Of Theatre and Reason

I love action movies. Give me some good stunts, big guns and some fiery explosions and I’m in my element. I soak it up, enjoy a small boost of testosterone and feel like I’m just about ready to charge out of the theatre and take on the bad guys myself.

But, when I walk out of the theatre I don’t actually take on the bad guys. I don’t buy a small cache of guns and grenades and embark on some vigilante mission to save the world. I understand that drama may inspire some kind of emotional response within me, but practical considerations sometimes keeps me from acting on that response. Sometimes it is the other way around; practical considerations may inspire some action I don’t particularly feel like doing (hitting the gym instead of the couch). But what if some people had a tougher time making that distinction? Or, a more frightening prospect; what if some people were so good at theatre that they could conjure up a strong emotional response and inspire their audience to forego ever questioning their emotional response? What if you are their audience?

Recently a video by Phil Snider on homosexuality has gone viral. In it he compares the gay rights movement to the anti-segregationist movement in the 50’s and 60’s. He was using drama (fairly obviously; he pretends to have brought the wrong notes, etc) in order to make his point. But, as others have observed, what exactly was his point? This article at First Things that describes his speech as “brilliant theatre in service of a distortion” raises some very valid questions.

I do not mean to take anything away from his dramatic effectiveness, but there’s something in the technique he employed that so takes the breath away, and so impresses the audience, that it becomes difficult to distinguish the performance from the argument.

And what was that argument?

A valid question. The author speculates on precisely what the argument was and offers his rebuttal of it (all valid discussion) but I want to look at this whole thing from a different perspective.

Phil Snider made a highly dramatic point, but a point in which the argument was largely unclear. In other words, he presented his case with a high degree of emotional impact and dramatic flare but at the end of the theatrics one is left wondering, “what, precisely, was his case?” The conclusion of his argument is perfectly clear; support gay rights. The effect he wished to produce in his audience – and it is an effect which he quite likely did produce with a lot of people – was to accept his conclusion without questioning his argument. The effect was rooted squarely in drama, not in reason. His drama was intended to make people feel that who oppose gay marriage are analogous to the people who opposed racial equality. He wants us to feel that it is the same category of moral mistake simply being expressed in two very different flavours. One centered on race the other on sexual orientation. If opposing the one was evil then opposing the other is evil.

But does his “argument” work? If he were to simply stand up and deliver a far less dramatic presentation it quite likely would not have inspired the same emotional response from the internet audience that has caused this video to go viral. Suppose he made the hypothetical presentation outlined at the First Things article,

Racist white preachers used the Bible to support segregation, which was wrong; therefore conservative Christians who use the Bible today to oppose gay rights today are wrong. Future Christians will be as embarrassed over today’s opposition to gay rights as we are now over the racism in our past.

Such a presentation, as well as being profoundly boring, is the kind of presentation that begs to be questioned, probed and challenged. Surely when conservative Christians use the Bible to oppose, say, murder they are not wrong; why are they wrong to use it to oppose gay marriage? Is he not making a category error? If given such a presentation one could hardly avoid asking questions and challenging it; such a response would be perfectly natural.

But not with Phil Snider’s presentation. After listening to his presentation one almost feels ashamed to bring up questions. It would be rude to challenge his conclusion, wouldn’t it? What’s the difference? Why question the one and not the other? I say it is the dramatic element. Drama can be used to dissuade people from asking questions, from challenging, from thinking critically. It sometimes inspires us to action, sometimes guilts us into silence. In many cases, though, it specifically makes us feel as though it were somehow inappropriate to question or challenge. We are led to understand that polite society “just knows” what the right answer is and does not put up a fuss or investigate the matter.

The strength of drama

Just how powerful is drama in our society? To what extent have you, personally, been drawn into this? To answer this question, simply pay careful attention to the commercials you see. Television ads will often focus on image, on style, on conjuring up emotions more than they will on facts, arguments and evidence. Consider, for instance, this ad for a luxury car.

