In a recent article philosopher Charlie Kurth makes the case for anxiety. (Via Maggie’s Farm) He argues, persuasively, that anxiety serves a useful social and moral function. It tells us when we are going wrong and spurs us to act to make things right.
We do well to allow it to help us through difficult social situations and moral dilemmas.
We ought not, Kurth argues, to pathologize it and make it something that can be medicated away. If we disconnect anxiety (and other emotions) from our lives, making them merely mental static, we withdraw a bit more from the social world.
Kurth defines anxiety loosely. We know that it is a subspecies of fear, signaling dangers we might not be aware of. And yet, anxiety is often seen as a function of guilt: an anticipation of punishment for having committed a crime or a sin.
In Freudian theory, anxiety is limited to an anticipation of punishment for having committed a criminal offense. It belongs to the guilt narrative within which Freud tried to write human psychology. That narrative begins with a taboo, moves on to a real or imagined transgression, adds some guilt about the anticipated punishment and concludes with some form of punishment. For Freud the ultimate punishment was castration. Thus, anxiety was ultimately castration anxiety.
Kurth sees the issue more broadly and more correctly.
We do not merely feel anxious when we are anticipating corporal punishment. We might feel anxious when we make the wrong decision, act out of character or create a bad impression. We might also feel anxious when we do not know whether we are doing the right or the wrong thing. In those cases the emotion does not necessarily involve a crime. It bespeaks the fact that the outcome of your action is uncertain.
If you feel anxious about using the wrong fork or spoon at a dinner party you are not worried that you will be punished for a crime. You will be worried that you will be expelled from the conversation.
A fear of ostracism and rejection might well be couched in anxiety, but the consequence has more to do with social shunning that it does with corporal punishment.
I see why Kurth describes the feeling as anxiety, but social anxiety seems more like anguish, a diffuse sense of mental suffering.
Existential philosophers use terms for anguish. Thus, they distinguish it from anxiety. The German term is angst and the French term is angoisse. In the French, as in the English, a different word is used for anxiety.
Philosophers and psychologists rarely distinguish between anxiety and anguish. Kurth uses the term anxiety within the context of non-criminal social offenses. The dread concerns the fear of being ostracized, not the fear of receiving corporal punishment.
He opens with a dinner table conversation that has gone awry. You are talking to Sam at dinner. The conversation is proceeding apace, when, suddenly, Sam withdraws from the conversation and turns his attention elsewhere. You believe that you must have made a mistake and that you have been rejected.
Kurth defines this form of anxiety:
Anxiety, as we ordinarily experience it, is a moderately discomforting response to uncertain threats or dangers. Your fretfulness at the dinner party, for instance, is a reaction to your uncertainty about why your conversation with Sam took a potentially embarrassing turn. You want to make a good impression and you aren’t sure if you’re succeeding. The result is the unease – the twinge of worry or concern – that is your anxiety.
Anxiety bespeaks a sense of having failed. It will normally lead you to try to correct the bad impression you might have made.
The story also tells us something about what anxiety does. It’s an emotion that gets us to do things, things that can help us to address our predicaments in distinctive ways. At the dinner, for instance, your anxiety prompts you to try to get a better understanding of what you might have said that was inappropriate – hence your replaying of portions of the conversation in your head. It also induces you to try to make up for any offence you might have caused, hence your increased deference.
Here Kurth is not describing someone whose has committed a crime or a sin. He is describing someone who has inadvertently given offense and is trying to correct the error. And he is not describing someone who is anticipating a punishment. The rejection has already taken place: Sam has tuned you out.
Where guilt anticipates a future punishment; shame and its concomitant social rejection are a present punishment.
In the conversation with Sam, you do not anticipate rejection. You have already been rejected.
And Kurth describes this anguish—as I would call it-- as a function of one’s innate sense of shame:
Social anxiety of the kind we found in the dinner-party conversation with Sam is concerned with a distinctive kind of uncertainty – namely, are you making a fool of yourself? As such, it can often lead to such things as deference and caution: behaviours that can help us to minimise the chance of making a bad impression. But consider another familiar form of anxiety – what we might call punishment anxiety: you know you broke the rules, but you don’t know whether you’ll be thumped for it. Given its source, anxiety of this sort tends to inspire efforts to make up for what you did by, say, offering a pre-emptive apology.
Kurth explains that shaming or moral anxiety is a spur to do the right thing. For those who believe that shaming is always to be avoided, we emphasize that it is a normal emotion that motivates people to be more sociable and to connect with other people.
Clearly, Kurth is thinking of anxiety within the context of a shame culture, not in terms of punishment and penance.
As we’ve seen, part of anxiety’s power lies in its ability to get us to do things – things that will help make the anxiety go away. But there are all sorts of ways to do this. In the face of a morally difficult decision such as what to do about your mother, you could relieve your anxiety by just popping some Xanax or trying to dump the decision off on a relative. But to do that would be to just avoid the source of your anxiety. Appropriately addressing your moral anxiety will involve such things as … resisting your inclination to just duck the decision you face.
A social being is also a moral being.