Diversity in emotions, again!

[note: acute comments coming in make me realize that this post is a bit hastily written. I’ll say a bit more in the comments when I can, but let me Draw your attention to the discussion of the bystander in #3.]

There’s a recent post here about how humans vary in the strength of the emotions they field.  A cruel comment may get someone angry for a day or two, but another person may feel beaten up in a way that lasts far longer without being pathological, though it may become a pathological threat to their health and more general ability to function.

The discussion on the last post turned quite quickly to Borderline Personality Syndrome, and contributors covered a lot of ground.  But I think we left out two other important topics.  In addition, there may be connected topics that I am not mentioning, and I hope they’ll get raised in comments if anyone is interested.  So here are the two I am thinking about.

1.  Given that being nasty to someone can cost them a week or more of their lives, and that “strong feelers” are not rare, what in the world is happening with people who are nasty adult bullies in supposedly humanistic fields like philosophy?  I suggested in a certain recent discussion that occupied this and a number of other blogs that maybe some of the bullies are not aware of the power their words can have.  Words are not sticks and stones.  But words can kill by sending someone depressed over the edge.  And no doubt in other ways in our small world.

Another possible source of the nastiness is alexithymia, which is a fascinating but unpleasant disorder.  People with the disorder usually are literally incapable of imagining others’ distress.  It’s been suggested that corporate criminals who ruin the savings accounts of thousands or millions may not be able to imagine fully the effect of what they are doing.  While no diagnostician at all, I watched carefully the descriptions of Ken Lay, of Enron infamy, and he certainly was described as displaying related traits.

I once tried to tell someone prone  sometimes to incredibly nasty comments that she could end up killing someone.  A very difficult thing to say, and I messed up entirely by managing to suggest I was going to die.  That was a real mess to sort out.  So let me say now:  Words can kill.  Probably more often they deeply wound.  The wounds can cause chaos in someone’s life.

2.  A second question concerns the value of being a strong emoter.  If you look at our last discussion, emotional surges were likened to tsunamis.  Of course, some of us like to think that philosophy is driven by reason, but might strong emotional reactions have epistemic importance even in the ‘rational’ fields?  If so, it might mean that some of us arrive at important conclusions in advance of finding the reasons for them.  Does our pedagogy allow this?  If not, should we rethink some of the demands placed on students.

I recently gave a paper to a group of biologists, some of whom encountered the concept of mental content for the first time (which, incidentally, is a concept I doubt in the end makes sense).  Some of the biologists took standard argumentative weapons and launched them at the concept.  But one person was perplexed and very unhappy.  I was reminded of three-hour tutorials with Elizabeth Anscombe, where one could do deep conceptual therapy, which does allow that one may need a lot of time to find reasons for already intuited conclusions such as “There’s something badly mistaken here.”

Anyway, I’d love to know what others think about this.

10 thoughts on “Diversity in emotions, again!

  1. Thanks so much, philodaria! There’s free access to the article. Here’s the abstract:

    This paper argues that, by construing emotion as epistemologically subversive, the Western tradition has tended to obscure the vital role of emotion in the construction of knowledge. The paper begins with an account of emotion that stresses its active, voluntary, and socially constructed aspects, and indicates how emotion is involved in evaluation and observation. It then moves on to show how the myth of dispassionate investigation has functioned historically to undermine the epistemic authority of women as well as other social groups associated culturally with emotion. Finally, the paper sketches some ways in which the emotions of underclass groups, especially women, may contribute to the development of a critical social theory

  2. “[W]hat in the world is happening with people who are nasty adult bullies in supposedly humanistic fields like philosophy?”

    One hypothesis: bullying behaviour (and other kinds of harassment and abuse) can be a very effective way to silence opinions and arguments that you don’t want to be heard. (A dramatic recent example is the effective silencing of Anita Sarkeesian at the USU campus by means of threats of terrorist violence.) Bullying is especially effective at silencing others in the absence of a culture of active bystanding, and philosophy (like much of academia generally) has not yet developed a culture of active bystanding.

