“Every one of the stories in this book is testament to the fact that it is possible for people to make these radical changes where they let go of bad beliefs and they get closer to the truth.”
Eleanor Gordon-Smith is the author of Stop Being Reasonable. Having always thought of herself as a persuasive speaker, she set out (for an episode of This American Life) to convince men on a Sydney street to stop cat-calling. The experiment did not end with any of the men agreeing to stop cat-calling, but it prompted Gordon-Smith’s interest in situations where people actually had changed their minds about something important to them. What had caused their about-turns? Had it been reasoned discourse? Stop Being Reasonable is the result – and it’s the book she discussed with Ellen Cregan at Readings Carlton for our most recent Kill Your Darlings First Book Club Event.
Thanks to Readings, NewSouth Books, Ellen Cregan and Eleanor Gordon Smith. Our theme song is Something Elated by Broke for Free.
Read Ellen Cregan’s review of Stop Being Reasonable in our May Books Roundup.
Read an extract from Stop Being Reasonable.
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Meaghan Dew: Hello and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew and I’m thrilled to bring you another of our First Book Club conversations. Eleanor Gordon-Smith is the author of Stop Being Reasonable. Having always thought of herself as a persuasive speaker, she once set out to convince men to stop cat-calling. Her evening did not end with anyone agreeing to do so, but did prompt an interest in situations where people actually had changed their minds about something important to them. What had caused their about turns? Had it been reasoned discourse? Stop Being Reasonable is the result, and it’s the book she discussed with Ellen Cregan at Readings Carlton for our most recent First Book Club event.
Ellen Cregan: Hello everybody.
Eleanor Gordon-Smith: Hello. Is that working, did I break it? It doesn’t sound like it’s working.
EC: Can you all hear us? Great. So before we begin I’d like to acknowledge that we’re meeting tonight on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay respects to the elders past, present and emerging. Welcome to Readings Carlton, my name is Ellen and I’m the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club host. The first book club is, it features a debut book every month, either fiction or nonfiction, and brings together a review, excerpts, interviews with the author, podcasts and events, like the one we’re at tonight. And this evening we’re going to be discussing our First Book Club pick for May, Stop Being Reasonable, by Eleanor Gordon-Smith, who’s sitting next to me. Eleanor Gordon-Smith is a writer and radio broadcaster working at the intersection of academic ethics and the muddy chaos of life between real humans. Welcome Eleanor.
EGS: Thank you very much, it’s a delight to be here. [Applause].
EC: So Eleanor and I are going to talk for about thirty minutes, and then there’ll be time for some questions, I’ll give you all a heads up when we’re gonna open up to questions, so you have time to think of one. And what we’re gonna do first, is to start with a reading for those of you who haven’t yet had a chance to read the book. I just realised I didn’t get the page open for you, sorry…
EGS: That’s okay, I’ll get there. There’s two seats down the front while I find…
EC: There are two seats down the front.
EGS: And there’s one sort of halfway in the middle. So for those of you who don’t know, the book is a collection of true stories about people who change their minds in really high-stakes ways. So what I’ve done in the book is try to find people who change their minds about things that, like, really matter about the things that threatened to unravel the way they saw the world or the way they saw themselves, things that really threatened their entire identity. And the book is a series of interviews with them, sort of woven in with some philosophical…pontificating about what those stories might be able to tell us about the real world, and about the philosophy of changing our minds more generally. So the idea is that by talking to these people about their stories, we might be able to get a better sense of what rationality is, and what reason is in the first place. The hope is that we can go from the real to a slightly more abstract picture of what rationality even is. So this is the ending chapter, about a man who discovered that his family was not in fact his family. And this is a rumination on the process of interviewing all these people, and trying to find out what their mind changes tell us more generally about what it is to be rational, when we are being persuaded.
In Peter’s story, and for that matter in all the others in this book, I was only moved by the way that people pressed forward out of chaos towards a life worth living, despite not having the answers to their questions. Towards the end of our conversation, Peter said, laughing, ‘this feels like therapy,’ and in truth, I felt that way in a lot of the interviews I’d done for this book. It felt intimate to hear stories of these upheavals. I was struck by how varied these people’s paths to truth were, and how often muddy, ordinary things played a role in getting them to see the truth. like their trust in other people, and their sense of self and what they valued. I was struck, too, by how regularly these things featured not just in their ability to see the truth, but in their ability to live through it. these were stories of big upheavals, moments of terrible confusion, where the bedrock and everything on top of it starts to shake. As Peter says, ‘I was lucky, you know, I think my sense of self must have always been fairly strong. If it wasn’t fairly strong, a revelation like that could destroy you.’ I kept mentally returning to the two questions I thought about in Alex’s story. Is it possible to approach such moments rationally, and is it ethical to try? I feel bitterly disappointed by how smugly our climate of public argumentation presumes that the answers to both these questions are yes, and therefore treats the task of changing each other’s minds as combat – or worse, as entertainment, built on the lucrative fiction that being really good at reasoning just means being really good at arguing. It’s an abdication of our intellectual duty to the nuances of rationality, but more importantly it’s an abdication of our duties to each other.
EC: Thank you, that’s so much better than the passage I chose, mine was really depressing.
EGS: Also this is an uncorrected proof, there’s a sentence in there that I was like ‘I’m sure I deleted this…’
EC: Oh no! Sorry.
EGS: It’s fine.
EC: That’s publishing for you.
EGS: It’s a bonus sentence.
EC: So I’m not a person who often reads philosophy books at all, and when I found out that I’d be reading this one I kind of panicked that I’d somehow be unprepared, which is a strange thought, but it’s a super readable book, and it’s really accessible as well.
EGS: I’m glad.
EC: Was this something that was important to you as you were sitting down to write it?
EGS: Yeah, absolutely. So I think one of the strange things about this book and something that my publisher is dealing with a lot, is that it’s really hard to categorise.
EC: It is, yeah.
