March 18, 2013

Emotional discussions

Posted in Marginalization tagged , , at 12:04 am by chavisory

Another thing that’s happened to me in a debate more than once recently is that somebody tries to belittle me out of the discussion on the grounds that I’m “over-emotional,” and therefore can’t expect to be taken seriously.

It took me a long time to learn that almost whenever someone tells you that you’re being “too emotional,” what they mean is that you are being perfectly appropriately emotional about something that they simply don’t want to have to acknowledge or think about.  That being emotional is not a disqualification from argument.  Being emotional is human.

Un-emotionality is not the equivalent of having a rational argument, or a reliable indicator that someone does.  It is not the same as having a grasp of facts or science or of the actual conditions under discussion.

Emotionality is not personal attack. Personal attack is personal attack, and while there is such a thing as lashing out gratuitously or needlessly, the sole fact of someone’s being emotional, is not it.

That someone is emotional does not mean that they have not, or are not capable, of considering their own arguments logically or rationally.

Rationality and emotionality coexist within individuals.  They are not a zero-sum quantity; they are not opposing or mutually exclusive characteristics.  Or aren’t there people who are both highly rational and highly emotional, as well as people who are both unemotional and deeply irrational?  Because an opponent displays emotion, does not invalidate the logical grounding of their argument, and isn’t an excuse from addressing the actual substance of their argument.  Emotionality itself is neither evidence nor lack of evidence.

To be emotional in argument is not the same as committing the logical fallacy of emotional argument, which is to assert that the emotional consequences, or the intensity with which something is felt, is itself evidence of the rightness or wrongness of a position.  Ironically, it is those who would invalidate a position based on the emotionality of the arguer, who are actually engaging in emotional argument—taking the position that emotionality alone invalidates a position or standing in a debate, and not the validity of the argument itself.

*****

What it probably does mean when someone is emotional is that the topic under discussion means a great deal to them.  That they’ve been affected personally by a situation, or suffered serious and personal consequences of how a problem is perceived and debated—often by people who do not know the realities of the situation as intimately as they do.

It means that somebody cares, that they’re passionate and invested.  And none of those traits precludes the ability to think productively about a problem.  Otherwise, you claim that no one who is truly, individually affected by a problem has any standing to talk about it and to be heard.  That the poor have no place in discussions of poverty, that the disabled have no place in discussions of disability rights, that racial and ethnic minorities have no place discussing racism, and gender/sexual minorities have no place discussing discrimination and bigotry against those identities—if they can’t be perfectly unemotional about it, to an arbitrary standard set by those who are not personally, directly affected by the topic at hand.

Does that sound either fair or rational?

*****

Do we really believe that any major civil rights or human rights victory, whether in a court of law or in our culture, was accomplished without emotional engagement?  The end of South African apartheid, or Jim Crow laws in the US?  The fight for women’s suffrage and enfranchisement?  The aftermath of the Stonewall riots and of Matthew Shepherd’s murder in terms of LGBT rights and acceptance?  The disability rights movement for the rights and inclusion of disabled people that preceded the passage of the ADA?

As logically grounded as all of those movements have been, they have all involved intense and even disruptive degrees of emotion.  And as certain as I am that their very emotional intensity was probably cited as a strike against their credibility at the time…who, now, would dare to say that the emotional investment of their participants should have disqualified their arguments and demands from serious consideration by the majority?

It’s an incredibly unfair standard when only those with the luxury of being able to be unemotional about a topic are granted the credibility to discuss it.  Particularly regarding the concrete consequences that the way it’s discussed has for people’s actual lives.

When someone claims that you are too emotional to be having an argument, it is they who are refusing to engage with the substance of your argument.  They are saying that the only recourse they have is to disqualify you from the debate, because they have no actual refutation to what you are saying.  And that the grounds on which they can do so are that you care too much, that you mean what you are saying.  That the problem at hand is not purely abstract or intellectual to you, but that it means something real.

12 Comments »

  1. I agree, chavisory. We call it passion and we value it, but when someone wants to belittle us they call it Over-sensitive and over-emotional. It is used to derail the argument. It’s almost always aimed at women as part of thinly disguised sexism. And exactly as you say, it’s not a substantive argument. Thanks for explaining it so well.

