Why being reasonable doesn’t change minds

Eleanor Gordon-Smith is a reporter, ethicist, and former champion debater. Currently at Princeton University, she has written a useful book, Stop Being Reasonable, challenging the belief that all you have to do to change someone’s thinking is to present the facts in a logical, rational manner.

The book came out of a program Gordon-Smith produced for This American Life. She wandered around Kings Cross, Sydney, waiting for catcalls, and so she could talk with the catcallers to persuade them that this was unacceptable behaviour. Despite all the arguments she put, the catcallers were unconvinced, instead thinking that women liked their attention, and that they were complimenting them. After all, what is there not to like about their intentions? Her conclusion was that people are more persuaded by ego, emotion, self-interest and identity.

Gordon-Smith tells a range of stories of people who have changed their minds in extreme circumstances. As a former debating champion she used to put a lot of stock in the idea that reason could influence people’s decisions. Her experience suggests this rarely works.

Gordon-Smith said shame, in particular, leads people to cling to their beliefs when they’re presented with conflicting, yet credible evidence. “People will bend themselves in unbelievable cognitive loops, trying to avoid the sensation of loss that comes with admitting that they were wrong,” she said. We’re not going to easily give up our beliefs if doing so makes us feel shame.

After speaking with the catcallers, Gordon-Smith came to understand the importance of emotions, how she was feeling about the responses she was getting. During her conversations she thought she wasn’t speaking clearly or intelligently. Then she realised that those feelings indicate that “you are speaking and not being heard”. Her conclusion:

“If you want to understand reason, if you sincerely want to understand how we can do better at changing other people’s minds and our minds, you will need to do a better job of engaging with what makes us human. Because the flaws and the foibles but also the ways that we think all go into reason in a way that we need to understand.”

Drawing on philosophy, Gordon-Smith asks many useful questions in her book about our belief in being reasonable, that is presenting a case rationally, based on logic and facts, as the best way to persuade people.

What is evidence? She asks. Are sensory perceptions evidence? Or feelings? When is there enough evidence to believe something? Do different beliefs require different amounts or types of evidence? And what is knowledge? The even bigger question: when is it ever possible to know anything? Does ‘being reasonable’ mean being unemotional?

Most of us learned long ago that changing our minds about something that matters is far messier than any well-constructed argument will allow. Debates won’t work. As Gordon-Smith eloquently puts it (pp. 11-12): “They are moments between people – messy, flawed, baggage-carrying people – and our words have to navigate a space where old hurt and concealed fears and calcified beliefs hang stretched between us like spun sugar, only catching the light for a second or two before floating out of view again. ”

Of immediate relevance is her analysis of what happened in Kings Cross with her attempts to change young men’s minds about the unacceptableness of catcalling. In trying to explain that women’s laughs in response to a catcall didn’t mean they liked it, the men saw no possibility that there was something here that they did not understand. Rather, Gordon-Smith had it wrong, or at best, could only speak for herself, an isolated, non-typical piece of evidence.

Gordon-Smith examines the role of testimony as evidence, of particular relevance to situations where women’s testimony is dismissed, as with the lads in Kings Cross. She draws on the work of philosophy professor Miranda Fricker who has identified what she calls ‘testimonial injustice’, namely suffering an injustice when the person you are talking to deflates your credibility based on their prejudices, as when “defendants of colour are dismissed by police because of their race, or when women’s reports about how much pain they are in are dismissed because of their gender”. (pp. 36-37)

The essential point she makes is that: “Words do not work in the same way for everyone.”

What value words have, depends on whose mouth they are coming from. Power imbalances need to be considered when trying to solve problems. Words don’t have a standardised value. So assuming we can have a rational conversation based on everyone using words in the same way and having the same worth is misguided.

Another example that is relevant here is ABC presenter Leigh Sale’s experience of a man publicly trying to kiss her at a charity event. What is hard to believe is that the man thought he was attempting to add some humour and light entertainment to the event. When confronted about his behaviour he was upset his judgement ‘wasn’t better’. How could he not know that publicly kissing someone who has not invited him to do so is dominating behaviour – inappropriate, unacceptable, and sexist? How could the young men Gordon-Smith interviewed not accept that women engage in all sorts of behaviours to avoid unpleasant and potentially dangerous situations? If you watched SBS’s excellent series The Hunting, you would have seen how this lack of insight and understanding of girls’ behaviour plays out in practice.

Commenting on ‘the kiss’ Pru Goward points out that: “Being kissed is about agency. It is the first invasion of personal social space we experience. Mostly little boys avoid it from the time they can wriggle out of an adoring aunt’s embrace and stomp on her foot. Girls are given less latitude.” Being kissed is just one of many behaviours that negatively impact girls and women. As Goward asks: “If little girls grow up believing they are not able to reject a personal space invasion, what chance do we have of ensuring our daughters will truly believe it is okay to say no to sexual advances?”

With such unwelcome advances, as well as far worse behaviours, when called out, men often claim they didn’t mean anything by it, it was not their intention to cause offence, and really, women just can’t take a joke. When pressed for an apology, the result can sound like one, but actually avoids taking any responsibility for understanding what their behaviour means or for changing that behaviour.

Here it is useful to read and digest Steve Biddulph’s article on What to expect in an apology that’s genuine. Using a political example, yet a response that’s typical, Biddulph points out the word trick involved in the response: “Well, look, if any insult was taken, I sincerely apologise.”

Biddulph points out that “The problem is, you can’t apologise for someone else’s feelings. An apology can only be about your own behaviour, or it’s no apology at all.” So if you’re going to apologise, don’t start with ‘If ….’

Biddulph also points out the importance of showing real shame, that we know we are at fault, and we will take action to make amends.

While a person may well be offended by comments and behaviours, there’s a broader issue for people to consider. What we say and how we behave need to align with acceptable standards for a civil society.  Most people make adjustments so as not to be rude, step on people’s toes, needlessly upset relationships. In the examples above, men and boys need to learn what the standards are for how to treat women and girls in respectful ways, based on how women and girls perceive the behaviour and accept that this is the standard they must live up to.

Perhaps it is difficult for some people to understand and accept how these behaviours look, feel, and are experienced by women. But if we’re to progress with changing people’s minds, then some real effort is needed to understand how people think about something, what has influenced their thinking, and that that view has credibility for them.