It’s been an emotional morning. No, not in that way—nothing bad has happened to me, nothing special is tugging at my heartstrings or causing me elation, sorrow, or confusion (at least no more than usual). Nothing like that. But it’s been a morning where the theme of “emotions” and how they operate in our thinking, our self-understandings, our politics, and our collective discourse has popped up a few times in my quick tour of the news and social media over breakfast.
First, it was University of Connecticut philosopher Michael Lynch’s article, “Do We Really Understand ‘Fake News’” in The New York Times. As the title suggests, Lynch is probing the concept of “fake news” and how it operates. But he doesn’t really talk about the news itself so much as we who evaluate the news—about how and why we react in the ways that we do, and about why “fake news” works so very well. Unsurprisingly, according to Lynch, human emotion plays a huge role:
We are often confused about the role that emotion plays in our lives. For one thing, we like to think, with Plato, that reason drives the chariot of our mind and keeps the unruly wild horses of emotion in line. But most people would probably admit that much of the time, Hume was closer to the truth when he said that reason is the slave of the passions. Moreover, we often confuse our feelings with reality itself: Something makes us feel bad, and so we say it is bad.
As a result, our everyday acts of communication can function as vehicles for emotion without our noticing it.
This is not a new insight, of course. As Lynch, suggests, it goes at least as far back as Hume. And the notion that emotion, not reason, mostly drives our chariot has been well-articulated recently by Jonathan Haidt. But the idea that much of what we plaster online, much of what we passive-aggressively share in the hopes that all the stupid and wicked people in our digital orbit will get the message, much of what we comment upon and react to, much of what Lynch calls “our everyday acts of communication” function as little more than vehicles for our emotion? This is a sobering truth.
We do this for very understandable reasons, as Lynch makes plain:
In particular, when it comes to sharing political news stories, we often are signaling our outrage and thereby hoping that others will share it. That’s one way that tribes are built and social norms enforced. Social media is an outrage factory. And paradoxically, it works because most folks aren’t aware, or don’t want to be aware, of this point.
“Fake news,” Lynch says, and our endless reacting to it, becomes
a vehicle for expressing our hostility, similar to yelling “boo” at a sports game. That’s an irony all too representative of our age of absurdity. Even our attempts to distinguish truth from falsity turn into screams of outrage.
Anyone who writes online knows this, of course. For every comment that seems reasonable and insightful, there usually a few more than are just screams of outrage. Over the past decade or so, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve peered, bleary-eyed, at a comment that quite clearly is uninterested in engaging the actual content of something I’ve written but is very interested in emoting in my general direction. The “outrage factory” that Lynch speaks of is absolutely how “tribes are built and social norms are enforced.”
From Lynch’s analysis of “fake news” I moved on to Alexander Tesar’s piece in The Walrus called “Voting with Our Feelings.” Tesar’s target is the upcoming Canadian election and whether or not citizens are actually capable of making rational, informed decisions. Unsurprisingly, he’s not optimistic. Here are a few statements pulled out of the article that isolate the troubling picture that the research is painting.
What some of these researchers have found is that habits, immediate perceptions, and intuition play a more important role in everyday decision making than reason does…
Researchers have learned that people are more likely to believe things the more often they hear them, even when they are wrong…
Even if an average citizen can obtain the information necessary to vote intelligently, can they overcome their mental tics, habits, emotions, and biases to do so?
Like you, I’m guessing, I find it very easy to read these statements as indictments of people who don’t think or vote as rationally as I am pleased to think that I do. But I just tried something radical and deeply uncomfortable. I read them again with the arrow pointing at myself (I invite you to do the same).
My habits, immediate perceptions and intuition play a more important role in everyday decision making than reason does.
I am more likely to believe things the more often that I hear them, even when they are wrong.
Even if I can obtain the information necessary to vote intelligently, can I overcome my mental tics, habits, emotions and biases to do so?
It’s sobering to ask questions like this. It’s much easier to locate ourselves above the ignorant and manipulable fray. But the research, so far as I understand it, doesn’t really distinguish between “right-thinking people” and “wrong-thinking people.” These are irreducibly human tendencies. This is all of us, perhaps especially those least inclined to think that it applies to them.
We will never magically become purely “rational” creatures. I don’t think it would be good if we were. Emotions are simply part of who we are. They are a crucial part of how we apprehend and interpret our experiences and they play a vital role in stimulating and nurturing compassion and care, among many other things. Our emotional capacity is, I think, one of the most beautiful things about our humanity.
But emotions also inflame some of our very worst tendencies. They convince us that because we feel something, it must be true. They lure us into the lie that emoting in public is always and necessarily equivalent to meaningful discourse or courageous truth-telling. They wall us off into impenetrable silos of warring subjectivities.
As I’ve said before, I am convinced that one of the things that our cultural moment is in desperate need of is to recover a more honest and robust anthropology—one that resists false and lazy dichotomies, one that has the courage to look inward in self-analysis before looking outward in righteous judgment, and one that is characterized by a humility more appropriate to our station.