EGS: Like, it’s nonfiction, it’s interviews, it’s kind of me having a bit of a soliloquy about what rationality even is – and it’s also quite a lot of philosophy in a sort of gentle introductory way. And so I see it in, like, self-help, and I see it in philosophy, and I see it in nonfiction, and I see it in interviews, and it’s like, all that is true. It was really important for me that it was accessible, so I’m really glad to hear that it was. I think philosophy has done itself a disservice in the last little while by earning a reputation as something that exists only in the abstract, and that it has to be kind of complex and frightening, and the result of that is that a lot of the philosophy we see in the public sphere is kind of trivial, and, like, bad, because the people who really know their stuff are not sort of trying to communicate it to a wider audience. And I think that’s really a shame, because there’s a whole lot of sophistication that we would be well off to have in our public discourse. So this is a very, a very small attempt to try to bring some of that complexity to a sphere that I think really needs it.
EC: I think it certainly does, and it’s almost kind of strange to see a living person describe themselves as a philosopher.
EGS: [Laughs]. Yeah, I’ve got to be dead, with a wig, right?
EC: Exactly, a white wig preferably. So you open the book by talking about an exercise in mind changing you undertook a couple of years ago on the streets of Sydney, which was also a part of an episode of This American Life. Can you tell us about what happened and how it went down?
EGS: Yeah, I would love to. Um…do people know This American Life? Okay, good. Sometimes I have to be like, it’s on NPR… so, what happened was I had met Ira because I was interviewing him for a show that he was doing in Australia, and then he just sort of sent me an email out of nowhere, being like, ‘do you want to do something for the radio?’ and I wish I had a more sincere explanation for why I had decided that I need to go out and make this radio program, but the truth is when Ira Glass emails you and says do you wanna be on the radio, you say yes. So what I did was, I took a microphone and a recorder out to Kings Cross, which is the party district in Sydney, and I waited to be catcalled, I waited for men to do something that sort of felt like street harassment, and then I would turn around to those guys with a microphone, and I would say, like, ‘come here, what did you just say, say it into the microphone, and tell me – what were you hoping for? Like, if this had gone as well as it could possibly go for you, what would that look like?’ and you’ll be amazed to hear that they couldn’t answer very consistently or very well, and instead what I got was this really strange recitative of motivations, where some of them said ‘I’m doing this because I sincerely think that I’ll get a girlfriend,’ some of them said ‘I’m doing this, sort of, it doesn’t really have much to do with you, I’m just doing it for the fun of being in a pack who’s doing it as a sort of bonding thing’. One of them said that he’d met his girlfriend by doing this…
EGS: ..And so I said, ‘cool, can I use your phone and just call to check that?’ and he was like, no. So I walked around for a couple weeks doing that, and the aim of the exercise had been to try to change their minds, and to try to have a conversation with them, at the end of which they would say, ‘oh, you’re right, I see that women don’t enjoy this as much as I’ve been thinking that they do.’ And it’s important background that I have always thought of myself as someone who was able to persuade people, and that might – I realise I had been naïve, but I grew up doing an awful lot of debating, an awful lot of public speaking, I had spent my life in philosophy already, which meant that I felt very at home with arguments and premises, and I sincerely thought that if I had a conversation with these guys – you know, I didn’t think that it would be easy, I didn’t think it would be instantaneous, but I definitely thought that I would be able to get some of them to have a moment of reflection and reversal. And instead what happened was I spent many hours of my (I now realise) finite life, walking around with these guys trying to have conversations with them, and in not one of the conversations did I manage to convince them to stop catcalling. I did have success with one guy, where he had been saying that not only did he like whistle and call out compliments, but he smacked girls on the, on what he called the bum, and I got him to commit to not doing that anymore, and the full conversation of that is, is still available on the This American Life website. It took the better part of 90 minutes talking to him one-on-one to get him to commit to what was, you know, assault, to not doing assault anymore. And it was happening at roughly the same time as the election in the United States in 2016.
EC: Oh dear.
EGS: Yeah, it was a bad time to be suddenly pessimistic about our ability to reach each other and to change people’s minds. So that was, that was sort of my run-up into thinking about persuasion and what happens when real people really do change their minds.
EC: And the conversation you have with that guy, whose name is Zach, it’s quite bizarre – like you’re very seriously sitting there saying, ‘this…this, people don’t like this, here are the stats, it makes me feel unsafe, it makes me feel frightened,’ and he just can’t, he just can’t kind of connect with you on that level? That’s really odd.
EGS: And you know what’s weird about it? Is even now, when I listen to it, I can’t actually bring myself to dislike him.
EGS: Like, he was funny, and he was charming in a kind of strange sort of way, he was boisterous, he was fun, I could see that what he was trying to do was, was really just have fun, and bring girls in on the fun, and I could see that what was happening was it was this part of himself that was like load-bearing in some way, and if he let go of this piece he could tell that a part of him was going to crumble, and so he couldn’t let go of that piece.
EC: Yeah, he completely believed in himself, which is what…
EC: ..I think, people do believe in themselves for things like that, that they do on a regular basis, and that they don’t… because he couldn’t see the fear.
EC: He could only see the reaction, which was like, laughing.
EC: Which is what happens when you get catcalled sometimes.
EGS: Yeah, and that was actually part of what made me start to see the whole thing as, like, a philosophical puzzle – it had been, you know, a radio assignment, and obviously as a philosopher I see all things a little bit philosophically, but there was something really interesting about me saying, ‘yeah but, like…these smiles that you’re seeing on the faces of the women that you’re doing this to, they’re not evidence of the conclusion that you think they are – they’re evidence of my conclusion.’ Like I know, I’ve been the woman smiling out of uncomfortableness. I’ve been the woman who’s laughing to get out of a situation, I know that that is unreliable evidence, that someone’s having a good time – in fact, I know it’s probably positive evidence that they’re having a bad time. But he was taking the same evidence and reaching a completely different conclusion, you know, he’s sitting there saying, ‘but she’s smiling, she’s laughing, she must be having a good time’. And there was something so philosophical about that, to see the same piece of evidence, like, refracted in different ways towards different conclusions, where each of us felt like the inference that we were drawing was a rationally responsible inference. And that was an interesting moment of seeing a philosophical conundrum acted out in real life.
EC: It would have been. And just one more question before we move on to the book – what was the reaction to this episode?
