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How to "Feel Right:" Cognitive Dissonance in Uncle Tom's Cabin

Laura Sockol

People often act in ways that contradict their expressed beliefs. Though our society values and admires those who "walk the talk" and "put their money where their mouth is," we believe that it is sometimes difficult or impossible to act in the ways dictated by one's ideals. Although this is not particularly problematic with regard to behaviors with limited consequences, such as the belief that one should eat healthfully or call your mother once a week, when this mindset is applied to larger social issues, it leads individuals to support institutions and actions that they ideologically oppose. In Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, the majority of the characters believe that slavery is wrong. They believe that slaves are human beings worthy of compassion and deserving of humane treatment. However, many of the characters act in ways that perpetuate the system of slavery. In doing so, they maintain an institution that dehumanizes slaves and violates their basic rights. According to cognitive dissonance theory, this conflict between the characters' actions and beliefs should produce psychological discomfort, both in the characters and in Stowe's readers. Stowe uses this psychological discomfort to motivate her readers to challenge the institution of slavery. By portraying the psychological conflict associated with participation in the slave system and the different ways in which characters' negotiate this discomfort, Stowe urges her readers to change their behavior in order that they may "feel right" about their own actions (Stowe 441).

Dissonance theory was first proposed by Leon Feistinger in 1957 (Harmon-Jones & Mills 1999). Dissonance occurs when two cognitions (or a cognition and an action) directly oppose one another. Feistinger proposed that this dissonance is psychologically uncomfortable and motivates individuals to reduce the dissonance (Harmon-Jones & Mills 1999). This can be achieved in several ways: "by removing dissonant cognitions, adding new consonant cognitions, reducing the importance of dissonant cognitions, or increasing the importance of consonant cognitions" (Harmon-Jones & Mills 1999). Phrased more simply, there are two major means by which dissonance can be reduced: by changing the behavior that leads to the dissonance and acting in a way that is consistent with the expressed belief, or by changing the beliefs themselves. The characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin utilize these two different strategies to different extents: while some characters rely solely on changing their cognitions in order to reduce the discomfort produced by their actions, others change their actions in order to align them with their expressed beliefs. Stowe uses the different experiences of these characters to reveal that, in the case of slavery, the morally right way to reduce cognitive dissonance is to change one's actions.

The majority of the characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin experience some degree of psychological discomfort when confronted with the realities of the slave system. This results from the conflict between a belief in the value of all human life and the realities of an institution that consistently devalues and exploits human beings. Stowe suggests that this conflict is innate: nearly every character is presented as experiencing this conflict. Although some respond to the conflict by accepting the utility and validity of the slave system and rejecting the idea that slavery is dehumanizing, this acceptance is motivated by the need to negotiate the conflict between one's innate beliefs and the perceived experiences of slaves. Thus, Stowe portrays cognitive dissonance as an inevitable result of slavery; since value for human life is an innate, core belief, individuals will always experience psychological discomfort when confronted with the institution of slavery. Characters are differentiated by the strategies they use to reduce or eliminate this discomfort — the most admirable characters change their behaviors rather than justifying their participation in a system that devalues human life.

Although Mr. and Mrs. Shelby do not fully support slavery as an institution, they reduce the dissonance created by their ownership of slaves by asserting that circumstances force them to participate in the slave system. Because they believe that they are not in a position to change their behavior, they instead assert beliefs that are consonant with their actions. The primary cognition they use to reduce the dissonance they experience is the assertion that they are bound by circumstances to own and sell slaves. Mr. Shelby, in particular, emphasizes that he does not freely choose to sell Tom and Harry, but justifies it by noting that "circumstances obliged [him]" to do so (Stowe 32). This allows Mr. Shelby to participate in one of the most dehumanizing aspects of slaveholding — selling another human being and dividing families — without believing that he is personally responsible for the pain that will be inflicted on those his decisions affect. By choosing to think of himself as an unwilling participant in an unchangeable system, Mr. Shelby avoids taking responsibility for his actions as a slaveowner and reduces the discomfort associated with the knowledge that he has owned and sold another human being. Stowe reveals that this is a flawed strategy. Although Mr. Shelby expresses confidence in his actions, he is still haunted by a sense that they are wrong. The alternate cognition he uses to justify his actions is not entirely plausible and still contradicts the innate belief in the value of human life. Thus, even though he comforts himself with the belief that "he had a right to do it, —that everybody did it . . . he could not satisfy his own feelings" and remains conflicted about his actions (Stowe 100). Although Mr. and Mrs. Shelby attempt to justify and rationalize their role in the slave system, their actions directly contradict an innate belief in the value of humanity and they are left in a state of psychological dissonance.

