What Conservatives Conveniently Forget When They Belittle Emotions

The contrived hierarchy of thought and feeling is really just a tool of control.

Something strange is going on with the way we talk about feelings. Emotional responses are mocked in some but honored in others. The same people who deride millennials and their “safe spaces” fall back on the refrain that “I just feel more secure when I have a gun.” Feelings, it seems, are either a laughable distraction or a crucial decision-making element, depending on who’s having them.

The need to feel safe, in particular, is often treated as childish and absurd — but only when coming from people who have actual reason to feel vulnerable. Asking to be recognized as your true gender? It’s all in your head. Asking for accommodations for illness and disability? You’re too sensitive. Recounting experiences of dehumanization because of your race or gender? What an overreaction. But those who want to make the country “safer” by securing the borders against people they perceive as outsiders are never painted as whiners or cowards. The police officers killing unarmed folks in a moment of panic are not mocked for failing to keep their feelings in check. When someone wants a deadly weapon, their desire to feel safe becomes a rugged and real and sexy conviction.

The easiest way to ignore something is to call it an emotion, yet it’s also the easiest way to defend something if you’re the kind of person whose emotions are taken seriously.

Emotional responses are mocked in some but honored in others.

In her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde recognizes that the demeaning of emotion falls along axes of power. “For within living structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive,” she writes. “Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were expected to kneel to thought as women were expected to kneel to men.” Maybe the distinction she observes between thought and feeling was constructed not upon a natural order of head versus heart, but upon a much more human hierarchy of whose emotions matter enough.

Indeed, the contrived hierarchy of thought and feeling is applied so inconsistently it becomes meaningless as anything but a tool of control. Women get called the emotional sex while men get away with tantrums. Hillary Clinton was told to soften her “shrill” voice while Bernie Sanders yelled till he was hoarse. Queer individuals are mischaracterized by religious conservatives as focused on their feelings to the point of delusion, but religious beliefs that are plainly emotionally charged become legally valid when held by, of all things, a corporation. Cops punish and sometimes execute black men and black women for nothing more than expressing displeasure, like Sandra Bland did. But, to return to Lorde, speaking now in “Uses of Anger”: “it is not the anger of Black women which is dripping down over this globe like diseased liquid. It is not my anger that launches rockets, spends over sixty thousand dollars a second on missiles and other agents of war and death, slaughters children in cities…”

Even if we were consistent about it, pitting thought against feeling makes no sense; in practice, reason is not the opposite of emotion. It’s all very well to privilege thought over feeling as long as you utterly disregard the century-old discipline of psychology. We don’t know everything about how the mind works, but we know for sure that our minds are juddering between bias upon bias beyond our control. We might as well be playing chess inside a washing machine. Yet so many of us still believe we can employ pure reason simply by willing it. That seemingly tame assumption needs to be taken to the mat.

Irrationality is not simply what happens when the mind breaks and departs from a default state of cool calculation. Much of the time, irrationality and emotionality are where we begin, where we prefer to linger, and sometimes even what we depend on to take meaningful action. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman divides our cognitive processes into “fast” thinking and “slow” thinking: Fast thinking happens automatically and often relies on rough generalizations, intuitions, and emotions, while slow thinking requires conscious effort, uses more rigid reasoning, and acts as a check against the imprecision of fast thinking. Importantly, the more logical, less efficient way of thinking gets into gear only when absolutely necessary. Transcendent, philosophic calm takes an effort that every one of us is demonstrably reluctant to give.

The work of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio carves out an even more fundamental role for emotions in basic decision-making. Damasio was struck by how people with impaired emotions due to brain injury found decision-making almost impossible, even for low-stakes dilemmas like where to go for dinner. In an interview, he said, “The reason why they cannot choose is they haven’t got this sort of lift that comes from emotion. It is emotion that allows you to mark things as good, bad, or indifferent.” With experimental evidence, he proposed that we are powerfully guided by past experiences resurging as bodily states that we translate into emotions and, subsequently, our choices.

Among the strongest emotional forces that shape our thoughts: community. In Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz points out, “But when we share a belief with others, the stakes of rejecting it escalate astronomically. They include, as we’ve seen, the practical and emotional advantages of conforming with a community. But they also include the community itself — the trust, esteem, companionship, and love of the people we know best. Even more gravely, they include the stability and familiarity of our identities (for instance, as a devout Muslim), and our faith in the very existence of truth.” Few can fully resist this pull of identity, nor should they.

So when people in positions of power dismiss the less powerful for succumbing to emotion, they might as well be criticizing them for having hearts and lungs. They are not only assuming the right to determine which responses to injustice are permissible, but also assuming that emotions motivate only some people, only some of the time — and assuming that feeling necessarily diminishes what it touches.

In fact, every one of us is deeply and usefully motivated by emotion, but marginalized people are too often cast as the ones with an emotion problem, and people in power too often downplay the validity of emotion, as long as it’s not their own. The belittling of emotion has never been about objectivity. It’s an excuse to stop listening to people stepping out of their “place.”

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