EGS: Right, thank you for asking that question, I have a lot to talk about. So what happened was, we put the program to air, it was an unusually long whack of time because we – this is one of the things that, you know, we spent hours in the production room thinking, like, how do we put this together, because This American Life obviously does narrative a lot of the time, and this was quite odd in that it didn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end, it was just a series of conversations. And in the end, Neil, my producer, was like, ‘I think these conversations are so interesting that we just press play on the tape.’ and it was really weird – I’ve never put something to air without editing it a little bit, but what you hear is just the run of tape. And a lot of people listened, a lot of people were affected by it, I was really touched by the number of women who got in touch to say ‘this was really resonant for me’, and ‘thank you,’ but then the weird thing that happened was, the piece concludes with me saying, like, it took 90 minutes of conversation with one man to get him to commit to not literally assaulting women – it ends on what I thought was a very pessimistic note, and a sort of bewildered note. And I got email after email, and like, direct message after direct message, from people saying ‘congratulations on your use of rational persuasion!’
EC: Oh no…
EGS: ..‘I was really impressed with how you changed these people’s minds with logical argument.’
EC: In 90 minutes though, to stop assaulting!
EGS: Yeah, I know. Congratulations! And someone offered me a prize, like, would I accept a prize for the successful use of argument in public – and I was like ‘I will, but…’ [Laughter]. No, I didn’t. And it was a really funny sort of, like, Rorschach blot moment, where I was like, oh, I’m looking at these stories, I’m hearing this tape as the person who was defeated in every single one of these arguments, and I’m understanding them as failures, which they were, because they didn’t change anyone’s mind, not really. And other people, I think, heard what sounded for all the world like a rational debate, where I was making a point, another person was making a different point, we were both listening to each other, we were both being perfectly polite, no-one’s crying, no-one’s screaming, and the fact that it was a rational debate, I think, struck people as more important than the question of whether I’d done anything worthwhile with it.
EC: Do you think people are constantly – because I think this, I was reading an article in the Guardian just before I came here, and it’s about a guy who is a Muslim, and he was getting trolled online by an anti-Muslim troll, and then he ended up meeting up with the troll, and they sit down they have a really normal conversation. And he’s just kind of interviewing the guy to see what his life is like – but I was kind of really blown away. I was like, surely there’s gonna be some huge argument – but then the same thing happens with you, when you sit down with your catcaller it is really reasonable. Why do you think that we kind of feel like things like that are going to blow out?
EGS: I think it’s a lot easier to make sense of why people think different things than us if we cast them as being a deviant in some way. I think it’s a really horrifying conclusion and therefore one that we want to resist, that people can have the appearance of rationality, can be kind, sensitive, decent, evidence responsive, awake, good communicators, and yet draw completely heinous, utterly irrational conclusions. You know, we want people’s crazy to be more visible. We want to think that we can just look through a crowd and, like, pick out the ones with the wrong beliefs. And of course that’s a fiction – it’s a comforting fiction, but a fiction.
EC: Definitely. So the book is a series of case studies about different people, and they’re all quite awful, or significant…
EGS: [Laughs]. People keep saying this to me, it’s true… there’s a couple of funnies in there.
EC: There are a couple of funnies, but they’re really, they’re major events in people’s lives, and sometimes they’re traumatic events in people’s lives, and really, like, self-forming moments in people’s lives. What was your approach to writing about other people’s trauma, in the cases where there was trauma?
EGS: Right, good question. Um, so there’s six stories, one of them, the opening one is my relationship with the catcalling experiment, and that’s kind of our way in, because that’s me changing my mind about how we change minds – and then the remainder of the book is devoted to interviewing one person per chapter about their mind change, and trying to work out what that particular moment can reveal to us about, you know, a more capacious account of rationality, one that admits of the personal and the humane and the emotional, and it sort of tries to make the case that many of the things that we have ruled out of the public sphere, by saying things like ‘you can’t be emotional if you’re trying to change your mind,’ or ‘you have to check your ego or your sense of self at the door,’ the project was, let’s look at one of these mind changes under the microscope, and see why and how some of those personal things might be playing a role in the fact that these people ultimately did arrive at the truth. And then, you know, can we see a case that not only did they pragmatically need to use those things, but philosophically it was perfectly rational of them to think with their emotions, their sense of self, who they trusted, who they loved, and the idea is that in each one of these stories, you know, we will see a case for admitting some of that personal material back into what we think it is to be reasonable. But as you say, a lot of the stories are really heavy, and the reason for that is that I…wanted very much to talk to people where the mind changes mattered.
EGS: I didn’t want stories of a minor political reversal on, like, how important are franking credits, you know – I wanted something that was the kind of mind change that is the most resistant, usually, the one that comes with the most friction and the most embeddedness in the way someone sees themselves. And very often that’s about things that it’s kind of traumatic to share. So you’re right – I mean the middle story and the ending story are sweet and are uplifting, and are funny and are comic relief, but then there’s a story about a woman who discovers that her husband has been harbouring a criminal secret, and when she discovers that secret she starts to be afraid for both herself and her very young child. There’s a story about a woman who does not know whether her own memory of being abused as a child is accurate, and she lives her whole life where one day she thinks it happened and one day she thinks it doesn’t, and she goes back and forth and back and forth, and what’s remarkable about that is that the parent who might have abused her is still alive, and they still have a relationship – it’s her mother, and she still cares for her mother, and they have this kind of relationship over the top of that uncertainty. I don’t wanna go through all the cases, there’s a man who leaves a cult, which is a little less traumatic, that one’s a little more kind of about love, and how love can lead us to the truth, but how did I approach writing about people’s trauma? Two things. The first was I was really lucky that people wanted to talk to me, I was really lucky to be able to create an environment with these people where they knew that what I was trying to do was to be genuinely curious about what life had felt like at that moment, and I was trying to be super non-judgmental – you know, I think there’s a lot of shame associated with changing your mind.
EC: Oh, completely, especially in these sort of fundamental ways.
EC: Like leaving a cult, like, that is huge.
EGS: Yeah, or discovering that someone has been concealing this terrible criminal secret, it’s really possible to look back on a previous self who believed that thing, and feel like, ‘how could I have been an imbecile,’ and to not really want to talk about it. So I think feeling like they could trust me was super important, and I feel very lucky that they did trust me, you know, that’s not a small gift to give to a writer. And I hope to have been able to do some some service to it. Um, but the second thing is, I was – it sounds really like cliché, but I was guided by hoping that it can help.
