Marcel Proust on the Psychology of Political Divisions

Proust has some crucial insights on how people make political decisions.

Posted Nov 07, 2018

The past couple of years can be defined as a period of bitter social and political division. Think Trump or Brexit. A record-high 77 percent of Americans think that the country is politically divided. Both the Democrats and the Republicans, for example, declared the result of the 2018 midterms as a complete and unqualified success. 

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.

Bitter political divisions are 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 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 Duc had returned to Paris a frantic Dreyfusard.

The punchline of the Proust story is that the ladies did not change the Duc’s mind with their rational argument, but because of their social status. They were “an Italian princess and her two sisters-in-law”—fashionable representatives of the good society. Even the Duc, descendent of one of the oldest aristocratic families of France, was “delighted to be asked to play bridge by the Princess." And fashionable ladies have fashionable views. If the Princess says that Dreyfus is innocent, then this is clearly the view du jour.

Suspicious minds

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 anti-semitism. 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.

Anti-semitism 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 “anti-semitic 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.

How can we respond to this? Duc de Guermantes had been surrounded by slightly (or not so slightly) antisemitic anti-Dreyfus aristocrats all his life. The fashionable people in his circles were all anti-Dreyfus. But when he met the unquestionably fashionable Princess and her two friends, who were pro-Dreyfus, the tables turned. Being pro-Dreyfus in his circles had not been an option—at least not a socially viable option. And the three ladies convinced the Duc that it was. Not because of what they said, but because of who they were.

Fashion is a powerful persuasive tool. It was the snobbery of Duc de Guermantes that made him appreciate the (as it turns out, correct) views he heard from the Princess. But these days, it is often difficult to tell whose opinions are to be followed. Given how little meaningful communication exists between Republicans and Democrats or between Brexiters and Remainers, no matter how cool or fashionable someone is, the ‘other side’ will not be moved by what they say.

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 unsavory 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 question is how we can change these emotionally infused beliefs. And Proust’s lesson is that the old emotion vs. reason dichotomy is not what is at work here. Rational arguments can achieve very little. But we do change our minds in response to perceived peer pressure. The best way to stop someone from spreading a view (or even believing in it) is to make it uncool. The problem is that what is cool and what is uncool is becoming very relative in these politically divided times.

A shorter version of this piece was published at TheConversation. (c) Bence Nanay