    Silencing opposing viewpoints may sometimes feel like the best option to an adult bully in a field like philosophy who fears that their own opinions and arguments may not withstand debate if opposing opinions and arguments are also allowed to be expressed. Since philosophers are explicitly trained to evaluate arguments and opinions presented to them, it is perhaps particularly clear to philosophers that allowing air time to arguments and opinions that oppose one’s own carries with it the possibility of those opposing arguments and opinions being found persuasive. For those who feel threatened by that possibility, and who also find themselves in positions of professional power, silencing opposition by means of bullying and abuse may appear to be the best (or only) option.

    The cliche way for this scenario to play out within academia in particular is for the bully to insist is that their right to bully others is in fact an exercise of the bully’s “free speech” or “academic freedom”. The cliche academic bully asserts their right to use abusive, threatening speech under one or both of these rubrics, and maintains that any measures taken to resist (or even express polite disapproval of) this kind of bullying amount to “political correctness run amok”, a “silencing” tactic, an attempt to “police civility”, etc. In this manner the bullies present themselves as the true victims. (Again, this is a bullying cliche, but it is very common in cases of academic bullying.)

    My hypothesis, then, is that what is going on is that all this has worked (well enough and for long enough) for philosophers to have normalized bullying behaviour as simply a part of professional life. This normalization in turn promotes passive bystanding, which then helps keep the status quo in place.

    Disturbing this cycle would require that philosophers learn about active bystanding and why it’s important. Bullies themselves are not going to stop their bullying behaviour while it remains a successful strategy, and their victims are typically not in a position to stop it. What matters is what the rest of us, who observe cases of academic bullying, decide to do about it. Both passive and active bystanders send powerful messages (to those involved in the bullying and to the rest of the community) about what they consider acceptable or tolerable. /Pure neutrality/ concerning an act of observed bullying is not possible for bystanders. This removal of the option of pure neutrality can be deeply uncomfortable: the choice is forced as to whether to approve (do nothing) or to act, and this forcing of a choice is usually very unwelcome, not least because the bystander role is unchosen. But that kind of bystander discomfort is among the consequences of bullying; responsibility for it lies with the bully. The best way for bystanders to avoid being repeatedly put in that same position is to take some positive action to support the victims of bullying and, where possible, end or minimize the effects of the bullying behaviour.

  3. Colour me dumbfounded by 2.
    I thought it was pretty much accepted that our brain constantly searches all processed information for danger (and to a lesser degree benefit), including the envisioned social consequences of what we are processing. And when possible “danger” is identified we try to avert it, either by finding out what’s wrong or, if we can’t do that, by fabricating reasons why it’s wrong. I think this shows in the popularity of the “slippery slope” argument.

    And one of the things our brain analyses is whether an idea represents a threat to our cherished ideas or worldview. If it does, we’re immediately “against” it, even before we really know where the problem is. That is why it’s so hard e.g. to “sell” evolution to creationists, as they’ve been taught that to accept evolution they have to throw out their entire religion, even though practically all religious leaders in Europe accept it.

    I don’t think you have to be a particularly strong emoter for this, it’s just how our brain works.

    I remember reading in lectures by James that the direction of our philosophy is determined by our temperament, i.e. emotions not rational arguments. Is this controversial in philosophy? Do philosophers believe they are materialists or dualists, utilitarians or deontologists etc. other than because at bottom it “feels” right to them? (And is then of course supported by arguments we store to defend our views.)
    .
    As for 1, I feel uncomfortable attributing nastiness to disorders. I think permissive culture and a sense of entitlement are by far the most likely causes, and I am loathe to further stigmatise people who are not neurotypical by “blaming it on the condition”. And yes, my first reaction is to “feel” uncomfortable, and only the second to think of reasons why that might be.

  4. Delft, you’re raising several issues. I didn’t mean to suggest that nastiness is only caused by disorders. Clearly, there are all sorts of ordinary reasons why some people are nasty. E.g., they’re playing tit for tat, or they feel threatened or they just don’t like a person and want to get away, etc, etc. So I suppose my question was somewhat rhetorical, What’s going on in cases of gratuitous nastiness, where a person is aiming to hurt? For me, the question comes close to “Why are these people going around slashing their way through their community?” In these cases, it seems to me appropriate to mention that some people are not aware that they are slashing. And the others? Well, at least they need to be warned that they can do great damage. And it is worth asking why they continue.