EGS: And I was really optimistic that, you know, many of us have not gone through exactly the same things, but many of us have endured something like a blueprint of the same thing. Like many of us have felt shame looking back on something we didn’t realise, many of us have changed our minds in a way that makes us feel different as a person now from the way we were then. And it’s the kind of thing you can just bury and not know a lot about. So hearing other people talk about similar things was, I hoped, helpful.
EC: Definitely. Um, so kind of, again from this angle, what was it like actually getting the book published? Like, what were your ethical considerations and name changes and legal stuff and things like that?
EGS: So much. [Laughs].
EC: I can think there would be.
EGS: There’s also a lot on the cutting room floor that just kind of didn’t come to fruition. So there was this story that I really loved, about – do you remember in Hawaii when there was that nuclear missile alert?
EC: Yeah, people’s phones…
EGS: Yeah, everyone’s phones went off with this alert saying ‘incoming nuclear ballistic missile, not a drill, like, seek shelter.’ and some people looked at it and went, oh no, and like, threw their children into stormwater drains and tried to keep them safe, and other people looked at it and were like, pfft, and went and had some pancakes. And I really wanted to get, like, what – and I had this great scene with these people where the parents didn’t believe it and the kids did. And the parents were like, ‘shoosh, we’re trying to eat pancakes,’ and the kids were like, ‘you’re gonna die.’ and I just loved that as a scene – I was like, how do you each try to persuade the other that you’re right, while there’s a sense that the clock is ticking. And that one’s at the cutting room floor, kinda just because it didn’t really, like, come to fruition, the interviews weren’t as, like, spicy as I would have liked. But, you know, how did I think through publishing the stuff in the book – there are a couple pseudonyms, where the cases involve crimes there are pseudonyms, but where the cases are more uplifting, you know, people were just, like, stoked to be able to talk about this thing that was really important to them. A lot of them are really excited to be in the book, and you know, you have to sign releases and get permission and stuff, and a lot of them were really, you know, ‘tell me where I can buy a copy, I’m gonna tell all my friends, thank you so much…’
EC: Oh, that’s so good!
EGS: ..and being involved, and even the ones where, you know, the cult situation where that is kind of a heavy thing, those people were thrilled to be involved with the hope that they could help someone in their situation. So that, that definitely made it – I don’t think I would have published if anyone had felt uncomfortable. I think it’s not, it’s not my goal here to betray anyone or to expose things that they don’t want exposed. It was very, like, collaborative.
EC: Not at all, because this is the kind of, these are the kind of stories that you could, that a person with terrible morals could be like, ‘expose, gotcha!’, like, ‘look at this person, like, betraying things.’
EGS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was really important to me that it didn’t feel prurient or salacious or tabloid in any way, it was really important for me to kind of, to take these quite extreme stories, but to use them as a way of seeing the things that exist in all of our smaller versions of the same story.
EC: Definitely, I think it does that very well.
EGS: Thank you.
EC: Do you think it’s possible to define what being reasonable actually is? Or is it something that is different for each different person?
EGS: No, I think it’s absolutely possible to define it – I just think we haven’t got to the definition yet. So, this is something that I experience a lot as a philosopher, is that very often you see people in public, particularly like pundits and politicians, and people who have appointed themselves the chief executives of rationality, you’ll see those people, like, issuing injunctions and commands about what it is to be rational, where they’ll say with enormous confidence, like, ‘you’ve got to calm down,’ like, ‘if we’re gonna talk about this, you need to, you need to wait for those emotions to pass,’ or they’ll say things like, you know, ‘the only evidence that we have to support this particular belief is that so-and-so said so, so we’ve got to wait for more evidence.’ and it’s like, why isn’t the fact that they said so evidence? So there’s a host of questions around what it is to be rational that include things like, what is evidence?, and under what circumstances are you mandated to change your mind? Are there different thresholds of evidence for different kinds of belief? So when I say that I have confidence in a moral belief, am I saying something that requires different or more evidence than the beliefs that I have about you, or the outside world, or what I’m doing tomorrow. And then there are questions about, how am I meant to relate to other people? So when other people disagree with me, am I supposed to downgrade my confidence in my own beliefs? How am I meant to relate to the task of persuading other people? These are all enormously complex questions that have philosophical, like, clouds behind all of them that go back for thousands of years. So I can’t tell you the frustration, I cannot, like, I literally lack the vocabulary to describe the hair tearing agony of seeing people on Q&A just being like, ‘oh, well, being reasonable, it’s just a matter of being unemotional,’ It’s like, I will need several citations for that. So I do think there is an answer, but we don’t know what it is yet. And I think it’s an enormously rich philosophical question that we do ourselves an enormous disservice by not asking in public.
EC: Hmm. And I completely agree with you with the sort of confidence thing, like the person who’s being reasonable is often the one who’s like, so sure of themselves, so sure that they can just sort of sit back and be like, ‘oh, you know, that’s just what it is…’
EGS: Yeah, yeah.
EC: Which is just like…it’s totally downplaying, like, why anyone has emotions, or how we might use those emotions, because they’re not necessarily a bad thing.
EGS: No, exactly, and there is a kind of, there is an anemia to the way that we talk about these things, you know – like the challenge of what truth is and how we’re meant to find it – that’s the oldest and best challenge in all of philosophy. And for people to treat it as though it’s just a simple task of, like, checking the science and staying calm, it’s an insult to the longevity of these questions, you know?
EC: Completely. So the case study that I possibly found the most interesting in the book was that of Nicole, who you briefly mentioned before – can you tell us a little bit more about her story and what happened to her?
EGS: Yeah – you’re really going in on the trauma ones.
EC: I’m really in on the trauma.
EGS: So Nicole is the woman who has to worry, or wonder, whether her own abuse, her own memory of abuse is accurate. And it’s an extraordinarily long story. It will be on This American Life in two weeks…
EC: And it’s also in the book, which you should all buy and read.
