Day 3, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Eleanor Gordon-Smith & Nesrine Malik

By Megan Thomas

It has taken me long enough, hasn’t it? But I didn’t want to bombard you, readers (mom), with the whole experience in one go – it’s all about strategic posts, you see. Or at least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

My final event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and a greatly significant one to attend, given that it is what inspired the theme of the festival, “We Need New Stories”. Eleanor Gordon-Smith was speaking about her book Stop Being Reasonable, and Nesrine Malik about hers, We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent. The two were facilitated by Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation. All in all, this was a particularly great event to attend on my last day – as if I needed more assurance that I’d be attending the festival for the rest of my life.

Nesrine’s book looks into how the stories or myths we have been telling ourselves – of things like meritocracy and that “working hard gets results” – are no longer true. She spoke about how the book was born in introspection, looking out at a Trumpian-Brexit world, or more importantly, a world in which such a turn of events was possible. She found herself asking why nobody saw it coming, and what necessary accountability or stock-take needs to happen after things went wrong. There are six myths which she believes are at odds with the ability to progress.

Though I haven’t read We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent yet, I’m particularly looking forward to reading the section on political correctness and the importance of it, which Nesrine discussed at the event. In the book, she talks about the myth of political correctness being an inherently bad or limiting thing, and how this outlook is just a way to erode the public tone and create a space in which “locker-room talk” becomes passable for fear of being a perpetrator of “PC GONE MAD”. Her stance is that moving away from political correctness is just a way of normalising violent speak and that people love to adopt this resistance in order to cover up an absence of common decency and respect. Just the way she spoke about it briefly got me ready to take on the entire book, excited to engage with the concept of political correctness being mandatory until we live in the perfect moral world.

A London-based event is taking place on 9 October.

Eleanor’s book, Stop Being Reasonable, challenges the way we engage with the world, the inadequacy of “reason” as a method of conflict resolution, as well as the process of changing our minds. The book was born out of cat-calling. Eleanor conducted a series of interviews with cat-callers – hear it out. She took her recording equipment around with her, and every time she was cat-called or had some form of sexually-driven abuse hurled at her in public, she would stop to interview the man – and this happened often enough, without provocation, that she was able to create a whole show of it. Though the interviews are presumably more nuanced than the following reduction and I will at some stage hunt them down and listen, she said that when it came down to it, the majority of them thought it was complimentary. This got her thinking – how would one even go about changing the mind of someone who thought that was the case?

There’s this notion of the rational exchange of reasonable ideas. But would a simple, “it is not complimentary, but rather makes me feel threatened and unsafe”, suffice? Is that “reasonable”, by definition? Recalling the emotion it inflicts? Given that humans are inherently emotional (and therefore “irrational”), it seems ridiculous that this wouldn’t serve as enough of a reason to change someone’s mind. Eleanor began compiling studies on logic and the power of persuasion. At this point, she was asked to write a book along the lines of “How To Change Someone’s Mind”, which she said no way to – she didn’t feel anyone was qualified to give such definitive guidelines, or else the world wouldn’t be where it is today. Instead, she offered to write a book of interviews where people’s minds have been changed.

The book is a compilation of success stories of people changing the minds of others. There is an interview with a man who was convinced to leave a cult, for instance. I can’t wait to read it, though from what I gathered from Eleanor at the event, the primary things that make people change their minds are trust (or the loss of it) and love – two inherently “irrational” modes of debate and yet the ones that are usually responsible for a “won” argument. A truly won argument, that is, where one party’s mind is changed – because that is the overall point of an argument, right? We shouldn’t be arguing anything unless the goal is enlightenment, a changed mind and therefore overall change. “Reasonable” debates, in Eleanor’s opinion, don’t change minds and if an argument can be “won” based on its structure rather than the quality or the “truth”, then we need a new system.

That’s the last about the Edinburgh International Book Festival from me – what an experience. It made me realise just how valuable listening to an author speak and answer questions can be when it comes to motivating my reading. They are like hyper-personal review-summaries that get you ready to read. It also struck me what stage presence all these authors had and the undeniable authority they conducted in the real world, beyond their words on the page – which is not that that surprising, given that I was listening to them speak about work which has been their primary focus for a vast period of time. It’s inspiring.

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