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Emotion and Action


In a lot of ways, American culture is driven by emotion. The roots of American political thought in the philosophy of the Enlightenment are taught to all American students, but so is Patrick Henry’s famous decree, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

Henry’s challenge is much better at stirring emotions–it engages the attention of the listener far more readily than a discussion of natural law and natural rights. Humans are emotional creatures, obviously, and it takes more of an effort to approach a situation intellectually than to read it at the more basic, emotional level.

Ideally, there is a balance to be had: emotions are tempered by reason, and humanity is retained in reason by the acceptance of emotion. Flirtations with pure rationalism can lead to justifications for genocide–reason can strip away humanity as easily as impart it. Raw emotion can demand rash action for which we are blind to the consequences. There must be balance.

It’s easy to think adherence to strict rationalism is the only way to go, but the subjective nature of human experience and all its outgrowths demands a critical eye toward anything masquerading as pure reason. Strict rationalism is then paradoxical: it claims a mantle of logical purity that is impossible, while at the same time denying the humanity of what is a deeply human invention. None of this is a revelation–Kant covered this ground a couple centuries ago. But with unassailable reason an impossible goal, must we then turn to the other extreme, and trust only our own emotions?

The dominance of emotion in American culture and political discourse is undeniable. Ours is a culture full of romance, sentimentalism, and revisionism: peculiar national myths that believe our independence was assured either by the sheer desire for it, or God’s mandate of it, as if there’s a difference; a people made up of rugged individualists who came into an unpopulated frontier and built great cities with nothing but dirt and their own force of will; the shared tragedy of a civil war in which we are all happy to forgive and forget, lest we be forced to face its true causes, and their echoes into the present. Truth is elusive, but basic knowledge need not be.

These issues can be difficult to articulate. How does one reconcile a culture that nearly worships the soldier–the proud warrior who fights enemies and is willing to selflessly give all for his country–and then casts aside the personal costs of his service, unwilling to acknowledge, much less pay them? We demand safety and protection, but balk at the prospect of regulation. We decry a government too large to be anything but corrupt, while insisting it cater to our specific desires. We crave a connection with celebrity, then just as quickly turn against when the object of our collective affection looks to have risen too high–and must cut them down. It is emotion and reaction without reflection, without thought.

Oftentimes, the emotional outburst itself is the end goal, in and of itself. Much has been written of so-called “outrage culture.” It is a phenomenon that is convenient to blame on one’s ideological adversaries, but it knows no true creed. A target appears, makes a clear misstep, and the mob descends for just as long as it takes attention to wander on to the next spectacle, or for anger to abate. One could argue whether any one instance is justified, based on the offense–this is certainly worthwhile. But on many occasions it is clear that little in the way of productive action is expected, or even desired. The offender is not a person but a receptacle for rage in need of an outlet.

Pointing fingers is not the point–that would be indulging in the exact behavior that is being critiqued. This is a collective issue. Unfortunately, it seems extremely difficult to rectify given a media culture that thrives on bouncing from outrage to scaremonger to panic to infotainment and back again. But media does not merely shape culture–it also reflects it, so all are responsible. The premise on which clickbait functions is hardly new, itself. “You won’t believe how this 6-year-old made a grown man cry” triggers the same emotional impulses as a 10 o’clock news segment that ends by asking, “Is there a common item in your fridge that might kill you? Find out next!” We are inquisitive animals, but more than that, we are made uneasy by unanswered questions and mysteries that dredge up our fears. It’s precisely why leading questions are considered taboo in responsible polling–and why they are invaluable if the goal is to produce propaganda. Trigger an emotional response, and reason goes out the window. Intelligence must fight its way back to the driver’s seat.

And this is not a culture that rewards approaching complex issues with intelligence. Experts who spend years learning and honing their knowledge and analysis are derided in favor of ideologues who rely on rapid quips and cheap slogans. Such a trend is commonly rendered a “dumbing down”–better to term it an “emotioning up.” Emotional instigation is not an accident, it’s the intent. The worst ideas slip by when we’re not thinking.

What’s left for a conclusion, then? There are no solutions in sight. Imploring individuals to be more thoughtful is likely preaching to choir for those who would hear. And if these words have provoked an emotional reaction reader, then perhaps they prove the point.