EGS: That’s true, that’s true. [Crosstalk]
EGS: So Nicole – the short version is, she was interviewed by a psychologist when she was very young, and she made a number of allegations against her mother. She said that her mother had sexually abused her, and had burned her feet on the stove. And then when she was 16 – so she was really young, like, well, well before the age where you would expect that memory to be kind of firmly encoded – and then by the time she was 16 or 17, these horrible catastrophe dominos had happened around her, such that – she obviously didn’t live with her mother, because her mother lost custody and was taken away from her, her father had been her sole guardian, but then had a stroke and died, and then she went into foster care, she was bounced around different group homes, and she didn’t have a relationship with a foster carer that went for a very long time, and she realised when she was 16 or 17, and there was no one in her life who had known her as a child, and that she didn’t even really understand why she didn’t see her mum. So she’s in this situation where she’s got no parents, she’s got no living relatives, and she knows her mum lives a short drive away, and she’s like why don’t I see this woman? So by sheer coincidence, at that sort of period in her life, the psychiatrist who interviewed her as a child phoned her, and said ‘I’m speaking at a conference and there are videotapes of the interviews that you and I did as a young child, and I think they’re a really compelling piece of evidence about how children make allegations of abuse, would it be okay with you if I showed those videotapes at a conference?’ and she says, ‘yeah, of course – but I would like to see a copy of those tapes, I would like to know what I said when I was a child.’ and he was hesitant, because that could obviously be really upsetting and derail her adolescence, but he went he played her those tapes – and in fact before she’d even seen the tapes, just while they were having a conversation, she suddenly had this flash of realising, you know, oh, I have this memory, I can recall my mother hurting me in these ways, and she said she remembered that before she’d seen the tapes. And so she went, like, out into her life thinking, you know, I’m certain that my mother did this. And what’s amazing is that even at the time, she said, ‘I still want to have a relationship with her, it’s still important to me not to cut her out of my life – but I feel better now that I have the certainty that she did this.’ and then a few years later, because this was at the peak of the recovered memories thing, a few years later another psychologist looked into her case – so the first psychologist had published a journal article, he gave her a pseudonym, called her Jane Doe – and a couple years, later a psychologist looked into that case and tried to work out who Jane Doe was. And she hired a private investigator, she looked through court records, she interviewed people who had been involved in the case, and she finally found out the name of the minor at the centre of this case. And when she did, she published an expose arguing that there were reasons to doubt whether the abuse had ever occurred at all. And Nicole was furious that someone had looked into her private life like that – but again, what’s kind of remarkable is, I could imagine if I was that angry at someone, just thinking ‘you don’t know anything, and anything you say has to be wrong, because you were the one who thought it was right to investigate in a minor with a pseudonym – like, how could any of your conclusions be right?’ but in fact what Nicole thinks, it’s very scientific, you know, she looks at what that person wrote, and she thinks, you know, ‘you’re right – like, there is a chance that I’m wrong.’ and she agrees that there is very good reason to doubt whether this story is true. And so from that moment on, and she’s had this relationship to her own childhood of feeling like some days she’s an abuse victim, and other days she was a kid who lied.
EC: Mmm. So this is kind of, I went around in circles writing this question. So with this situation, time is a really big factor, and the passing of time and the remembering of truth. Do you think that when something significant or traumatic of this level happens, and years later either the truth comes out, or a different fact comes out, or a different opinion or a view comes out, that it can sort of change how you view that incident in relation to who you are, and how you’ve defined yourself from that incident in terms of who you are?
EGS: Oh yeah. We’re phenomenally unreliable narrators, you know?
EGS: Like, we’re just really bad at being truthful – no, we’re really bad at keeping track of what is in fact true about our lives, and that’s where, you know, one of the other stories in the book deals with that – can I talk about that?
EC: Yeah, yeah, of course.
EGS: Okay, cool. So one of my favourites in the book is a guy named Alex. And Alex was this very archetypal kind of person, so for his whole life he had grown up around, like, rolling hills and the canals of Cambridge and Oxford, and he had parents who liked candlelit dinner on, like, an oak table – his best friend was Roger, and Roger’s a horse, and he was just that kind of guy. And he was 19 when this reality TV show came to see him, and they said, ‘are you interested in a transformative experience?’ and they didn’t tell him what it was, and he sort of thought, ‘why not, I’m 19, I’ve got nothing better to do,’ and signed on the dotted line. And it turned out that what they were gonna do was this thing called Faking It, which is where they take someone of an archetypical identity, and they train them in the exact opposite. So the program had taken, like, house painters and turned them into conceptual artists, they had taken skinheads and made them conduct the London Symphonic, and what they were gonna do with Alex was take this very sort of poncey upper-class gentleman and train him as a bouncer in the East End of London.
EC: And he’s quite little as well, isn’t he.
EGS: He’s, like, smaller than I am. Yeah…did the line make it into the book where, like, I say that his body kept a respectful distance from the image of athleticism? I hope so…
EC: I think so, I think that was in my uncorrected proof…
EGS: So he, so yeah, you’re right, he’s very small. And not only was he going to be a bouncer in the East End of London, he’s gonna be a bouncer in the East End of London in the middle of the 2000 European football championships. Like, this is not a small task. And I will conceal whether or not he was successful, and I will conceal what made him doubt this – it is all in the chapter, available now – but what happened was, when he was on the train on the way home from filming the last day, he started kind of thinking about the life he was going back to, and he realised, ‘I don’t know which of these identities I’ve been faking.’ like it now feels that the bouncer is as real as the guy who loves the horses and the canals, insofar as neither of them is totally real. And what I use that for in the book is a kind of jumping-off point for a meditation about how we can do ourselves a disservice by demanding that we be inside a coherent story. And I think that’s such an, I think that’s such an interesting point – and it was actually something that I resisted for a long time, because stories have always been really important to me, and I have spent a lot of my time and my life as a reporter, and as someone who thinks that telling stories is really important. And it was actually by having, like, a series of debates with my partner – which is ironic, because it’s debates – that like, he’s very sceptical of narrative, and the idea that it could ever be a service to the truth. And it was in kind of working on this story and talking to him, that I started to agree that when we confine ourselves to a story about who we are, you can get into a kind of evidentiary loop, where you think you’re a certain sort of person so you act in a certain sort of way, and then it becomes a responsible inference that you are that kind of person, because everywhere you look you’re surrounded by the evidence of your own actions that you are in fact that kind of person. And I think that was the trap that Alex in the chapter had fallen into. And I think goes to your question that, you know, when you look back on certain parts of your life, you look at them through the lens of a story that you’re trying to tell, and very often that story can be irresponsible reporting or outright fiction.
EC: Hmm, definitely. Sometimes stories and narratives are a bit too convenient, and I think that you’re trapping yourself in a bit of a corner maybe.
