Is Rational Argument Worthless?

This piece ran in newspapers in mid-January, 2019.


The other day, a serious thinker about American, whom I know, explained to me a conclusion that he’d reached:

“Rational argument doesn’t touch people’s political thinking,” he declared. “What moves people are ‘representations’” – by which he meant, he explained, powerfully evocative images that plug more deeply into how people think and feel.

He said that America’s founders – who were creatures of that period known as the Enlightenment – had faith in the power of Reason with a capital R. And he noted that the two of us had been raised in that Enlightenment ideal.

But we can see now, he continued, that “people are inescapably more primitive in how they operate than our Enlightenment founders – with their idea of people making rational decisions — imagined.”

To illustrate this, he cited an example from the time of the Vietnam war:

“People called out some of the horrors of the Vietnam war until they were blue in the face. But opinion barely moved. Then came a single picture – that naked Vietnamese girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old, running down the road in agony from the burns she just suffered when American napalm rained down on her. That picture moved opinion more than all the rational arguments people had made.”

Such examples, and the sorry state of American politics today, had driven him to the conclusion that, if we want to affect how people are doing their politics, “We need to give up on rational argument and provide them compelling images – visual or otherwise – to grab people where they really live.”

I acknowledged there’s a lot to what he was saying. And we talked a bit about how, after the Enlightenment (whose shining lights included people like Jefferson and Madison), there came another generation of deep thinkers, like Freud and Dostoyevski, who showed the role of our (often irrational) passions.

But I argued that it’s a mistake to throw in the towel. “We can’t afford to be just primitive in our ways of relating to things,” I said.  “We can’t afford it because our species has gained such powers that that it’s absolutely necessary that we are governed by rational thinking.”

We cannot accept, I argued, that just because it’s hard to get people to respond to rational argument – like how the evidence makes crystal clear our urgent need to respond energetically to the challenge of climate change, and how our failing to do so would be an act of profound moral irresponsibility for which history will not readily forgive us – we should fight the political battle just with impactful images.

My friend claimed that climate change was the perfect illustration of his point. Despite the fact that the rational argument could not be stronger, he said, “It’s still possible for one of America’s two main parties [the Republican] to take the indefensible positions it does to block responsible action, and not pay a political price for it.

“Doesn’t that prove the impotence of the ‘evidence and reason’ approach?”

You and I have lived long enough, I said to him (we were both born in the 1940s) to know that “rational argument can be stronger than it is in America today. In the America we grew up in – in the mid-20th century — rational argument often did rather well in guiding policy.”

He agreed that the power of rational thinking in American politics had indeed diminished over recent decades. On both sides of the political divide.

But then he also cited the “tribalism” especially on the Republican side, which has people choosing a political party that seems right for “people like them,” and then –when it comes to policy – adopting whatever position that party espouses. Group identity first, with policy beliefs adopted to conform.

When the power of the rational is obviously so fragile, he maintained, we really should focus our efforts on how to use powerful images — “representations” — instead. “Why not,” he asked, “when they are so impactful, and when so many Americans seem not to respond so well to reasoned argument?”

“I can see that it would be tempting to give up on the rational argument at times like these,” I replied. “And maybe what you recommend would be more effective. But there’s a problem with ‘representations’: that problem has to do with Truth.

“One of the most powerful political ‘representations,’” I continued, “was the famous Nazi propaganda film (from 1935), ‘The Triumph of the Will.’ That film very effectively sold the image of Nazism as something beautiful. But we all know how deeply ugly Nazism really was. It wasn’t these beautiful Aryan bodies doing their healthful exercises, it was very different bodies piled up in death camps.

“Because such ‘representations’ work as well for lies as for the truth, it is necessary for people to think critically and rationally about their political choices, lest they get led down very dark paths like that.

“Truth matters especially in a democracy. It is no coincidence that it was those Enlightenment founders of ours – who believed in the capacity for reason to lead people to the truth – who not only believed democracy could work but also successfully broke new ground for the world in establishing a pretty good one.

“So,” I said, “I’m not going to throw in the towel on rational argument. I’ll write reasoned arguments to my readers on the right, despite having reason to question whether even the strongest and truest such arguments can budge them, or even reach them.

“I figure that – given the dangers we now face — we have no rational choice but to fight for the role of the truth, and of rationality, in our politics.”

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