THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 13

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).

Front page  of the newspaper L’Aurore for Thursday 13 January 1898 (Wikipedia)

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?

Sources:  

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.

February 3:  Open Letter Day

On this date in 1976, American business magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates published an “Open Letter to Hobbyists” in the Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter.

Head and shoulders photo of Bill GatesAt the time Microsoft, the software company that Bill Gates founded with his friend Paul Allen, was just one year old.  The company’s revenues in its first year were a little over $16,000.  Microsoft was off to a promising start, however, having developed software for the Altair 8800 microcomputer, the first commercially successful personal computer.  

The issue that sparked Gates’ open letter was one of the earliest cases of software piracy.  Gates complained in the letter that users of his Altair BASIC software, which in an era before floppy disks was distributed on paper, were making unauthorized copies.  He implored the computer hobbyists to think about the consequences of their actions — that professional developers could not continue to stay in business if people did not pay for the product.  Gates actual words in the letter were both accusatory and sarcastic:

As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid? (1).

Although Gates’ letter didn’t result in many hobbyists paying up, Gates and his company were able to recover their losses and build a profitable company. With the launch of its first version of Windows in 1985, Microsoft was on its way to becoming one of the world’s most valuable companies.

Bill Gates’ 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 clergyman challenge his presence in Alabama and his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism.

Since the advent of the World Wide Web, which went public on August 6, 1991, everyone has a platform to publish their open letters.

Today’s Challenge:  Open Your Heart in an Open Letter

Who or what might you send an open letter to?  Write an open letter to a person, group, or thing expressing your concerns, your criticism, or your praise.  There are all kinds of creative possibilities.  Brainstorm some possibilities based on the ideas below:

-An open letter to your future or past self

-An open letter to an abstract idea, a concrete object, or a place

-An open letter with constructive criticism or effusive praise for a public figure or group

-A humorous or satiric open letter to a group, celebrity, trend, or other idea.

Once you have your idea, write your letter.  Remember to address the specific addressee (the person or thing you’re writing to), but also consider the general audience that will be reading your letter. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure. –Bill Gates

 

1-http://www.lettersofnote.com/2009/10/most-of-you-steal-your-software.html