EGS: There’s a wonderful thing that demonstrates this, which is, like, you know, Chekhov’s Gun is the principle that if you introduce a gun in Act 1 it had best go off by Act 3?
EGS: So there’s this great thing which is in the Harvard Study of Longevity and Happiness, they interviewed people over the course of their entire lifetime, to keep track of what made people happy. But obviously in the course of doing that, they found out a whole lot of other stuff about what happens in people’s lifetimes. And one of the greatest pieces of trivia from that study was that they would take a file, and be like, ‘Ellen, great to see you, it’s been, you know, 20 years since we last interviewed you, let’s check in on your ambitions,’ and they’d look at the file and they’d go, you know, ‘how’s your plan to be a doctor progressing?’ and then the person, having not become a doctor, would say, ‘oh, I never wanted to be a doctor, that must be someone else’s file.’ and of course it wasn’t someone else’s file, they had just lost track of that ambition, they haven’t followed it up, and they were being responsible editors about their own story, you know, there was a gun that didn’t go off, so they wrote it out of Act 1.
EC: Hmm, that’s, yeah, that’s really interesting. I did want to be a detective when I was five, so that didn’t work out for me, obviously. So this question might send us into a bit of a doom spiral, but I did want to get your perspective on the outcome of the recent federal election. So I think everyone I know or even have contact with was really shocked by the outcome – like even my parents’ friends vote left, and it’s really highlighted for me, even more than this was already in my mind, of how we’re all kind of living in a bubble a little bit. Why do you think we find ourselves in these really insular, like, echo chambers of just people who agree with us all the time?
EGS: This is something that we need to understand if we’re going to fix it.
EGS: So, hundreds of years ago, the architects of the philosophy of free speech were a bunch of wigged guys who are now dead, who had some really, like, phenomenally insightful things to say, and things that we still rely on. Things that were hopeful, that if we could only hear each other and engage in a kind of spirited combat of ideas, that we would get closer to the truth. And the idea was that in a healthy democracy, and in a civic space, one of the things that you owe not just the institution but each other, is a hearty clash of ideas where you listen to people of the opposite view, and each of you makes a good-faith attempt at trying to show why the other’s wrong. And the thought was, that’s the way that we can progress towards truth. That’s a demand of enlightenment. And I think one of the things that has changed since that was the fantasy, and a goal, and now, is sincerely just the commercialisation of the way we run debate. I think that, you know, we look around at the public sphere, and the climate of persuasive discourse that we find ourselves in, and we still talk about it as though it were just this Civic Square, where we go to stand on a soapbox and, like, deliver an oration about our sincerely held beliefs. And we forget that it’s, like, a multi-squillion-dollar industry, and that not just saying the things but being a platform that broadcasts the things, being the thing that, you know, shares the broadcast of the person who said the thing, and then sponsoring it and putting advertising in it, and branding yourself, and going on speaking tours about twelve rules to simplify and fix your life…
EC: [Laughs] Yep.
EGS: ..hypothetically. This is an industry that is enormously lucrative for the people involved in it. And also, that that means that there’s a whole commercial industry built on…profiling you as a customer and delivering you the things that you want. So like, Google will give you different results once it knows what your profile is. Once it knows your demographic, your Google results for a particular news item will reflect your political leanings. And that’s because Google wants you to click on things, and the people behind the pages wants you click on things, like, we live inside a conspiracy of algorithms that are designed to serve you as a consumer, rather than as a member of a democracy. And that is something that is enormously difficult to fight, because it’s just the ambience, it’s just the oxygen at this point. That the clash of ideas is money.
EC: Yep. I agree wholeheartedly, and that’s such a, that’s a real dark, true conspiracy as well.
EGS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean Alex Jones, people know who Alex Jones is? It’s the guy who runs Infowars.com. He’s like this puce-faced nightmare… [Laughter] ..and he is responsible for the conspiracy theory that the Sandy Hook shooting, which was the one where the children died, like the five and six-year-olds were massacred in their classroom – he’s responsible for the theory that that was a government operation to try to get Americans to give up their guns. So here’s a man who has publicised that for years. And in a custody battle where his ex-wife, you’ll be amazed to hear, made the case that he was not a responsible father…
EC: Oh really?
EGS: Mmm! So he said in the court filings at those documents – oh, I should have footnoted, that conspiracy theory is not a joke. The parents of the children who were actually killed in that massacre have been hounded day-in and day-out by people who knock on their doors…
EC: Yeah, people completely believe it. Like people are…
EGS: And they chase them and they say, ‘you’re an actor and you’re lying about your child dying, how dare you.’ I mean it’s, it’s horrifying. So he said, Alex Jones said in a court filing, that he is a responsible father, because ‘that person who came up with that conspiracy theory is a character that I play…’
EGS: ‘..as part of a brand. And when I go home at 5 pm I’m a responsible and completely different person and parent, who does not believe those things that will make a cheese sandwich with the crusts cut off.
EC: That’s just really yuck. What a yucky person.
EGS: And he does it for a paycheck.
EC: Ugh. So in a minute we’re gonna have time for questions, everybody, so please think of your questions, but I’m gonna ask one more question first, and it’s actually kind of a big one, so we might be a while. But um, how do you, what do you think it actually takes to change someone’s mind?
EGS: How long have you got?
EC: I mean, let’s give it five minutes maybe, everyone can think for five minutes.
EGS: Oh, I don’t know the answer, and my publicist keeps being like, ‘Eleanor, it’d be great if you could think of an answer…’ [Laughs.]
EC: Just a little sentence – it’s not a sentence long question, though.