  2. ShaLaugh said,

    My diversion from total agreement comes when the emotion is more important than the solution. That’s when someone who asks to move forward to a solution can get steamrolled. Emotion is very, very useful to demagogues -cf. Tea Party.

    • chavisory said,

      That is a really excellent point. I haven’t experienced too much of it, but there are times I think it’s fair to say “I have to leave this argument now, not because the emotion is not justified, but because it’s become unproductive as far as solution-finding at the moment.” Or “Maybe we should process for a while, and come back to this later with cool heads.” Not to invalidate the emotion, but sometimes it really is respectful or necessary to step back and process.

      As far as the Tea Party goes (and not to say that there aren’t similarly reactive ideological groups on the left), I think their conflation of passion with argument is more or less the mirror image of automatic invalidation of argument because of emotion involved. The fact that people FEEL anxious, threatened, and sidelined from the political process because of certain changes has been morphed into the conviction that it MUST be so.

  3. Radi said,

    You have hit the nail on the head. Thank you so much for writing this post – now I don’t have to sputter and try to express just what I mean by “Emotional does not mean ‘Not Rational’!”, I can just point them to your post. And I will keep a print copy on hand for those occasions that I’m not connected to the net. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!

  4. Ulallala said,

    “It took me a long time to learn that almost whenever someone tells you that you’re being “too emotional,” what they mean is that you are being perfectly appropriately emotional about something that they simply don’t want to have to acknowledge or think about.”

    It took me a long time to learn that whenever I disagree with someone what they mean is that I am right and they are wrong.

    Basically it’s impossible to be over emotional. Any time someone says that they are wrong.

  5. [...] or emotional erase the validity of a person’s argument.  Certainly not so.  I really liked Chavisory’s blog post on this very [...]

  6. […] tone policing.  Stop it.  Okay?  And also read this post by Chavisory’s Notebook because it is better than […]

  7. suburp said,

    Great post. As you said in the last part, any significant changes towards the improvement of the lives of any group in history has passed via a process of emotional, angry protest. I believe it’s actually only when enough people in the position of power are “infected” by the emotions of the minority group that the change can and will occur.
    I find it personally hard to follow discussions or read comments in the different debates about different autism related problems because the valuable points of one or the other party get lost in attacks ad persona, generalisations and refusal to communicate. But I am not a person in power beyond my own influence on the upbringing of my autistic child. I am not feeling awkward or guilty when parents are accused of using dangerous methods, of fighting autism rather than accepting and living with it. Because I am not such a parent.
    I do understand the anger, the emotion and impatience of autistics in such discussions, and believe they are a necessary and important part of the change I wish to see, too, for all autistics. Silencing, patronising behaviour is toxic behaviour in any debate. Emotion brings change.
    There are too many reasons still to be upset and angry when it comes to autism advocacy.
    “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.”

  8. […] that span back much further than online social justice circles do. And many, many people have made very valid arguments for why tone policing is reprehensible; for many, issues of […]

  9. RJ Gerber Jr said,

    I have found it impossible to have a rational, logical discussion with someone who bases his/her opinion/s on subjective emotional interpretations of objective fact. A hallmark of any rational, reasonable discussion is that both parties can rely on a common and objective fact-base in order to come to a justified conclusion. This does not occur when two people are having a discussion and one party is using objective and independently verifiable fact, and the other party relies on an emotionally charged (and entirely subjective) interpretation of their gut feelings presented as “fact”. Delving into subjective emotional interpretations destroys the common fact-base necessary to arrive at a rational conclusion, as the party utilizing objective fact is clearly at a disadvantage with another party’s use of an entirely subjective “fact-base”.

    Unless two people are using some identical mutual experience in order to derive their subjective emotionally charged opinions regarding objective reality, emotional interpretation should be left out of rational discussion.

    Just my honest opinion.

    • chavisory said,

      So this post is really largely about refusal to hear information, or to consider the importance of others’ experiences to a topic, in the presence of emotion, or before emotion is extricated from a discussion.

      I hope that that is not what you’re advocating.


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