Subject: Motivated Reasoning – The Dreyfus Affair
Event: Publication of Emile Zola’s open letter, J’Accuse, 1898
On January 13, 1898, a front page letter was published in a Paris newspaper by the French writer Emile Zola. Zola’s letter was addressed to the president of the French Republic and was written in defense of Alfred Dreyfus. In his 4,000 word letter, Zola accused the French government and military of a cover up and of falsely convicting an innocent man of treason (1).
The events discussed in Zola’s letter began four years earlier. In 1894, a torn-up document was found in a wastepaper basket that caused the French military to suspect that someone in their ranks was passing military secrets to the Germans. After a brief investigation, French officials found no solid evidence to convict anyone; however, one man, Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the General Staff, was accused on highly circumstantial evidence. In a time of heightened anti-semitism, Dreyfus’ Jewish heritage made him an easy scapegoat. Even though Dreyfus had a sterling record and did not fit the profile of a spy, a case was built to incriminate him. Despite the fact that experts disagreed, army authorities declared that Dreyfus’ handwriting matched the writing on the memo. When a search of Dreyfus’ residence yielded no evidence of espionage, they concluded that he was crafty enough to hide anything incriminating. Also, the fact that Dreyfus studied foreign languages was interpreted as evidence of his desire to conspire with the enemy.
Not only was Dreyfus found guilty of treason, but he was also court-martialed. In a humiliating public ceremony, his sword was broken in two and his military insignia were ripped from his uniform. Next, he was shipped off to Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of South America.
Zola’s letter brought public scrutiny to the Dreyfus Affair. It revealed that the French authorities knew the identity of the actual culprit and that they were covering up evidence to save face. Zola’s accusations were not without consequence for him; he was convicted of libel and sentenced to one year in prison. However, his courage resulted in eventual justice for Dreyfus, who was eventually pardoned by the President of France and went on to serve with distinction in World War I (2).
In a 2016 TED Talk entitled Why You Think You’re Right — Even When You’re Wrong, Julia Galef presented the Dreyfus Affair as a case study in the dangers of motivated reasoning. Like the French military in the Dreyfus Affair, we sometimes employ emotionally-biased reasoning to produce the verdict we want to be true in favor of the actual truth. We cherry-pick evidence that supports our side, and we rationalize to make a case sound better than it actually is. Galef calls motivated reasoning the soldier mindset and argues that it is an unconscious cognitive bias that needs to be exposed and rooted out. Galef also prescribes a more sound, reasonable approach called the scout mindset. Instead of seeing what we want to see or being defensive, we need to seek first to understand. We should be skeptical of our own conclusions and value the pursuit of truth over our fears of being right or wrong. The pursuit of the scout mindset means testing your own claims and understanding that changing your mind is not a sign of weakness (3).
One powerful way to understand motivated reasoning is to see it through the eyes of a sports fan. Imagine you are watching a basketball game, a game where your favorite team is competing for a championship against a longtime rival. Imagine your reaction when your team is charged with a foul that results in points being taken off the scoreboard. What would be your honest reaction? Would your emotions motivate you to find immediate fault with the referee’s call and begin to construct rationalizations for why the call was wrong? Or would you calmly accept the call and defer to the referee’s indifferent judgment? Most honest fans — short for “fanatics” — will admit that their emotional investment in their team prejudices them and blinds them to objective judgment. In addition, they are rarely even consciously aware of their own bias. To further understand the impact of motivated reasoning, compare the reaction you have when your team is called for a foul versus when your team’s opponent is called for a foul? In the latter case, do you spend any time or emotional energy scrutinizing the fairness or justice of such a decision?
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: How did motivated reasoning result in the injustice of the Dreyfus Affair, and why is it so hard for the average person to practice the scout mindset?
Challenge – Open Letters: Zola’s open letter is just one of many examples of this unique genre of communications. What makes the open letter interesting as a form is its dual audience: the addressee and the general public. The content of an open letter is targeted at a specific individual or group, yet the letter is published in an “open” public forum. One of the most famous open letters ever written, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” was itself written in response to another open letter. In his letter dated April 16, 1963, King was responding to a letter published in the Birmingham Post-Herald in which eight Alabama clergymen challenged his presence in Alabama and his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. Research open letters, and find an example of one that you find interesting. Explain the letter’s rhetorical situation: who was the writer, what were the target audiences, when and why was it published?
1: Zola, Emile. I Accuse 13 January 1898.
2. Harris, Robert. The Whistle-Blower Who Freed Dreyfus. The New York Times 1 January 2014.
3. Galef, Julia. Why You Think You’re Right — Even When You’re Wrong. February 2016.