A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

Emotions, I Remember

25 February 2020 0:16 AM (discourse | mental health)

Once upon a time, when I was young, I wanted to get rid of my emotions. Part of this was because, having Bipolar 1, my emotions can be much stronger, more difficult to control, and cyclically erratic than most people's. The other reason is that I didn't recognize things like intense interest, euphoria, or anger at unnecessary harm as emotions. This mistake did not work well for me; trying to deny my emotions made them act even more like badly behaved guests. Rejecting a part of oneself doesn't work, and it works out less well when that part is unusually powerful. My emotions only stopped ruining my life when I accepted and embraced them as a valuable and important part of myself and tried to understand them. As Jung said, one does not become enlightened by imagining light, but by making the darkness self-aware. Both having such strong emotions and coming to terms with them have made me analytical, likely more than I would have been otherwise. I may also be more practiced in realizing that I've been acting under the influence of strong emotion.

Why do I mention this? Because we collections of matter whose interaction give the forces of nature the opportunity to enact algorithms of self awareness are bad, generally, at identifying our emotions. Strong anger or disgust, especially when shared (or even simply not countered) by our in-group seems to us like objective and unquestionable fact. This is why, when a dispute is deeply upsetting, one has a hard time recognizing that one is deeply distressed, rather than an impassioned but impartial agent taking the side of obvious and non-contingent truth.

This is the problem with ‘reals over feels’. It's not that there are no object level truths that apply whether one likes it or not (anthropogenic global warming is as certain a ‘real’ as can be found in politics), it's that people fail at introspection. When one reads claimed defenses of good, old ‘reals’ against foolish, feckless ‘feels’, one sees that the ‘reals’ are often the author's personal feelings of disgust mistaken for universal law. They may also mistake their subculture's norms for requirements on ‘all civilized societies’ even if a moment's research would show that not all societies follow those norms, including several they admire. Something inspiring intense anxiety or anger may be thought universally inimical to life and order. If one suggests that plans to oppose it are excessive, ineffective, or unnecessary, it is taken to show that one is allied with the danger. Many supposed facts concern matters about which no fact could exist, such as whether something enjoyed by some and detested by others could be ‘disgusting’ in an objective, universal sense or whether some people could be more ‘valuable’ than others. (In secular spaces I have compared claims of this sort to the proclamation that something is ‘displeasing to God’. Sadly the egregor Gnon has become the patron spirit of personal reactions venerated as laws of nature; this leads atheists to suggest Gnon as the god to whom things are displeasing.)

When people do this, it is in most cases not intentional. Often I will agree with someone that how motive and intention work does not match common intuition. From this, I conclude that blame and guilt do not work in the way that matches common intuition and are much weaker. They disagree and conclude that blame and guilt are much stronger because intention and motive can be much more imputed where there's no reason to think someone was knowingly acting on them. Therefore, let us say that this is an unavoidable part of being a creature that has evolved the means to think, and that while facility with introspection is not evenly distributed, everyone's skill clusters around ‘bad’.

If intense and negative emotions are more difficult to recognize as emotions, then parties to a discussion becoming viciously angry will make things worse. If it's impossible to discuss something calmly and in a manner and setting that allows time for introspection and consideration, then abstaining from discussion may be the best harm reduction. This is not an endorsement of the common claim from ‘no platform’ advocates that arguing against a position endorses and validates it; a calm discussion with lowered emotional stakes can change minds.

My ears prick up with the sound of people indignantly claiming that things matter and people are dying and how dare I claim that the stakes should be lowered? The consequential stakes of anthropogenic climate change are very high. It may be a factor in some current wars. Left unchecked, it will thrust people into food and water insecurity. It will flood large areas and leave people refugees. It will make now-populated areas of the Earth uninhabitable. Hundreds of million of people will die. When discussing it, the emotional stakes should be lowered so that people can climb down and save face while changing their minds. They should not feel as if any retreat from their position will be pounced on and met with a ‘See? I was right!’. Any idea that they should feel guilty for having believed wrongly should be eliminated. This does not contradict the importance of ameliorating climate change. Paul Krugman, the most adorable economist of the last hundred years, has said that ‘Economics is not a morality play.’ Political discourse is also not a morality play. If yelling at people for being ignorant and excoriating them for being boot-lickers and collaborators feels like justice, then the choice is between leaving those feelings of justice unsatisfied while making catastrophic climate change less likely, or satisfying one's longing for justice and making catastrophic climate change more likely. The same applies to social justice. Racism and transmisia are extremely important and must be countered. Research indicates that calmly and sincerely appealing to people to empathize with and consider the circumstances of those against whom they're bigoted produces a durable erosion of their intolerance.

Nowhere here am I saying that emotions are bad or invalid or to be shunned; I said the opposite in the first paragraph. It is well known that one's desires, including the drive for survival, are either non-rational and emotive, or instrumental to the satisfaction of non-rational, emotive drives. Failing to recognize emotions as such is the cause of harm; it impairs one's ability to reason about oneself, and stifles the path to reflective equilibrium. One cannot see that one's feelings of disgust and desire to attack what triggers them are counter to one's more strongly held preference that people should be left alone in matters that affect no one else if one doesn't recognize the feeling of disgust as a feeling, rather than a 'real’ ‘truth’ about certain acts being innately destructive to the fabric of society.

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