Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Carnival of Negative Emotions

Life would be much better if intellectual debates were conducted with more rigor.

Thanks to Prof. Martha Nussbaum we now confuse disgust over certain (but not all) sexual practices with homophobia. Worse yet, we have been convinced that disgust and phobia are the same as hatred.

One might expect that a serious philosopher who studies the question of negative emotions would distinguish between them.

Disgust is fundamentally an alimentary emotion; it involves feelings akin to nausea and causes people to avoid or to expel any ingestible or ingested object that would damage their health.

It may be true that many people feel disgust at the image of genital-anal contact; some feel disgust at the image of genital-oral contact. Others overcome such feelings in order to pursue sexual gratification.

Such feelings do not make them phobic and do not make them haters. By and large the people who feel the most disgust at the pictorial representation of sexual acts are women. We do not want to say that women are bigoted against male homosexuals for as much.

And we do not want people to overcome disgust altogether. No one would suggest that people stop washing their hands after going to the bathroom, for example.

By definition, a phobia is an excessive fear of something you have every right to be afraid of. People are phobic about spiders, heights, crowds, enclosed spaces, snakes, and rats.

A person who is phobic about snakes or rats is not, therefore, a bigot. If you are afraid of snakes and rats, that does not mean you hate them or even that you want to destroy them. It means that you are going to make a very strong effort to avoid them. If you are phobic about heights, you do not hate tall buildings. You will simply make every effort to keep your feet on the ground.

Both disgust at contaminants and fear of dangers to one’s physical existence involve biological survival.

Disgust is therefore not a social emotion; it involves your biological organism.

When individuals or even groups of people are persecuted or scapegoated disgust is rarely the issue.

It is possible to conduct a human sacrifice and not hate the person you are sacrificing. What would the sacrifice be worth if you were not sacrificing someone or something of value.

To understand human sacrifice or a human holocaust we need to understand the workings of guilt.

Some people are scapegoated to placate an angry god. When a group feels that it is being punished for a crime, it will choose someone, or even a group of people, to accept the punishment, and to pay the price of the crime.

When people are punished for being unclean, this also means that they are guilty of having transgressed a law. I recognize that the rhetoric involves a promise of social catharsis, but I do not believe that the reaction concerns disgust, as much as it involves other negative emotions, like envy and resentment.

Along with shame, guilt is an emotion that involves socialization.

You feel guilt for transgressing a law and you feel shame for failing to uphold your responsibilities as a member of society.

Guilt and shame do not involve your survival. They ensure your social being. Being a member of a group requires you to obey the group’s laws and that to fulfill your responsibilities toward others.

If you fail on either of these accounts, you will experience shame or guilt, depending on the nature of the violation.

Among the negative emotions, anxiety belongs to the complex involving guilt. It should be distinguished from fear

You feel fear when in the presence of a real danger-- be it a bear in the woods or a mugger in the alley. You can choose to fight or flee or even freeze before a threatening object or situation.

Anxiety differs from fear because when you are anxious you are aware of having done something wrong, of having broken a rule, and you anticipate punishment. When you are afraid of being punished, you will feel guilt and will anxiously anticipate punishment.

Anxiety does have one thing in common with fear. It involves fear of physical punishment. Crimes are punished either by physical incarceration or the infliction of physical pain.

But guilt, as opposed to fear, has a moral dimension and a social dimension.

Shame involves an immediate recognition that you have failed to uphold your responsibilities as a member of the community. Whether that involves keeping your pants on, showing up at appointments, or fulfilling your responsibilities as a corporate officer, the feeling of shame alerts you to your failure. Shame shows that you have let down the group.

In a culture that emphasizes shame, punishment involves ostracism and shunning rather than physical punishment. A culture that cuts off the hands of thieves is not a shame culture.

These are hardly the only forms of negative emotions. If shame and guilt involve your social being, your membership in a group, another set of negative emotions defines your status within the group.

Within this category we find: envy, resentment, contempt.

Politicians who try to provoke class warfare often attempt to cultivate these negative emotions. They want you to be resentful or envious of those who are more successful than you.

While we tend to direct our envy and resentment toward those we perceive to be our betters, however, we reserve our contempt for those we consider our inferiors.

Class warriors do not limit themselves to envy and resentment. They try to turn these into contempt, by convincing the lower classes to look down on the upper classes. Where the lower classes, for example, earn their way, the upper classes cheat and steal. Where the lower classes contain a vital human energy, the upper classes are dead inside.

As I suggested the Holocaust of European Jews involved envy, resentment, and contempt more than disgust.

Another category of negative emotions involves self-regard. When you have an exaggerated sense of your own self-worth you are either arrogant or vain. When you undervalue your own abilities, you become demoralized or desperate or helpless. Evidently, much of what we call depression falls within the category of unreasonably diminished sense of self-worth.

We feel anger toward people who threaten our self-regard, whether they are threatening our face or our illusion of face. We express anger because we seek to defend our reputation and because we want to affect a reconciliation.

When anger fails and when the offense is egregious it can turn into hatred.

Hatred is not about defending our honor but about destroying the other person… for a crime real or imagined. It is more about rough justice than about asserting your dignity. It is more about righting a wrong you believe was committed against your person.

When you hate someone you want to destroy him, to punish him for a crime real or imagined, a crime that can only be expiated by his being punished.

This gives us three sets of negative emotions. Some negative emotions sanction the kinds of bad behavior that would threaten your membership in a social group.

Others tend to undermine cooperative enterprise by making you feel that when others are more successful than you they have stolen from you. Essentially, these pervert the desire to succeed.

Finally, another class of negative emotions involves misunderstanding your value, your ability, your station, and your status.

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