If you didn’t watch it carefully enough the first time, I’ll summarize it for you here. BMW is associated with beauty, luxury, power and beautiful women dancing to the music in the front seat. The ad says nothing about fuel economy, reliability (how often will it be in the shop), price (you don’t want to ask) or any other such practical considerations. The one question you are never, ever, supposed to ask when you see an ad like that is, “just how practical is it to buy that kind of car?” Such questions are meant to be pushed out of the viewer’s mind by the raw appeal to emotion. Many experts in our present day (including political activists and product marketing gurus) know how to bring people to an emotional conclusion while ensuring that they feel utterly ashamed to even think of questioning that conclusion.

Does it work? It must, or companies would not invest so much time and effort making ads that appeal so strongly to emotion. However, not all products take this route. Consider, for instance, your emotional reaction to an ad like this,

That commercial was focused almost entirely on the merits of the product. It is inexpensive, easy to use, seals perfectly, is strong, flexible, heat-resistant, etc, etc, etc. What kind of emotional response did you have? Probably virtually none (unless your roof is leaking). In fact, one of the first questions I feel like asking when I see an ad like that is, “yeah, right; does it really work that well?” Such skepticism is understandable for an ad like this, but how many people would ask that about the previous ad? Very few people would watch the BMW ad and ask questions like, “yeah, right; what rating did it get from the IIHS for crash safety?” How many of us watch the BMW ad and think, “Will I really get a beautiful woman in the front seat dancing to music?” The one ad inspires skepticism, the other ad emotionally manipulates the audience away from skepticism.

Consider that in yourself. Were you naturally skeptical of the emotionally pristine ad? I doubt it. Most people are not. However, the ad that focused on testable claims certainly does inspire probing and inquiry instead of blind acceptance.

Drama in social issues

The power of drama is obvious and it has been used, quite effectively, by those pushing various social agendas. Their primary methods are the following:

  • Define their target cause in the “victim” framework
  • Spin a tale of hardship and injustice; lots of personal trauma
  • Plenty of emotionally jarring stories / images

Think for yourself how these strategies have been employed. Homosexuals are constantly painted as victims of injustice humbly asking for nothing more than mere equality. Pro-abortion activists regularly utilize emotionally jarring stories about the victims of rape and incest as well as the emotional trauma of a woman who is simply unprepared for motherhood. Those who attempt to raise awareness of the poor and downtrodden tell tales of life on the streets, layoffs, being driven to alcohol and drugs and so forth. These are effective strategies, as history has revealed. When a social issue is presented in these terms the listening audience is far more likely to shut off their critical thinking and simply feel sorry for the “victim” and their heart-wrenching story. The fact that there may be a remarkably lousy argument behind the drama (or no argument at all) is completely irrelevant.

Why do these work so well? Frankly it is because people are emotional. This is not a bad thing, and hardly something to be smashed out of existence or anything like that. It is part of who we are and has, in many ways, kept us out of as much trouble as we could have been in. The problem is that we have taken what is supposed to be merely one of several aspects of our nature – our emotions – and we have given it authority to deliberate on matters without input from the other aspects of our nature. We are lopsided. We have become so accustomed to making decisions based on our feelings that we find it difficult to force our minds to consider what our hearts have already told us must be the case. Dramatists like Phil Snider are counting on that and using emotional manipulation to get people to unquestioningly accept his conclusion never looking back to see if he actually had an argument behind it.

The challenge for the Church

The church has been ineffective in persuading people of the truth of Christianity. People are rejecting Christianity much faster than they are accepting it. I want to suggest that part of our problem comes from making a similar mistake in how we present Christianity. We have followed the lead of society and divorced the mind from the heart. In doing so we then make one of two errors; focus on the mind to the exclusion of the heart or focus on the heart to the exclusion of the mind. Focussing on the mind is not sufficiently dramatic to persuade our present society. It has been observed by many that the single most effective argument against religion in general is the argument from evil; how could a loving God allow so much evil? However, it has also been observed by philosophers that, strictly speaking, this argument has little or no intellectual force. Its only force is almost purely emotional. Christian thinkers respond to the intellectual aspect of the argument but often invest too little effort in dealing with the emotional impact of the argument. That is where the battle really lies but we often miss that target altogether. Too much head, not enough heart.

