Part of a Series: The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook
- The dispassionate view of the mind – the idea that people are rational actors who weigh positives and negatives when selecting a political candidate or position – is wrong.
- We are driven to a great degree by our feelings and emotions when deciding which causes or people to support.
- Managing emotions is therefore a primary component of any persuasive effort.
- The New Atheists have been successful precisely because of their ability to arouse moral passion and emotion – not because of the dispassionate nature of their rational arguments.
- If you want to read one book on effective political campaigning, read Drew Westen’s The Political Brain. Like, right now.
The Rationalist’s Dilemma
In The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Drew Westen provides a magisterial overview and analysis of our current state of our understanding regarding how people make political decisions. Drawing on his own research as a neuroscientist, and on countless psychological, cognitive scientific and political studies, he argues that Democrats and progressives in general (among whom can be counted most Humanists) have long languished under a delusion: the “dispassionate vision of the mind”. Under this model, voters, when making a political decision, rationally weigh the negative and positive attributes and policies of different political candidates, finally choosing the one who will provide the greatest benefits for them.
If this were true, the best way for a political candidate to appeal to people would be to provide lots of detail about their policies, showing precisely how their policies would benefit the particular group they were targeting. And, indeed, this is often how progressive candidates (and Humanist organizations) campaign. Consider the original atheist bus campaign, funded by the British Humanist Association:
The argument is clear and eminently “rational”: 1) God probably doesn’t exist; 2) therefore you can stop “worrying”; and 3) this will help you enjoy your life. Not believing in God, suggests the advert, will provide greater utility when compared with believing in God, and therefore, weighing the positives and negatives, you should not believe in God. The language used is anodyne and emotionally inert: the “probably” softens the blow of the initial statement, and “stop worrying” and “enjoy your life” are both tepidly-worded sentiments. The ad seems, in short, to be appealing to the dispassionate view of the mind.
The problem with this view of the mind, as Westen draws out using numerous empirical studies, is that it is almost completely false. While people’s rational evaluation of differing policy positions or value-stances do have an impact on voting decisions, the vast majority of variance in political decision-making can be explained by how people feel about a given candidate, party or (by extension) set of values. The gut is central to political decision-making, and should therefore be central to all attempts to convince and persuade.
That persuasion requires more than logical argument has been understood since Aristotle, who divided the mechanisms of persuasion into three categories: Logos (rational argument), Ethos (the personal characteristics and credibility of the speaker) and Pathos (the capability of the presenter to arouse emotions in the audience). As I’ve argued, while Humanists and freethinkers tend to be exceptionally comfortable with Logos, they often seems oblivious to the importance of Ethos and antagonistic to Pathos.
That progressives tend to deny or ignore Ethos and Pathos, Westen argues, is a symptom of their “irrational emotional commitment to rationality”: they have such an emotional commitment to the value and importance of rationality that they are incapable of recognizing that the form of rationality they espouse plays little role in political decision-making. I call this the “Rationalist’s Dilemma”: freethinkers are committed to rationalism, and therefore feel that their appeals to others should be in the form of meticulous logical arguments, and that rousing the emotions is ethically suspect. At the same time, as freethinkers they are compelled to bow to the scientific evidence which demonstrates that human beings infrequently make important decisions following the model of the dispassionate mind. What are we to do?
Bow to the evidence.
As Elizer Yudkowsky poetically describes, “Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can.” The truth is that we are emotional creatures. Speaking to people’s emotions - going for the gut – is smart, not unethical. As Westen argues, “There is no relation between the extent to which an appeal is rational or emotional and the extent to which it is unethical”.
If we want to win in the marketplace of hearts and minds, we have to speak to hearts as well as minds. In any case, as philosophers like Nelson Goodman and Catherine Elgin have argued, the emotions are an essential part of our cognitive apparatus, and cannot be avoided. An emotional response is a necessary by-product of any accurate, detailed description of human values and experience. To eschew emotion is to eschew accuracy, to deny detail, to banish the very stuff of human life from our persuasive pursuits.
The choice freethinkers face is not between emotional appeals and rational appeals, but between effective appeals which intelligently harness the emotions, and ineffective appeals which do not. If we want to lead more people down the Freethought Road, we should heed Westen when he says that “sometimes leadership isn’t about moving to the left, or moving to the right. It’s about moving the electorate.” Managing emotions, not marshaling facts is, Westen argues, the primary goal of any political campaign.
Let’s Get Emotional
Freethinkers are not always, and have not always been, so emotionally tone-deaf. Robert Ingersoll, the “Great Agnostic” and hero of the American Golden Age of Freethought, was a peerless orator with an uncanny grasp on the emotional aspects of persuasion. In his 1877 speech on ‘The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child‘, he spoke out against corporal punishment and in favor of the rights of the child, way ahead of his time:
I do not believe in the government of the lash. If any one of you ever expects to whip your children again, I want you to have a photograph taken of yourself when you are in the act, with your face red with vulgar anger, and the face of the little child, with eyes swimming in tears and the little chin dimpled with fear, like a piece of water struck by a sudden cold wind. Have the picture taken. If that little child should die, I cannot think of a sweeter way to spend an autumn afternoon than to go out to the cemetery, when the maples are clad in tender gold, and little scarlet runners are coming, like poems of regret, from the sad heart of the earth — and sit down upon the grave and look at that photograph, and think of the flesh now dust that you beat. I tell you it is wrong; it is no way to raise children!
Note the nature of the argument here. Ingersoll does not dispassionately list the reasons why he is against corporal punishment. Rather, he paints a detailed, emotionally-compelling picture designed to rouse moral outrage and disgust. The descriptive details – the dimpled chin of the child, the maples and “scarlet runners” in the cemetery – are strictly logically irrelevant to his argument, but are central to its emotional power. Someone trapped between the horns of the Rationalist’s Dilemma might argue that removing such details would make the argument more honest, more logical, more rational - and in so doing they would rob it of its power to sway the listener.
Indeed, much of the success of the New Atheists (particularly Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins) can be seen to stem from their emotional appeals. The arguments they present against the existence of God are, without exception, old news. None of them add anything truly “New” to the discussion. What is new is the passion and emotional force with which the New Atheists have made the question of God a moral issue, a question of values. Consider the now-famous opening of The God Delusion:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
There is is no argument here: what Dawkins offers is a moral indictment of the character of God, designed to illicit outrage (or amusement, indignation, surprise, or some other emotion) in the reader. Much the same can be said of Hitchens and Harris. While they certainly provide arguments in favor of their positions, what captured the popular imagination, and inflamed the modern atheist movement, was their emotive appeals to the moral sense of their audience: their spirited attacks on honor killings, female genital mutilation, restrictions on free speech and other questions of moral value. That these gut-grabbers are so often spoken of as the epitome of disinterested rationalists demonstrates how deep a hold the “irrational emotional commitment to rationality” has on the freethought movement.
What Westen’s research (and others, like Marcus’ The Sentimental Citizen and Brader’s Campaigning for Hearts and Minds), Ingersoll’s speeches and the success of the New Atheists indicate is the necessity of consciously and intelligently crafting Humanist appeals to active emotions in readers, listeners and viewers. Humanists have moral values – the values of reason, compassion, and hope for the future – which we want to spread in the public sphere, and that means being effective persuaders. We need to ditch the dispassionate vision of the mind in favor of a fuller, more accurate view of human cognition and motivation. If we want to be successful in the marketplace of ideas, we need to go for the gut.
Future posts will show you exactly how this can be achieved.