March 18, 2013
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.