On the other hand, focusing on the heart (to the exclusion of the mind) does not work any better because no matter how good our emotional story may be, secular society will always come up with a better one. The Western Church has become very skilled at presenting the Gospel of Christ with great stories, light shows, drama, moving testimonies and all the typical ingredients of the heart. However, it is but one emotional story among many. It can hope to do no better than merely hold its own against such competition; and it is not doing even that much. If we truly wish to succeed, we need something more, something we have overlooked. We need to stop spending so much time telling people how wonderful Christianity is (though we should not stop this entirely!) and invest more effort showing people how Christianity is true. In other words, we need balance. Heart and mind – remarried.

Persuading people of truth

The key problem in all of this is that too many of us make decisions based on our emotions without consulting our intellect. Those who wish to persuade us of something (consumer product, politics, religious claims, etc) will often focus on the emotional rather than the intellectual; infomercials being one obvious exception. The problem, though, is that relying too heavily on one aspect of human nature puts us out of balance and that causes other undesirable consequences. The same problem would happen if too much emphasis were placed on the intellectual, of course. Imbalance of any kind is problematic.

There are two key steps to correcting this problem. The first step is a society-wide step. People need to learn the dangers of emotional persuasion in the absence of intellectual scrutiny. It is the foundation of countless examples of manipulation and can be used to persuade people of just about anything. Emotion, unhinged from reason, is like an uncontained nuclear reaction. Emotion, balanced with reason, is like a nuclear power plant; safe, efficient and productive for society.

Of course, the intellectual-centric side of the discussion to embrace the dramatic element. Do not embrace it in such a way as to part company with the intellectual, but rather ensure that our theatre is informed by, and infused with, intellectually rigorous reasoning. Persuasion that is both moving and supported by solid evidence and sound logic. Reason without emotion, to continue the analogy, is like a nuclear power plant that never gets commissioned.

The second part of the problem is on the other side of the fence; the person doing the persuading. As much as the average person needs to use their mind a lot more, and their heart a little less, those doing the persuading also need to ensure their case is made with the whole person in mind. Aristotle described persuasion as having three components or modes:

  1. Ethos – authority
  2. Pathos – emotion
  3. Logos – logic / reason

Everybody claims to be an expert, or have expert opinion on their side, so nobody has forgotten the first one. However, the second mode seems to have been given an unhealthy emphasis in a large swathe of society, especially relative to the third. Phil Snider and so many other dramatists have been able to mold the views of an entire generation (or more) in part because they have mastered the second and in part because people have forgotten to employ the third. We are reaping the consequences of this imbalance – of allowing ourselves to unquestioningly accept the conclusions of those with a sob-story – and we will continue to do so until we rediscover the proper balance.

If Aristotle was right (and I would suggest he was) then the persuader has an obligation to touch on all three aspects of the art of persuasion. I touch on this briefly in Arguing with Friends and I point people toward resources to help them learn the fine art of logic. When you dialogue with others make sure you are presenting a holistic case for your views; follow Aristotle’s advice.

However, on the flip side, the one being persuaded (including you!) also has an obligation; to expect all three. If you find yourself being drawn in, emotionally, to some story in the name of some cause, hit the brakes! Start asking questions. Do not merely accept. It will benefit people individually, and society as a whole, if we all learn to employ – and expect – a more balanced approach to persuasion. We need the dramatists like Phil Snider, but we also need to logicians to ensure that the drama can also bear the weight of investigation.


2 thoughts on “Of Theatre and Reason

  1. Pingback: Apologetics: Fighting Last Year’s Battles, Last Year’s Way – Thinking Christian

  2. Pingback: Apologetics: Fighting Last Year’s Battles, Last Year’s Way | Christian Apologetics Alliance

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