Reason with Prose, Not Poetry


One of the insights of the excellent book The Enigma of Reason is that “reason” isn’t some disembodied analytic faculty, but part of a broader cognitive toolkit. And, it doesn’t really have the catbird seat we like to think. This is pretty obvious to many people; at least when it comes to the “reasons” of those with whom they disagree. And some of the basic propositions were explicated rather well by David Hume over 200 years ago.

But if you conceive of reason as a form of argumentation aimed at those who don’t agree with you, then in many cases dense and stolid may be superior to poetic and stirring. If you are looking for reasons to entertain or consider views with which you disagree you need a good argument to chew on. Reasons to align with countervailing intuitions.

To give a concrete example, most people seem to admit that Adolf Hitler was a stirring orator. But I’m pretty sure that few modern Neo-Nazis were immediately converted by watching his speeches. If you don’t already believe in his propositions Hitler’s speeches just seem sinister.

That’s an extreme example of course. But it gets at the point. The conservative thinker William F. Buckley was often praised for his command of the English language, but I know that many liberals find his prose pretentious and tedious. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ pieces elicit almost orgasmic praise from liberal public intellectuals, but non-liberals often judge that he’s simply indulged.

My point here is that reasoned and dense discourse, which nonetheless maintains clarity, may not persuade in one sitting through force of argumentation. But it is far more likely to push the needle with someone who begins at sharp contradiction with the core propositions. In contrast, sermons convince those who are already primed to be carried up the heights. Sermons don’t really make cogent points, because they already take for granted you agree on the points.

Addendum: Please note that the above applies to the small proportion of the population fixated on the necessity of reasoned arguments. Most people are convinced by social cues of what is, and isn’t, acceptable for their ingroup. Basically, the audience that I’m talking about here are the sorts which read political magazines rather than listen to talk radio or watch Samatha Bee. If they are religious they are the sorts who actually read the Nicene creed and attempt to understand the Athanasian formula.

14 thoughts on “Reason with Prose, Not Poetry

  1. I think the humor technique can be effective but is so often misused. Colbert, Stewart, Bee, Maher, Oliver so typically overplay their hand by lecturing that it’s a turn off. If you can get someone to laugh at themselves then you’ve succeeded in showing them perspective. I thought this one by Maher struck a good balance: https://youtu.be/D9l1_14wO84. Those on the Right might say “Well played.” when they see this rather than being forced to hear a 7 minute screed by John Oliver where he EVISCERATES Trump and is right about *everything* as if there is no rebuttal. SNL actually does a pretty good job of this with skits like “The Bubble” and the Trump voting pug. Portlandia, SWPL blog also did this well.

  2. As you hint at in your addendum, the literature pretty convincingly makes the case that in terms of persuasion, the aphorism you cite is exactly backwards.

    Poetry is far more effective at convincing those who don’t agree with you. Prose convinces those with whom you share agreement on the fundamentals but who may be undecided on a particular matter. Logic can convince your friends, but not your enemies for whom motivated reasoning can overcome any logical argument.

  3. i know all that literature. it’s in the book i cite. people are resistant to facts. the probability of convincing someone in any given conversation is ~0. but what’s your evidence that preaching at them does any good? if you preach about communism to a right-winger it’s not inspirational, and if you preach to a atheist socialist about christian family values you’ll get eye rolls.

    as a contrast, take a look at matt stoller vs. TNC as per my example. stoller’s a little hysterical but he doesn’t try to convince you with the truth you know, he’s trying to expose truth to you. TNC presents pretty much zero novelty to anyone. he’s just a really good preacher of the faith to the faithful, and to those who disbelieve he seems to be a blind fool.

  4. Depends on what you’re trying to reason.

    If you’re trying to reason with a dubious woman at a bar as to why she might want to come back to your place for a coffee, poetry works far better than prose, as longstanding historical anecdotal evidence attests to.

  5. a 7 minute screed by John Oliver where he EVISCERATES Trump and is right about *everything* as if there is no rebuttal.

