Marcel Proust can tell us a lot about political echo chambers in the age of Donald Trump and Brexit


Written by: Bence Nanay, Senior research associate, University of Cambridge

For many people in the West, the past couple of years can be defined as a period of bitter social and political division. Two of the most important manifestations of this division, at least in public discourse, have been Trumpism and Brexit.

If you needed any sense of the bitterness of the divisions, just take a look at social media where the two camps slug it out, too often resorting to insult and abuse – the net result being that both sides are driven further apart by this dialogue, rather than being drawn together.

Of course, this is nothing new. What is Trumpism or Brexit now was the “Dreyfus Affair” for the French public in the late 1890s. Dreyfus was an artillery officer who was given a life sentence for treason in 1894. Half of French society defended him, pointing at the very weak evidence that supported this verdict, the other half attacked him and insisted he was guilty. While the Dreyfus Affair lasted, pro-Dreyfus and anti-Dreyfus people ended up at bitter loggerheads. Close friendships and even marriages broke up and some of the most prestigious salons split in two over it.

Sound familiar? The political divisions these days may be more obvious (you could not read someone’s political views on their Twitter feed at the end of the 19th century) but the poisonous atmosphere is the same. And this is where the author Marcel Proust, a supporter of Dreyfus, comes in.

Hidden deep in his À La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), is a telling anecdote of an aristocrat, Duc de Guermantes, who had slight anti-Dreyfus leanings – like most aristocrats apparently did. He met at a spa a couple of very nice, well-educated and friendly ladies who were pro-Dreyfus.

Whenever any revelation came out that was ‘damning’ to Dreyfus, and the Duc,
supposing that now he was going to convert the three charming ladies, came to inform them of it, they burst out laughing and had no difficulty in proving to him, with great dialectic subtlety, that his argument was worthless and quite absurd. The Duke had returned to Paris a frantic Dreyfusard.

The punchline of the Proust story – that rational arguments had merely resulted in entrenching Guermantes in his prejudices – should not surprise anyone in the light of present political divisions. Even if a conversation between a Republican and a Democrat does not deteriorate into a shouting match, it is very unlikely to bring the point of views closer together.

Its most likely outcome is that the Republican will be a little bit more convinced of her own truth and she will despise Democrats a bit more. And vice versa. The same goes for the Brexit debate. Any longish conversation between a Brexiter and a Remainer, if that would ever happen, is likely to radicalise both.

Suspicious minds

But then how should we talk to people who have different political views from us? Just avoid the sensitive topics? At this point, I can reveal an important aspect of the Dreyfus affair: Dreyfus was of Jewish origin. Many of his opponents were clearly driven by latent or not so latent antisemitism. Their reason for thinking that Dreyfus committed treason was not based on the (as it turns out, forged) documents presented to the court and discussed at length in the papers. Their reason was that a soldier of Jewish origin couldn’t be trusted with issues of national importance.

Perceptive eye on a divided societey: Marcel Proust.
Dutch National Archives, The Hague, CC BY-SA

Antisemitism among the French aristocracy at the turn of the century was rampant and Proust’s fictional characters reflected this very clearly. He gives an especially vivid description of the cousin of Duc de Guermantes, a prince, who was “antisemitic as a matter of principle” and who justified his friendship with one of the main characters, the half-Jewish Charles Swann, by claiming that he is not in fact half-Jewish, because he is the illegitimate child of a royal.

This is eerily familiar these days. The reason people demanded to see Obama’s birth certificate was not because of a well-founded doubt about where he was born, but the clearly racist idea that a black person is not suitable to be the president of the United States of America. And in response to this, patient and nonjudgmental explanation of how it is unreasonable to question that Obama was born in Hawaii (the sort of argument offered by Proust’s spa ladies) would be pointless.

Sometimes seeing is not believing.

Interesting empirical evidence for the emotional background of the bitter debates on social media not just about Obama’s birth certificate, but also about Brexit and practically anything related to Trump, comes from a recent study.

According to this study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), tweets with emotional or moral content are more likely to be diffused (a fancy word for retweeted) within ideological groups but they are much less likely to be retweeted across ideological boundaries. When it comes to political echo chambers, emotions are key.

This graphic from the PNAS study shows how exposure to opposition views has no effect on either side of politics.

Heart of the matter

There is a very general lesson here. We do not form our beliefs because we have rational arguments supporting them. We form these beliefs because they satisfy an emotional need. This emotional need may be an unsavoury one (to say the least) – as in the case of the Birthers or the opponents of Dreyfus. But we should also acknowledge that this is true of both sides of the political spectrum. Left-leaning liberals hold their beliefs for equally emotionally infused and non-rational reasons.

The best a rational argument can achieve in these politically divided times is that it radicalises your opponent. Instead, we should pay attention to our opponent’s emotional reasons for believing what she believes. Alas, this is much trickier than putting together a rational argument.

The Conversation

Bence Nanay receives funding from the European Research Council and the Flemish Research Foundation.


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