The death of rationalism & the rise of passion

President Andrew Shepherd: Look, if the people want to listen to —

Lewis Rothschild: They don’t have a choice! Bob Rumson is the only one doing the talking! People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.

President Andrew Shepherd: Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.

American President, 1995

All the elegant, nuanced reasoning in the world will not make an iota of difference to the average Trump supporter. In fact, given Trump’s anti-intellectual stance, shared by those who want him in the White House, such nuanced arguments are much more likely to bolster their support for Trump than lead them to reconsider.

I find this a terrifying notion. Reason has always been subservient to emotions (as Scottish philosopher David Hume indicated), and the antagonism between these two states of mind has been well-documented since Plato. Yet the prevailing view among philosophers has been that reason is the guiding principle to which we strive. A rational life, philosophers have stated, is a fuller life.

“Do nothing … without full inquiry, or hurried into it by any passion,” Marcus Aurelius says in his “Meditations.”

Science and psychology have supported the accuracy behind this — that the preferred course, the one that is most beneficial, takes into account intuition, but relies most heavily on logical analysis underpinned by evidence. That eventual direction may not be the one our intuition steered us toward.

In other words, humans profit when they’re able to change their minds. Being able to change our minds requires that reason triumph over emotion, that we recognize our innate confirmation bias and find and embrace contradictory points of view when presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Emotion has extraordinary power. This is nothing new. Persuaders and dictators have always induced our most primal, destructive impulse, because they know how uncomfortable it makes us to resist those impulses. When it comes to our emotions, the easier, straighter path is simply to give in to them, especially during disruptive periods — like the one we’re going through now. Fear of the other, fear of change. Anger that the world is more complex than our cherished, uncomplicated traditional beliefs.

Rational people, educated people see these influences roll out across history and fight against them. Why? Because education at its most effective nurtures and expands our critical faculties, sharpens our intellect, and broadens and disciplines our reasoning. These faculties, so nurtured, prepare us for living and allow us to identify destructive trends and threats to our well-being. A continued commitment to improving these faculties allows us to live better, safer lives.

The New York Times ran a fascinating, elegant and forceful argument Friday from a former acting CIA director, Michael J. Morell on why he, a former George W. Bush administration official, was voting for Hillary Clinton. Also on Friday, David Brooks continued to dissect Donald Trump as he has done week after week, with a column directed at those Republicans who hadn’t exactly endorsed Trump, but who didn’t actively oppose him, either. Brooks’ analyses have been powerful and on point.

Elegant. Forceful. Powerful. On point.

Good arguments, underpinned by robust logic. In these times, reason is a lighthouse. And reason should have influence. But you can’t reason with a person who refuses to listen.

The media’s opinion and editorial departments have for months launched broadside after broadside at Trump, analytically dissecting his contradictory and inflammatory rhetoric. At any other point in history, this furious, exacting disapprobation would have destroyed a candidacy — it is vociferous, bipartisan, and very nearly universal. But these millions of cautionary words have done almost nothing to dent Trump’s popularity.

I’m no expert in demography, but I’m willing to bet the average Trump supporters, the ones attending his rallies and screaming, “Lock her up!” in response to mentions of Clinton, don’t read the op-ed pages, or even the news. They see the media as complicit, as Trump maintains, in an anti-conservative, specifically anti-Trump agenda; complicit too is anyone who would contradict how they feel with facts. Anger is their defining emotion — and anger is perhaps the most powerful motivator of all. People content with the status quo have little reason to seek change, after all. But anger is inherently destructive. While, in evolutionary terms, it may help cope with an immediate threat, anger disrupts the relationships that help build a functioning society, even lead us to work against our own best interests (national socialism and communism are two prime historical examples).

As a side note, we might ask where all this fear and anger are coming from. This is the end result of an all-too successful decades-long campaign to get us to give in to our basest emotions and ignore the uphill, uncomfortable course of using reason as our guide. The GOP has, since the ’90s, made an effort to dismantle the education system, a motivation aligned with its other subversive agendas — to impel a Sharia religiosity, restrict the minority vote, undermine solid climate change science, cultivate distrust in government institutions, and embolden cynicism about the media. And not just in the U.S. Michael Gove notoriously declared the British public “sick of experts” during a interrogation on the U.K.’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union.

And it has made this anti-intellectual stance — this modern day irrationalism, this embrace of cognitive bias — a point of pride to revel in. It’s not hard to understand why. An educated populace can see through the charlatanism of modern politics. The more you know, the less likely you are to fear change or get angry when change comes, as it inevitably will. The poorer your analytical skills, the easier you are to influence.

These voters do not read op-eds. Like their candidate, they believe, most probably, that they don’t have to read or view anything to make their penultimate decision. It’s easier to make sense of a world filled with ubiquitous 24/7 information if you can cherry pick only that which supports your beliefs and disregard the rest. This is all probably driven by some evolutionary trait I’m unaware of.

Using reason is hard. Overcoming our prejudices takes work. Making sense of the complexities that attend being conscious, intellectual creatures requires effort.

In encouraging the embrace of our least constructive emotions while simultaneously dismissing evidence-based reasoning, a large part of society is working to unravel thousands of years in which society has struggled to place rationalism first. When we put our fear and anger ahead of reason, we hand ourselves to tyranny. I wonder if we haven’t reached that tipping point with the Trump campaign.

Sometimes, when presented with the choice to drink water or drink sand, people will drink the sand anyway.


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