EGS: No it’s not. Look…I embarked on the project of this book because I had failed radically at changing people’s minds with the apparatus that I had known and loved for so long. I had been so invested in the idea of talking to each other – not necessarily debating in the depersonalised sense of that word, but differently talking to each other and reaching each other. And what I was hoping to be able to give with this book was a sort of field guide to how people change their minds. And I think I have, insofar as what these are a series of true stories that, like, really intimately get to the bottom of what it was like for these people to change their minds. There’s a separate question about whether and how much that generalises, and I absolutely think that some of the lessons in this book are important things that we can take into our own battles with changing people’s minds. So there are insights in the cult chapter about the importance of recognising when someone’s belief is not based on what they believe, but based on who they believe, and the ways that we can kind of leverage that trust to be something that reveals the truth to them, rather than something that ensnares them in this situation where they’re constantly deferring to other people. There are lessons about really trying hard not to be ashamed of the things that we realise, and about how important it is to suspend doubt when we love people, and when we trust people. And there are lessons about paying attention to the fact that the way that we give credibility to people is going to be an enormous feature of how they change their mind, and lessons also of how that credibility can undermine particular speakers in the particular situation. So you know, in an economy of credibility, the same people who are always disadvantaged will tend to be disadvantaged – you know, the female, and people who are darker skinned than I am, and the people who are ‘not from here’, and who don’t you don’t talk the way that I talk, all these people will be disadvantaged by credibility. So I think those things in the content of the book are my attempt to give some small answer about what goes into a real change of mind, and I haven’t given up on the idea that rational debate will help. I haven’t given up on the idea that reaching people is possible, because every one of the stories in this book is testament to the fact that it is possible for people to make these kind of radical changes, where they let go of bad beliefs, and they get closer to the truth – and like, isn’t that the aim of enlightenment, and of philosophy, is to bring people closer to the truth. What I have given up on is the hope that we will be able to find anything like a one-size-fits-all guide to changing minds.
EGS: And I think that what I learned in doing his book, and in speaking to these people for months, was that to understand why any particular person changed their minds or might in the future change their minds, you have to have such an intimate genealogy of that belief. You have to know where it came from, what it is to them, how it sits in their sense of self, you have to know what their life is like, how things are going for them, and that’s not something that it’s easy to do, and there are many people to whom we do not owe that patience. And it’s very difficult to say with any confidence which simple three steps will change a mind. My hope is just that by attending to the true stories where people do, we might be able to find some of the nuances that we can take to our own persuasive crises.
EC: Because with this book, the other thing that you’ll learn, apart from just about – because you do learn a lot about changing minds in this book, and it’s so much longer than the few minutes that we have.
EC: And it is really nuanced, but it’s really about human connection and like how two people connecting on quite a deep level, how that can actually affect a change in someone’s life.
EGS: Yeah, I’m so glad you said that. Um, you know, and that gets to the the excerpt that I read at the outset.
EC: Yeah, exactly.
EGS: You know, you can’t talk to someone about this moment in their life without learning about their connections to the people around them, and without yourself getting a connection to them, you know? I felt, it did feel kind of intimate to hear these stories, because the story of a changing mind is a story of a changing person. And I think what was a really common thread was that people’s connections to the world and the people around them are such a valuable tool in keeping them plugged in with the truth.
EC: Hmm, definitely. And now it’s time for your questions, everybody. Who’s got the first one? There we go, I’ll just pass the mic down to you.
Woman: I’d love to think about changing people’s minds but sometimes I feel that the first step would just be to get them to agree to listen.
Woman: Have you encountered that as a preliminary step in the course of your work, and what have you done to just get people to join you, listen to you?
EGS: Yeah, it’s a really good question. Um…so this was something that was apparent in the, so in the catcalling experiment, one of the big problems that I had was that when I said something to these guys about why women didn’t enjoy it, I was the one saying it, and there’s no way out of that. Like I’m the mouth out of which my ideas have to come. And that sucks, because I’m young and female, and I have, like, mousy brown hair and glasses, and I occupy a kind of space in the cultural imagination where it’s very easy to think that I am a nuisance or an irritating feminist, or kind of worse and weirder, like a piece of decoration? And that made it almost impossible for them to hear what I was saying with the credibility that it deserved. And that’s not, you know, an observation of mine, that’s an old feminist philosophy observation, that’s something that people like Miranda Fricker and Jose Medina and Rae Langton have been saying for a long time, that getting people to hear you, and getting people to listen to you, depends not just on what you say but on who you are. And there are situations where that just sucks, and that’s just the end of the story. That means that there are certain people who just will not hear you. And certainly for me, a big thing was realising that that wasn’t my fault. So I spent a huge amount of time in that experiment thinking, like, I’ve somehow got bad at debating since I left high school, if I could just be more understanding of these guys, if I could just find out, you know, the one thing that would turn the key and unlock this, like, vaulted mind that I can’t get access to, then things would be different. And it’s like I’m failing every time they don’t listen to me. And it was a big turning point for me to just be like, no, like, it’s not it’s not on me, it’s not on me it’s on them. Like, I’ve done the best I can, and if I was someone else it would be different, but I’m not someone else, and I have to live life as this kind of body and person. What have I done to combat that? I want to be really clear that the following is advice that I got and dispensed as a radio person, and there’s a separate question about whether that’s what we should do as people. But in all the work that I have done as a radio person, and the interviews in this book, I have always tried to approach people with a genuine inquisitiveness about what the world seems like to them. And I’ve always tried to be as non-judgmental as possible, as interested as possible, and as sincere about, you know, like, I think I can learn from you, I think you can tell me something about how the world seems to you. And I really think you can get a long way with, like, a bit of eye contact and inquisitiveness. But there are points in my life where I’m like, I’m just not in the mood, I’m just not in the mood, and like, you’re not listening to me, and if we were on radio the way that I would make you listen to me is to listen to you first, and to get us in this kind of bond where I’m coming to you with my palm outstretched, and saying like, help me see the world as you see it, so that then you will feel like I too might be able to tell you something. But there are people who don’t deserve that, and there are times where it’s not effective, and learning the difference is something that I haven’t got the answer to yet. But I hope that’s even remotely useful.
EC: I think that’s very useful, I’m gonna use that. Questions, any more? Yeah, there you go.
Man: Apart from the ones in Kings Cross, how did you find the subjects for your book?
EGS: Oh, how did I literally find them?
EGS: People keep asking me this, and I don’t know the answer – it’s just like ‘be a reporter,’ I guess, I dunno. So Jack Hitt is, do you know Jack Hitt’s work?