Though the Birds do not own slaves, Senator Bird's role as a legislator places him in a position where his actions directly support the institution of slavery. Like Mr. And Mrs. Shelby, Senator Bird initially attempts to eliminate the dissonance associated with his actions by suggesting other cognitive rationalizations, particularly the belief that support for slavery is necessary to maintain the integrity of the union. Rather than seeing slavery as a moral or personal issue, Senator Bird states that because "great public interests are involved . . . we must put aside our private feelings" when making decisions regarding slavery (Stowe 81). Mrs. Bird, however, believes such rationalizations to be un-Christian and resolves to act as her faith commands. When Eliza comes to her house seeking shelter, Mrs. Bird takes her in, although to do so directly violates the laws that her own husband has supported. Mrs. Bird's insistence upon acting in a manner consistent with her values ultimately changes the Senator's mind. His wife's repeated assaults on his justifications for supporting pro-slavery legislation reduce the ability of these cognitions to ameliorate his psychological discomfort. When faced with the fact that his rationalizations no longer bring him comfort, Senator Bird changes his behavior. Senator Bird's experience illustrates both methods of negotiating cognitive dissonance. Although Stowe portrays changing one's actions as the more difficult choice to make, she also reveals that this is the right, Christian way to avoid internal psychological conflict.

Stowe also portrays characters who avoid cognitive dissonance by acting in ways that are consonant with their beliefs and values. The clearest case of the resolution of cognitive dissonance is the actions of John Van Trompe. Trompe witnessed "with repressed uneasiness the workings of a system equally bad for oppressor and oppressed" as a slaveowner (Stowe 92). He resolves this discomfort through decisive action: he frees his slaves. Moreover, he moves beyond the personal sphere and makes himself available to shelter fugitive slaves and assist them in their journeys North. In doing so, he helps undermine the system of slavery. By refusing to participate in the slave system and by conscientiously acting to weaken it, Trompe eliminates the psychological dissonance inherent in slave ownership. Like John Van Trompe, the Quaker characters in the novel cope with cognitive dissonance by eliminating behaviors that conflict with their belief system. Unlike Mrs. Shelby, who reconciles her Christian beliefs with slavery by asserting that she treats her slaves in a Christian manner, the Quakers directly translate the Christian faith into actions that challenge the slave system. They do not differentiate between slaves and free men; they treat all men with equal kindness and compassion. Stowe promotes these behaviors as the ideal, moral and Christian way in which individuals are able to eliminate the psychological discomfort inherent in the slave system. Unlike those characters who attempt to rationalize or justify their behavior, the Quakers do not experience internal conflict as the result of their beliefs or actions. They express a confidence in the righteousness of their actions and are unafraid of the consequences. When his son asks him whether he is worried about possible financial or legal punishment for assisting Eliza and George, Simeon Halliday responds that "the Lord only gives us our worldly goods that we may do justice and mercy," and further expresses the belief that "if we would not meet trouble for a good cause, we were not worthy of our name" (Stowe 141-2). Simeon does not experience conflict as the result of his actions because they are consistent with his values. Although his actions may have consequences, he accepts them as the price of remaining moral in a legal system that supports an immoral institution. The Quakers and John Van Trompe are the clearest illustration of individuals who "feel right," because their actions are not in conflict with their values (Stowe 443).

Dissonance theory provides a psychological lens through which to understand Stowe's portrayals of various characters and their responses to the slave system. Although dissonance theory is morally neutral, Stowe presents those characters who change their behaviors as less conflicted than those who change their beliefs in order to reduce their discomfort at the thought of slaveholding. By showing the ways in which different characters negotiate the dissonance produced by the realities of slavery, Stowe encourages her readers to reduce their own discomfort by acting to eliminate slavery, rather than by justifying or excusing it.

Works Cited

Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. (1999). An introduction to cognitive dissonance theory and an overview of current perspectives on the theory. In E. Harmon-Jones & J. Mills (Eds.). Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social psychology. (pp. 3-24). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. (1995). Uncle Tom's Cabin. New York: Barnes & Noble.

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