Tag Archives: Emotion

Henderson, Marr and the privileging of “rational” thought

22 Feb




Watching this exchange between David Marr and Gerard Henderson on ABC TV Insiders yesterday, I was struck by how Henderson, at first a rather uneasy, black-clad fidgeting figure, suddenly discovered strength and energy in contemptuously accusing Marr of “emoting.”

Marr is vocalising his anger at the Turnbull government’s refusal to allow refugees in off-shore detention to be settled anywhere other than the most difficult country imaginable, having refused New Zealand’s repeated offers to accept them. Obviously, if refugees are permitted to resettle in a first world country the boats will start again, is the government’s rationale for this refusal.

There’s a long-held psychological theory that what we profess to most despise actually contains the seeds of what we most desire. This theory is often used to explain homophobia, for example, and I think it can be applied to the Henderson-like figures who use another’s expressions of feeling as a weapon with which to bludgeon them into irrelevance. Their opinions are invalid, this argument goes, because they are “emoting.”

Emotion is a normal human response to situations, and the more appalling the situation, the more appropriate it is to feel distress. The privileging of thinking over feeling, and the moral bifurcation of the two equal capacities has created an atmosphere of shame around the expression of emotion, as if there is a moral value in denial and restraint. Henderson clearly believes he embodies this moral value while Marr, in Henderson’s opinion, does not, therefore his views are to be dismissed as emotive and unworthy of serious consideration.

I don’t want to demonise poor Henderson, for whom I feel considerable pity, however, he does strike me as an outstanding example of a man who deeply, if unconsciously, desires what he publicly claims to despise: the ability to feel and to express that feeling.

Being a woman, I’ve grown up in a society only too ready to dismiss me as emotive and that old favourite, hysterical, if I express emotion. Indeed, it often seems to be the task of my sex to both carry and express all the feelings hegemonic masculinity determines inappropriate for men. Ascribe them to the feminine, whether a woman or what that version of masculinity perceives as a feminised man, and those individuals and groups are immediately framed as irrational, and unworthy of serious consideration.

The reality is, we are capable of thought, feeling, and action. There is no inherent moral value in any of these capacities. The privileging of thought over feeling has for centuries been demanded by those who cannot feel, are uncomfortable with feeling, or afraid of what seems to be the uncontrollability of feeling. So we have insults hurled at those who express feeling: bleeding hearts, hysterics, lynch mobs, losers…the list is long.

In those few moments of television this entire conflict between those who express feeling and those who despise them for that expression was played out. Henderson found his energy in condemning Marr’s emotion, if you watch carefully you can see him perking up and finding his feet when he remembers that in denigration there is an illusion of strength. Marr, very used to such attacks, states clearly that he is not emoting, he is disgusted, calling Henderson on his framing of emotional expression as a disqualifier in debate.

Using “emotive” as an insult derails the discussion, as is the intention, and is designed to invalidate the “emoter’s” argument. It is only successful because as a society we consciously or unconsciously accept the privileged moral values ascribed to “rational thought,” rational having been cast as oppositional to emotional.

I’m willing to bet Henderson’s contempt of Marr’s ability to emote conceals a deep envy that springs from lack: Henderson has learned, probably in a hard way, that to “emote” is to disgrace oneself. No one can learn this without carrying a sense of profound loss, and anger towards those who can do what he or she cannot.

We develop in a society addicted to binaries, dominated by either or. Currently, we appear to be governed by groups who are adverse to feeling and its expression to a pathological degree. People like Marr insist on feeling and its expression, as well as the splendid thought he is also capable of, and the actions he takes in utilising both in the service of his values. Feeling, thought, action. Humans can’t do well without any one of them. Just look at Gerard.

You don’t get peace by hating war: the theory of emotions

25 Apr

Some years ago I recall the Dalai Lama observing that hating war isn’t the way to find peace.

From this I took it that he meant personally entering into the territory of hatred and fear, the same emotions that fuel war, is not the most useful way to change a paradigm. I liked the Dalai Lama’s theory: that in order to effect wider change one must first start with the self. Every time we manage to overcome a negative emotion, he said, and allow it to dissipate without acting on it, we have achieved a miracle.

There’s nothing exclusive about the idea. There was a rich Greco-Roman tradition of shaping the self through commitment to self-improvement that involved, among other things, a theory of emotions and the necessity to understand them for the betterment of the self and the community. The Stoic philosopher and writer, Seneca, was an advocate of this culture of the self, later interpreted by Foucault as technologies of the self, designed to shape the subject through a set of practices that position one in critical relationship to oneself, with the goal of improvement not just for the self, but for society.

Currently, I am deep in Martha Nussbaum’s “Upheavals of Thought: the intelligence of emotions.” Nussbaum makes a powerful argument that there can be no adequate ethical theory without an adequate theory of the emotions. Emotions, far from being messy, sticky and yes, let’s not pretend otherwise, characteristically female hindrances to clear thinking, are suffused with intelligence and discernment. They are a powerful source of information, awareness and understanding.

On ANZAC Day, I feel sorrow for those who are sent to die by the State, and for those who lose the ones they love. I also feel a profound contempt for the State that slaughters its young, and the young of its enemies. I wish that what we were encouraged to remember on ANZAC Day, as well as those who died, is the vileness of war, and the tremendous responsibility we have to refrain from engagement, except in the most dire of circumstances.

However, hard as it is, I will attempt not to hate war, in the hope that any individual who manages, even for a short time, to refuse to enter the energy of hate, makes her own tiny contribution to changing the world.

Join me, anyone?

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