles. It’s been thrilling to watch the response of countless people demonstrating their frustration with the justice system, with racial disparity and with police militarization. The variety of people aware and being active ranges to include all ages, religions, ethnicities and socio-economic status. People who know and recognize the devastating effects felt from inequality and invasion of rights. Across the country people have taken to social media to express their frustration, walked out of work and school in unison across the nation, held their hands up to political figures, boycotted Black Friday and taken to the streets. Highways, bridges, train stations, malls and major intersections have been shut down by marches, attempting to bring attention to those distracted by the illusion of justice being served.
The activists across the country have overall been peaceful, despite the attention being placed on rioting and fires, coincidently a great focal point for the news to reinforce fear. Watching these demonstrations happenings in every major city, some erupting spontaneously, typically with few arrests and no violence inspires my hope for progress. My optimism rapidly deflates when I hear the media influenced comments like “He deserved it,” or “They’re just burning up their own neighborhoods with those riots,” the ignorant statements like “There’s not really racial disparity,” or “I haven’t heard about what’s happening,” and the actively avoiding “I have better things to worry about,” or “I’m sick of hearing about…”
Now the number of believers inconvenienced by protests are growing rapidly, their cognitive dissonance escalating too. It is impossible to ignore the passion and effort people have for a cause when they take to the streets facing ridicule and risking arrest to voice the societal emergency being ignored. Believers have to confront the idea of some truth to this if so many people are screaming to pay attention. Believers begin feeling more and more uncomfortable when faced with facts opposed to their American truth.
They defend their belief’s against statistics spelling out the value of profit over people in the prison system, the undeniable fact America has 5% of the world’s population and incarcerated 25% of the world’s prison population. They find ways to justify how black men are arrested at least 2 to 5 times more frequently than white men for drug charges despite similar rates of use. Believers ignore the fact 1 in 15 black men are behind bars, equating to more locked up and on parole in our country today than were slaves in 1850. Believers have never had to experience trying to get a job after jail or had their rights to vote removed. And they fail to connect poor education, fatherless children, and minimum wage positions which don’t support the cost of living with being ways to prevent criminal activity. Instead believers blame the oppressed class and label them as lazy leaches of the system, denying the truth the system was created to do exactly this. Americans are left squabbling about who is to blame while corporate America runs off with the profits and stay protected by the government. For believer’s maintaining their comfortable life, they are aware of bailouts and corporate tax exceptions, yet they hang onto the idea if you work hard you are rewarded.
Believers find ways to excuse criminal acts by police officers often blasting the inherent worth of the victim as a person, forgetting we all make mistakes and ignoring accountability for the murder completely. Even in the case of Eric Garner where the technique used was banned, it was determined a homicide and the whole incident was caught on video. “Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today,” Garner said before being choked to death. He was unarmed and committed no crime when he was accosted by the police. He resisted, like Rosa Parks, tired of being black in America.
Believers say comply with police, it’s the law, except they don’t live the reality of being harassed. They don’t know the experience of being targeted simply based on appearance. #crimingwhilewhite and #alivewhileblack were two trends on Twitter this month. Hilariously tragic when confronted by thousands of tweets illustrating how white Americans have literally gotten away with crimes or had minimal consequences, while black Americans are targeted by police on a regular basis doing nothing wrong. One might say “You can’t believe everything on the internet, people can just make up things on Twitter.” True yes, and still of the thousands of messages to consider this trend just imagined is complete denial of the problem. Judgements on each side of the argument are defeating, not all police officers are bad, not all black people are criminals and not all white people are racist.
The marches happening in cities across the country are both inspiring and worrisome to me. Thousands of brave individuals have banded together to draw more attention to the average American believer, and they are met with armies of officers intending to absorb any positive effect created. The police force is frightening with tanks, riot gear, rubber bullets, tear gas and other military crowd control weapons like LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device/sound canon.) Believers see the militarized police force as crucial for safety, since they have been conditioned to fear people and want to maintain their comfortable routines. They cannot imagine the dedication to a cause it takes to gather peacefully and have to face this
violent army. Isn’t it astonishing how there are budget cuts in every government service to help people, yet there always seems to be money for war or to spend on police equipment when anticipating a protest? Believers would prefer tanks down their streets and swat teams surrounding their homes to provide the illusion of safety. I wonder how residents of Boston felt, in April 2013, when they were removed from their homes at gunpoint in the hunt for a teenager?
Trying to communicate rationally and educate about facts is often met with justifying the need to fear people, the need to place blame and the need to continue the militarized police strength. Americans blindly give faith in their government officials to fix it. They are convinced their values have to fit in either red or blue, conservative or liberal and stand by their identity. Separation tolerated more blame and ignites arguments. Being a non-believer, I cannot comprehend how 2 opinions fairly encompasses the views and needs of over 300,000,000 people. Especially when those in power on both sides, are serving corporations and promoting the rich to get richer. Americans feel the cognitive dissonance, wanting to pretend everything is fine, we are free and our democracy works; also recognizing the status quo cannot sustain us. Constitutional rights and human rights are being violated in an effort to support a broken system. The problem with admitting the belief is over and it’s time for a change evokes fear. How do we give up how things are without knowing what is to come?
I know there is happiness in Christmas after Santa Claus. I also know the believer’s reality where the police are given the power to use against people is a scary future for everyone. The people don’t have to agree on how America will look in the years to come, there just has to be a united agreement this has to change.