Monday, May 7, 2018

Dave Roberts Decodes the Critique of "Emotion"

For today, a tweet thread about who is and isn't "emotional" from Vox writer David Roberts, whose mind I admire on an almost daily basis. Can we have more white men like him, please?

Been meaning to do this for a while, but it's come up again in the news, so no time like the present. 
The notion that men are "rational" and women "emotional" goes way, way back. It's certainly something I've heard all my life and something that, as an emotionally illiterate young person, I was willing and eager to believe. It explained away my social failures!

The same dynamic is echoed in politics — I cannot tell you how many conservatives sincerely seem to believe this kind of nonsense:

Quoting a conservative named Charlie Kirk:
Liberals have: feelings and emotion
Conservatives have: logic, history, perspective, science, reason, facts, math, principles, ethics, values, dialogue and common sense

On its face, it seems a little crazy. Look at the conservative men in the White House. Or go visit the comment section on the Federalist or Breitbart. Look in the inbox of any liberal writer. Look at Trump! These are not calm, dispassionate people.

The conservative men on right-wing media and in the halls of power are, as a rule, *extremely* high strung. That's why every day of politics these days feels like a f'ing soap opera — so many feelings! So much rage and resentment and jealousy and fear.

So where does this idea that right vs. left = reason vs. emotion come from? How can people watching Trump lurch this way and that, day to day, PURELY on the basis of raw animal feeling, maintain that pretense in their heads? How can you listen to talk radio and still think that?

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I trace it all back to the iron hold of toxic masculinity. In a nutshell, the distinction that's doing the real work is not reason vs. emotions, it is stereotypically masculine emotions vs. stereotypically female emotions.

When you're in the grips of rage and resentment, you're not being "emotional" in the bad way. Lust for revenge, for dominance, is not "emotional." Those are technically feelings, yes, but they are MANLY feelings that signal strength.

Whereas, compassion, empathy, and other forms of "fellow-feeling" are coded feminine. They involve being open and vulnerable. To put yourself in a position where others can hurt your feelings or betray you (i.e., interdependence) is WOMANLY and weak.

Toxic masculinity is, above all, about control. To be a man, in this view, is to control your circumstances, your fate, your household, your wife and kids, and your own feelings — to depend on no one, to be vulnerable to no one. Master and commander.

The right's keyboard warriors see the left (and, in their nightmares, all of Western Civilization) being feminized. The ur-text here is Kim du Toit's "the pussification of the American Male," which is treated as a classic of Western lit on the right. In this light, men saying women are emotional and conservatives saying liberals are emotional are basically the same thing — to be feminine is to be blinded by "caring," fatally weakened by interdependence, to cede control.

Thanks to their endless capacity for projection, Tough Guys believe that everyone's out for themselves, ready to screw anyone else who shows weakness, and that only ceaseless intimidation and weapons buildup and "resolve" keep the hordes at bay. They call this "realism," this conviction that the world's full of callous assholes, thus we have to be callous assholes too. They characterize anyone who disagrees as naive, trusting, innocent ... *feminine*.

But if you step back, despite all the squinty eyed "realism," the Tough Guy approach is just a f'ing disaster, everywhere — in foreign policy, in policing, in social policy, everywhere. It doesn't persist because it works. It persists because men are pathetically insecure .US culture is largely built to coddle and protect the feelings of macho white men. "Fuck your feelings" doesn't mean "emotions are irrelevant to facts." It means "we don't care if our cultural dominance hurts you." It is a rejection of empathy in favor of selfish tribalism.

Two final things. One, policy and outcomes are *better* when made by people whose conception of human interaction is not limited to dominance and submission. That's not only women, but electing a lot more women would sure as hell improve things.
And second, like everything, "fuck your feelings" and "you're too emotional" should not be read as principles that apply to everyone equally. It's always about *whose* feelings matter. As the White House Correspondents Dinner brouhaha shows, conservatives have extremely tender feelings! Rather, "fuck your feelings" means "fuck your claims" — your claims on equal respect, equal pay, equal treatment, equal autonomy. Fuck your attempts to force us, the dominant group in society, to cede some control and resources. We don't care if you're being hurt.

Oh! One other thing. What the Trump base is going through? This sense that culture is moving on, that they are losing status and being left behind? The normal human response to that is to be *hurt*. It hurts people's feelings to be rejected like that. But macho men can't be hurt. They can't just say, "my loss of any sense of control over my fate has me anxious and vulnerable -- please don't forget about us; please help us." That's feminine and weak! The only recourse, their only emotional tools, are anger and resentment.

That's basically politics in a nutshell these days: rural and suburban men losing status, emotionally unequipped to deal with it, and responding with indiscriminate rage, most of all directed at those they see as embodying weakness: immigrants, minorities, women. 
To summarize: "women are emotional" and "Democratss are emotional" are just different ways that men, steeped in a confused notion of masculinity, reject as weakness in others what they fear in themselves.

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