Stop Being Reasonable
Why is it so difficult to change people’s minds – both our own and others’? And why do we (still) hold rational debate up as the answer? These are provocative questions, given we are taught to place reason on a pedestal and “not get emotional” when we disagree.
Eleanor Gordon-Smith tackles these ideas in Stop Being Reasonable, a work that grew out of a series of interviews recorded in 2016 for the popular radio show and podcast This American Life. Carrying around a microphone, Gordon-Smith interviewed every man who catcalled when she walked past. She asked these men why they did it and attempted to persuade them to stop – but never succeeded.
This led to her questioning the effectiveness of pure rationality as a means of persuasion. She considers the difficulty we have in changing our own behaviour, as well as the way prejudice so often trumps reason, such that words are received differently depending on who says them. Gordon-Smith points to wrongful convictions and health misdiagnoses that are the surprisingly common results of unconscious bias and prejudice. And she tackles head-on what happens when multiple women make allegations of sexual assault against a prominent man and people still cry “innocent until proven guilty” – one of those arguments that is meant for the greater good but leads to such perverse personal outcomes.
Stop Being Reasonable is a deadly serious work. But the message is delivered with humour. The chapter on catcalling, “A treatise on the ways your dick is not like this burrito”, is worth the purchase price alone. In addition to her own experience, Gordon-Smith uses case studies to explore how we as individuals and as a society operate when it comes to changing, or often not changing, our minds. This is a work for 2019, as we grapple with remaining loyal to the tenets of free speech while staying tethered to fact-based reality: just consider the polarised debate around climate change.
Gordon-Smith does not have all the answers. But she gives us the tools we need to examine our biases and choose how we approach the decisions we need to make. For those of us who suspect the time for being reasonable – and not getting emotional – has passed, this is the book we need.
NewSouth, 224pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Eleanor Gordon-Smith, Stop Being Reasonable". Subscribe here.