EGS: Jack Hitt’s a reporter, and he writes for the Times, and he sometimes does work for This American Life, he’s just one of those, like, ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’ type storytellers, he’s a really like, he’s a campfire kind of guy, you know. And I heard, I love his work – he’s just like a magician with a sentence, he’s so pithy. And I listened to a lot of his work when I was writing this book, because philosophy has a real tendency to, like, catherine wheel out of control, and I wanted to listen to him, because he’s so great at just doing you so much with this much. And I listened to an interview with him, where he, this was ages ago, before the book, where he said, you know, ‘great reporters and great storytellers, they collect pieces of string.’ and what all that means is, any time you hear something, any time you’re in a dinner table with someone, any time you see a thing on the internet, you don’t just let it slide out of your brain, you think, like, that’s worth putting in my pocket. And then the day will come where you open this sort of box that was in your pocket, to mix metaphors, of, like, string that you’ve been collecting this whole time. And part of it was that, part of it was just that I had this sort of mental repository of stories that I had wanted to explore for a really long time, so I knew I’d always wondered, you know, what would it be like to live where a bedrock idea about yourself was not something you could certainty about? And then that made me think, well, you know, I wonder what kind of story might embody that, and then I thought, well, if you had a memory that was contested by scientists, that might be something that would give you that kind of uncertainty. So then I went out and I looked for that kind of story, some of them just fell into my lap – the final story, which is a meditation on how we can kind of choose the, the relationships that we have, and that we don’t need to be jettisoned into chaos by these discoveries, that was a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, and I’d heard that story since forever, and I always thought, like, this would be a great thing to write, this is a really good, like, interview topic. A couple of them, I…with all of them I started with the philosophy, so with all of them I was looking for, what would it be like to live with this kind of uncertainty. I want someone who changed their minds on the basis of what someone told them, I want someone who changed their minds on the basis of a probabilistic calculation, like, I started there. And with a lot of them I just reached out to sort of nodes that might have people in their network who had done that thing. So for the woman who discovered a secret about her husband, I honestly just wrote to a bunch of therapists who specialised in divorce, and I said, ‘if you have any clients who are interested in sharing their story, feel free to get in touch with me,’ and I gave my number to, like, hundreds of people on hundreds of forums, and heard back from a lot of people, and a lot of people…a lot of people were not right for the project. A lot of people were…were not able to kind of be inquisitive enough with themselves about what had happened, a lot of people were still in just like an anger phase. But the people that I spoke to, I was so lucky to find people who were so insightful and so trusting of me. Yeah, I dunno, just kind of fell together. [Laughs].
EC: They’re all remarkably reflective as well…
EGS: They are, aren’t they!
EC: .. For something so massive happening to them.
EGS: Yeah, yeah. I think… I think people want to talk about the things that have happened to them, and the things that they haven’t finished dissecting the meaning of. And a philosopher, I hope, like, is a good interlocutor for that. Because very often I would say, like, ‘does it feel like this?’ and they would be like, ‘yeah, but also on the other hand, maybe it feels like this.’ I would say, ‘oh, that’s interesting, it reminds me of this work that I read the other day by William James, it’s from the 18th century, the basic idea is this,’ and they’d be like, ‘that’s so right!’ you know, we’d go back and forth on the philosophy of the thing. And I think that, that sort of helped them be inquisitive in a way that I felt really like proud of.
EC: Hmm. We probably have got time for one more question, if anyone has one. I have one more question.
EGS: No-one in this audience has said ‘I too left a cult,’ that’s been happening at every single…
EC: Oh, who has, who has left a cult? Please raise your hand.
EGS: There’s like a troubling number of people out there.
EC: So my last question – so I started by saying I felt like I’m uninitiated to philosophy, which I probably don’t feel anymore after this conversation, but what are some philosophy books that you would recommend that…don’t have to be as accessible as this, but you think could be useful to all of us here tonight?
EGS: Okay great. Um, so number one is a book called Strangers Drowning, and it is fantastic. And it is something that my partner gave to me a long time ago, sort of as a uniting of my interests in public work and philosophy, it is a fantastic series of stories about people who take the kind of popular philosophy of doing the most good you can, and they take it to some wild extremes. So they’re people who, like, donate kidneys to strangers, that kind of thing, or people who give literally every last cent of their available income away to charity. And it’s a very beautifully done, almost fiction, like it reads like fiction, she’s just a master of the interview, you know, like, she takes kind of nonfiction actual dialogue from real people, and it feels like genre fiction, it’s an amazing piece of work – and it’s a kind of sitting with those people, and it’s a very deft introduction to a lot of that philosophy that, a bit like the work that I have tried to do, goes through the minds of other real people. Other than that, you know, philosophers, because of the endless professionalisation of the humanities, tend not to write books that are as wonderful – but I would recommend with the most force that I possibly can the work of Rae Langton, Rae Langton changed my life, Rae Langton is the person who you read and you feel like a bell that has not been struck til now. Like, it is the moment of realising, oh, like, other people have had this thought, and they can articulate the thing that I’ve been struggling to understand about my own life until now. She writes a lot on, like, women’s subjugation and the warping of free speech, and she was a huge influence in this book and I love her work. I also think, honestly, just for fun, people should read Peter Singer. I think he’s like a really weird person, he’s at Princeton as well, um, and, he is someone who is like cultishly, ha, committed to his own view, and he is consistent to a degree that you seldom see in philosophers. And I think his work is a fascinating study of what happens when consistency is taken to its extreme. And I think it’s worth reading – not because I think it’s right, I think a lot of it is wrong – but because I think it is a wonderful foil off which to have to justify your own beliefs to yourself.
EC: I love that idea of a forceful recommendation.
EC: I’m gonna have to use that phrase, I feel like I do that a lot. Rae Langton is her name, she is a genius, she is the best working philosopher right now. Rae Langton.
EC: I’ve been forced into wanting to read that! Good thing we’re in a bookshop, and you can buy this wonderful, wonderful, book, and you should all read it, it’s fantastic, and I’m gonna say Eleanor is happy to sign copies if you buy one…
EC: Thank you so much for coming out to talk to us tonight
EGS: This was a delight.
EC: And thank you all for coming, and thanks to Readings for having us.
EC: And goodnight! [Applause.]
MD: Thanks to Readings, NewSouth Books, Eleanor Gordon-Smith and Ellen Cregan. Do remember to check out more great fiction, commentary, criticism and memoir on the Kill Your Darlings website, and come along to our next First Book Club event at Bargoonga Nganjin North Fitzroy Library on 25 June. The book discussed then will be Little Stones by Elizabeth Kuiper. Until then, thank you for listening. Our theme song is ‘Something Elated’ by Broke For Free.