Thursday, August 17, 2006

Stoic Emotion and Righteous Indignation

Reading further into the book about Stoic philosophy and its bearing on the modern military. This stuff is new to me and, since I've read so little of the source material and none of it in the context of Philosophy with a capital P, it's very likely that my insights (based on an interpretation of other interpretations of translations) may be a wee bit suspect.

Emotions are not something I worry about a lot. I mainly subscribe to the James-Lange theory of emotion: stimulus happens, chemicals get shot into your blood stream, and then you decide what the chemicals meant. For example, if your palms are sweaty, your mouth is dry, your knees are shaking, your stomach is trembling and your breath is fast and shallow that's a hormonal reaction. If it was triggered by a bear, you decide it was fear. If it was triggered by the most beautiful woman (adapt gender as necessary) you've ever seen, you'll call it love or infatuation. The hormone cascade is real. The emotion, in my opinion, is a story that we tell ourselves.

The author quotes passages and then explains them. Sometimes I get a completely different read than the author does. For good reason. By profession, I walk into situations with a huge potential for the chemical reaction described above and I am expected and required to be calm, lucid and reasonable. Reasonable is the wrong word, since sometimes I have to act crazy or angry or apply violence... but even on that edge I have to exemplify control. Because I do this all the time, I know it's possible. Someone who has never or rarely been exposed and has been swept up in their own emotion can reasonably be expected to believe that emotional expression is uncontrollable (but that statement, "I just loss control" is always self-serving. Ever hear of anyone saying, "I just lost control so I did a noble thing?")

The Stoics she quoted said that emotions are illusory and unreal. She took this as an ideal of the philosophy, but not a fact. Yet for the situations they were describing, the Stoics were dead-on: emotions are not data. Your emotion is your reaction to the situation. This is tricky for me to put into words. Here's a wildly mixed metaphor for you: A bear jumps out at you. This is the event. You get an adrenaline dump. That's the news. You call the adrenaline dump 'fear'... that's the editorial.

Calling it 'fear' doesn't change the fact, or even influence the fact, that you freeze or run. However, if you think about the word fear enough, you can convince yourself that the editorial is part of the news, or even part of the event. It can build. It can spread to other people who haven't even seen the bear. The Stoics, in my opinion, were warning of the dangers of treating an attribution as a fact- the attachments of Buddhism.

Side note: sometimes you don't consciously see the bear. The hair stands up on the back of your neck or you get an uneasy feeling. That's news, and if you respond to the news you have a good chance of surviving. If you say, "Oh that's silly, there's nothing wrong with this nice gentleman," that's the editorial, ignoring the news and possibly handing you over to a predator.

The author missed this (or maybe it is a creative misunderstanding on my part) .

So, by her definitions and how she understands it, the author believes that the Stoics strove for a life without emotion and such a thing is impossible. By my definitions, of course, the Stoics strove for a response free from attribution which is possible (probably).

That's only the start. The author agrees that excessive negative emotion is bad- that terror and rage and obsession are all horrible things, but she states that certain kinds of emotions are necessary to the maintenance of civilization. That without righteous indignation no one would be driven to do anything about genocide. That without compassion, no one would do anything about poverty.

This is where I disagree. Emotion in my earlier metaphor is the editorial. Genocide is wrong. I don't need to be angry or indignant or apply any other label- it's wrongness is independant of my feelings. And I can explain, clearly and logically why it is wrong and why something should be done.

Emotions in this situation do two things. First it acts as a self-referential data point so that we are feeding the children not because (fact) they are hungry and (fact) they each hold great potential for the future but to merely assuage our own un-earned guilt (an attribution). Second, relying on emotion to motivate devalues will. If you need to be angry or scared or inspired to do the right thing it is explicitly stating that you don't have the will to do the right thing because it is the right thing. The ability to reason the right thing and the will to act make us human.

This second point is used against people all the time. Listen, if I have to scare you to get you to act in a certain way it either means that I think you are too stupid to reason into acting for your own good or I know that my reasons aren't sufficient. This is the tool of demagogues (and much of the press) to trigger emotion specifically to prevent the people from thinking critically.

The book is "Stoic Warriors" by Nancy Sherman. At only halfway through, it's worth a look.

9 comments:

Kai Jones said...

All yeah.

Sometimes the hormone cascade starts, and I feel uncomfortable because I don't have any event to attach an emotion to. I think of them as false starts.

I read Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear recently--parts of which are positively awful, but parts of which are true and helpful.

Anonymous said...

NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) uses the distinction you make between the hormone cascade and the story you tell yourself. They talk about reframing your reactions to situations; telling yourself that sweaty palms and quick breathing means "I'm excited" rather than "I'm scared." Framing your reaction as excitement rather than fear can give you access to a lot more (and better) responses to the situation.

Mark

The Moody Minstrel said...

As someone for whom emotions have always been a primary source of power and motivation (and whose emotions have always tended to be on a hair trigger), I'm not sure how to react to all of that.

Actually, I've always believed there are two different levels of emotion. The hormone cascade thing you describe is what I would call primitive or animal emotions. It's what William Gibson would call a "meat thing". You have an instinctive physical reaction to stimuli, and you have either an instinctive or conditioned psychological response to it. However, there is also higher emotion, and it's much harder to define. Actually, I think you gave a very good example: our inner sense of right and wrong.

We feel that something is "just plain wrong". Why is it wrong? We don't know. There is no concrete, logical, factual reason why it should be. In fact, if we think only in terms of cause and effect, the matter in question might actually make sense. However, we still feel it's wrong. That's higher emotion at work. It's not a "meat thing". It's in the core of our being, and we actually have to be educated not to acknowledge it (as the 9/11 terrorists are said to have been psychologically conditioned not to feel pity or compassion for their victims).

Kami said...

The first thing that came into mind when you wrote 'just plain wrong,' Kevin wasn't about compassion, it was what I've heard men say about gay men a *lot*, so much that's it's become cliche'.

Kai Jones said...

It's fascinating to compare what different people get out of what you write. The insight is to their character, not your writing.

Mac said...

"The emotion is a story we tell ourselves" - that is freakin' cool. By having a place to stand - an 'unchanging view' then we can feel emotions (not control them) not be bound by them, not identify with them but with the reality of the situation. Because emotions tend to turn us inward (a good thing sometimes) but reduce our outward attention (can be a bad thing).

The Moody Minstrel said...

Kami, that's one of the advantages and disadvantages of living in Japan over the past decade and a half. I'm not exposed to those sorts of cliches, so they don't enter into my thinking. You know homophobic nihilism was not what I meant.

Kami said...

Hey Kevin, I know that wasn't on your mind. It popped (semi) randomly into mine. Like Kai said, it reflected much more on me than you.

Kai Jones said...

Exactly--we filter the other through ourselves. I know I'm limited by where I stand to perceive the other.