    I always thought that self-deprecating humor was the best kind of humor (and the most gentlemanly, too). So I find the likes of Russell Peters and Henry Cho (to give very vulgar and clean, respectively, examples) very funny – they poke fun at themselves, their own parents, their neighbors and friends, in other words their own people and heritage, and when they do make fun of others, they are merciless toward all, not just to their perceived enemies.

    The thing that is so off-putting about much of the mainstream (that is to say, leftist) “comedy” is that it – hysterically, I might add – punches down. It’s all “Haha. Look at how evil and stupid our political opponents are,” the implicit message of which is “Wow, just look at how morally superior WE are.”

    Years ago, I was at a Margaret Cho performance in Seattle. She had the crowd in stitches with routines about her Korean family and its absurdities (the foibles of one’s family is something to which most of us, whatever our background, can relate). Then she began ranting about President GW Bush and went on and on and on… Even the very left-wing Seattle audience stopped laughing. 15 minutes into the ranting, there was DEAD SILENCE.

  6. To give a concrete example, most people seem to admit that Adolf Hitler was a stirring orator. But I’m pretty sure that few modern Neo-Nazis were immediately converted by watching his speeches. If you don’t already believe in his propositions Hitler’s speeches just seem sinister.

    That Hitler’s speeches were mesmerizing or stirring makes little sense to the modern audiences who are inured to all the modern media techniques. To understand the appeal of Hitler’s speeches, one has to listen to OTHER contemporary German speeches (either by the socialists and communists on the one hand and the conservatives on the other).

    Compared to the shrill denunciations of the former and the staid, monotonous pronouncements of the latter, Hitler was very good at seizing attention and then building up a crescendo of sound that quickly had the crowd riled up. I don’t remember which speech it was now, but there was one particular I watched that captivated me, in which he began the speech with total silence for seemingly minutes. The crowd started to get restless, then agitated, then quite loud with noise. Then Hitler broke the murmur of the crowd with a thunderous speech. The content of speech almost did not matter.

    In another speech, which I think was given at the Opera House, was in the aftermath of the accusations from the Western Powers that Hitler planned to conquer the world. He was quite humorous in that one, poking fun at the absurdities of such an idea by naming all the countries that he – jokingly – meant to conquer. He had the entire crowd laughing (of course, it wasn’t so funny in light of the wars he launched later).

    The keen understanding of mass psychology that Hitler and other Nazis displayed was really ahead of its time, even though it may not look that impressive to us today after 60 years of TV programming and mass-manipulation techniques we have witnessed. But back then it was quite something.

  7. Moralistic language leads us to action.

    But for it to so lead, one must already be among the converted.

    The trouble with the internet is that we have too many audiences.

  8. “the probability of convincing someone in any given conversation is ~0.”

    Kevin Drum wrote that he almost never changes his mind immediately in the face of persuasive evidence, that it takes him some time to come around – but he does eventually. I think that’s my case too. Reason, reiterated, can help make this happen. Not for everyone though.

    Partial tangent regarding Ta-Nehisi: I think it’s pretty obvious that the guy suffers from depression and writing is a way for him to deal with it (no idea if he’s ever said this though). When his writing focuses on other people and moves away from some his most-charged subjects, then I think it’s persuasive. A good example is a piece he wrote about Frederick Douglass reconciling with his former owner in a way that was quite persuasive and non-indulgent, refuting the idea that the reconciliation proved that slavery was benign.

  9. @Brian

    moves away from some his most-charged subjects, then I think it’s persuasive.

    His pieces on red-lining and incarceration are really good.

    He never offers any practical proposals or solutions to the problems that he discusses, but that just puts him in with 95% of other writers and commentators.

    I couldn’t get through this last piece. It was just a litany of one thousand and one wrongs, real and imagined.

  10. @iffen yeah, i stopped about half way through. it very much reminded me of Chomsky in that if you want to read a totally one sided history of something then he’s your guy.

    re: changing people’s mind – i find that sometimes if you make good points people won’t acknowledge you may be right face to face but, the next time you talk to them, you can tell they’ve come your way a bit.

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