    Number two brings together two things: emotions as potentially epistemic worthwhile and our pedagogical practices. In philosophy courses and in the discourse more generally, we do often try to change each other’s minds by providing people with reasons for a different point of view. So the fact that a position doesn’t seem quite right doesn’t mean one will hang onto it, but if it is something about which one feels strongly, that may be less easy. In fact, there are lots of academic fields where we try to arrive at beliefs through evidence and reason, though also a lot of people have raised questions about this simple picture.

    The book, The Double Helix, is valuable for showing the role of the conviction that one is on the path to solving a problem, though it’s also horrifying in its display of appropriations of others’ ideas.

    I think the overt pedagogy of philosophy is very, very often built on a pretense of a purely logical enquiry.

    I might not be really addressing your concerns.

  5. phrynefisher, what you are saying about active by standing is so important.

    I confess that I was thinking of slightly different cases, such as where, e.g., one gets treated like the madwoman who has escaped from the attic. Here the bully may not be so much defending against theses as putting up the gates against kinds of views or kinds of people. But active by standing is really needed here too.

    I also think that so many men have been trained in depts with few or no women that they can actually be shocked when a woman takes on a major figure in the field. I remember vividly that the young man who said to me, in discussion at a recent SPP, “I hope you don’t think your little points show that Block is wrong.”

  6. It’s worth keeping in mind that someone may not be aware of their actions or how these affect others. At the same time I find it problematic that this is always brought up in discussions of unacceptable behaviour, “oh, he probably has Asperger’s” etc. Similarly the go-to answer to why someone went out and shot people is “he’s crazy”, although the numbers show people who are not neurotypical are less likely than average to harm others, though I believe more likely to harm themselves.
    It’s certainly worth asking why people continue with such behaviour, but while in the overwhelming majority of all cases the answer will not be neurological, the majority of discussions of such behaviour revolves around, or at least mentions it. This increases the marginalisation of people with mental health issues.

    I’m sure arguments are important, in particular to make us aware that two beliefs we hold are incompatible, as then we try to solve this by adjusting our views. But the idea that philosophy is “purely logical enquiry” is, as you say, a pretence.

  7. Responding to Phrynefisher: this might reflect either ignorance or US-vs-UK terminology issues, but I thought as a matter of law in the US that at least abusive, and (in most circumstances) threatening speech *is* deemed protected speech under free-speech jurisprudence. Of course, other speech critical of that speech is equally protected: A’s harsh criticism of B’s abusive speech is also protected speech , though A’s coercive activities to prevent B’s speech generally would not be.

    (nothing here is intended as a defence of US free speech jurisprudence: I would defend it, but I haven’t here.)

  8. DW, from Wikipedia (but also, I think, right):

    Threats of violence that are directed at a person or group of persons that has the intent of placing the target at risk of bodily harm or death are generally unprotected.[36] However, there are several exceptions. For example, the Supreme Court has held that “threats may not be punished if a reasonable person would understand them as obvious hyperbole”, he writes.[37][38] Additionally, threats of “social ostracism” and of “politically motivated boycotts” are constitutionally protected.[39] However, sometimes even political speech can be a threat, and thus becomes unprotected.[40]

  9. My point is not a legal one, but that the rubric of “free speech” is a very poor moral justification for bullying behaviour.

    At best, it may in some cases be used to establish what has happened was *not illegal* (although there are restrictions even on this sort of use). It does nothing to establish that bullying is *morally acceptable* or should be tolerated uncritically by other academics.

    Nor, of course, does it serve to establish that a bully, when called out for immoral behaviour, becomes the true victim in the case. Even in those cases where the bullying behaviour is legal, there is no law that prevents others from criticizing and distancing themselves from that behaviour, nor from taking action to protect the bully’s victims and prevent (or minimize the impact of) future occurrences.

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