Thursday, December 8, 2016

Why Strong Emotions Are a Rational Response to Tyranny

Yes, we’re emotional. No, we’re not irrational. These things are different. I’ll tell you why.

I should say that to write about this subject, I am going to have to use terms and broad generalizations that some people don’t appreciate, including myself. For example, the word “liberal” and its flabby, namby-pamby associations are proverbial fingernails on the chalkboard to me. I don’t relate to the word or the wimpy associations with liberalism at all. I will, however, accept that the word a person might come up with to describe me or someone like me is liberal. Yes, I just shuddered. I accept, though, that language is as subjective as it is imprecise and our understanding of one another, especially when we are strangers, is quite limited, so I can live with being labeled as a “liberal” for the purposes of this essay. Just for now, though.

I bring this up because a common refrain I am hearing these days from conservative circles - yes, sometimes I am close enough to safely eavesdrop - in the weeks after the presidential election is that the left, a.k.a., liberals, a.k.a., people like me, are so damn emotional about everything. As a vegan, I’ve heard this one-note assessment of our temperament for years but it has become especially noticeable lately as it gets thickly applied to the left as a whole. There are many who will dismiss vegans as overwrought tree-huggers despite the abundant, verifiable proof we supply of the widespread harm and brutality of animal agribusiness; it’s been interesting to see this broad and condescending assessment applied to so many on the left now.

Maybe there is some truth to the accusation of being emotional. From my observation post, conservatives do seem to be able to disagree and argue, often vigorously, but at the end of the day, be able to move on and not take it personally. It seemingly rolls off them like water off a duck’s back. People on the left, however, do not seem to be able to do the same. The common conservative take on it is…

People on the left take things personally.

People on the left get angry and upset.

People on the left get emotional.

In conservative dog-whistle terms, it is that liberals are irrational.

[I want to submit that perhaps *cough*likely*cough* there is also an unspoken subtext of those on the left not being in possession of ostensibly “masculine” characteristics like rationality, self-control and cool-headedness and instead, being guided by the equally baselessly-assigned “feminine” traits of irrationality, hysteria and melodramatics but that’s a different subject for a different day.]

I will be the first to admit that much of this accusation is true in my case: I do take things personally, especially with this last election where there is so much to lose, even though the actual personal stakes are not that high. Many other “liberals” do the same. Why is this? We have this internal mechanism called empathy. What matters to us expands beyond the immediate parameters of our own skin because we empathize and because we feel a sense of interconnectedness, which means that we also feel a responsibility to try to reduce tyranny and injustice against others. This is not a spectator sport where we sit on the sidelines watching as we idly toss popcorn into our mouths. I can understand how strange our response must look to someone who is relatively untouched by oppression and who is more or less immune to the real-world consequences of systemic bigotry. In order to recognize and understand one’s own advantages in any significant way, it takes an awareness that is rooted in empathy for those who have had experiences outside of one’s own limited worldview, especially those who have been born with fewer advantages.

So, yes, I do get angry and upset when others are oppressed and I believe rightfully so: injustice matters to me, and it should matter to all of us. Racism matters to me, even if I am unscathed by it personally. Misogyny matters to me even if I am no longer worried about my own reproductive rights. Mocking the disabled matters to me even if I am not disabled. Again, this is not a spectator sport to some of us: This is all contact. The tackles, the punches, the body slams: They might not land on me but the assaults on others are felt and they are felt viscerally. I am not going to apologize for caring about the welfare of others. No one should apologize for that.

Here is where I will disagree, though, with the assumption of irrationality being a necessary consequence of strong emotions, in particular the emotions of those who are not ambivalent about bigotry and injustice. Emotions and rationality clearly diverge here because this is what is not rational: Believing that those who make racially problematic (to say the least) comments and engage in discriminatory practices can represent the interests of our citizenry in a fair and equitable way. That is not rational. It is also not rational to think that a man who boasts of his capacity to sexually assault women is someone who respects females. Further, it is irrational to think that those who are not heterosexual will be safe under the administration of someone who is filling his cabinet (as well as his Vice President position) with notoriously anti-LBGTQ appointments. It is irrational to think that someone who is not transparent about his considerable worldwide financial conflicts of interest might not be operating with the best interests of the nation guiding his policies and decision-making. It is not rational to think that someone who rage-tweets at Saturday Night Live in the middle of the night and re-tweets random bigots has the gravitas and temperament to be President of the United States. This is tip o’ the iceberg stuff. It is deeply irrational to be expected to suspend reason and fact to isolate the words and actions of an individual and reclassify it as something other than what the evidence continually supports.

Here is what is rational: To expect that a man who is continually digging himself deeper into a hole in terms of bigotry might just be, well, bigoted. And that someone who is as slippery about divulging and divesting his financial interests as Donald Trump might not have the best interests of the nation as his priority. And that someone who regularly tantrums and bullies from his Twitter pulpit in the middle of the night may just not be of the temperament needed to preside over the United States. In fact, holding these views would be highly rational as they are reflective of documentable reality: We have seen consistent examples of actions, behaviors and statements that lead us to believe that Donald Trump, his policies and his administration will be harmful for people of color, women, the LBGTQ and our national best interests yet we are being told to disregard and ignore what we have seen because, I don’t know, magic? 

That is irrational.

So, yes, I am emotional, but, no, I am not irrational. I am emotional and I am highly rational. These two states are not necessarily antagonistic to each other and, in a post-November 8, 2016 world, co-exist together more easily than ever. Can you be emotional and irrational? Of course. Indifference to tyranny and oppression, though, does not equal rationality. In fact, in some cases, it couldn't be further from it. 

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