In the recent article “How politics makes us stupid,” Ezra Klein writes about identify-protective cognition. The concept, developed by Yale law professor Dan Kahan, argues that the “most important psychological imperative most of us have in a given day is protecting our idea of who we are, and our relationships with the people we trust and love.” He argues: “[I]ndividuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values,” instead choosing facts that support them.
Kahan uses this theory, Klein writes, to challenge a political concept known as the More Information Hypothesis, or “the belief that many of our most bitter political battles” are based upon one side not having enough information to fully understand the issue. He explains that our inability to agree on some of the most pressing political issues such as climate change is not due to a lack of information, but to an individual’s effort to preserve a “preferred form of social organization.” It was hard to read something like this and not want to examine my beliefs about one of the things most central to my identity and therefore my social organization: music. How might composers and audiences be understood in this context?
Programmatic music against absolute music! Atonal against polytonal! Identity-protective cognition may be heavily implicated in these compositional ideologies. As most prominently manifested by Wagner against Brahms and Schoenberg against Stravinsky, to be a composer in the late 19th and much of the 20th century consisted of aligning yourself with one of these social circles. To stray from your camp was to jeopardize your social standing—and perhaps your livelihood.
After postmodernism, compositional ideologies, though they exist, are not nearly as fundamental to the existence of a social circle. We seem to have accepted all of the music that came before us as equally valid and deserving of a response. Without going into any quality problems that may have arisen as a result, it is clear that social circles are far less bound by compositional ideology. It follows that one’s ability to make a living as a composer should be less bound by them. If true, this illuminates just how delicate society’s notions of the canon may be if its boundaries are determined not by aesthetics, but through social structures.
Classical music programming–which, like all other industries, is more or less dictated by its market (audience)–encourages over-polishing a canon at the expense of creating new work. Is there a way to understand this in the context of identity-protective cognition? Beyond our seeming predisposition to favor repetition over the new, the continued reality of constantly performing the same group of masterworks with very little variation is heavily tied up in the social reality of the concert hall, the physical manifestations of which are literally built as shrines to the supposed creators of its canon. To enjoy newness, then, is to contradict the social foundation of the classical music industry itself. To me, this argument overpowers the More Information Hypothesis, which might suggest that better educated audiences would demand more new music. Either way, this logic forces me to confront an economic reading of music creation and performance. It is the intersection of audience demand with musical supply that creates a working market, and in the case of classical music, a canon.
In a way, however, this gives me hope for new music. It suggests that the acceptance of numerous compositional ideologies signals a shift in demand towards newness, and a social circle less committed to the practices of its parents. In other words, we may be in the early adoption phase for new music.
As Klein mentions in his article, pondering identity-protective cognition “is to stare into a kind of intellectual abyss.” The thought that any and every argument or claim we make should be constantly weighed for its motivating cognition is tiring, and it strikes me as a difficult task to regularly undertake. Nevertheless, it is one that seems particularly worthwhile from time to time if we, as artists, are to truly reflect the—inevitably social—human condition.