Are Emotions Rational or Radical? ~ emmi

by emmi bevensee

“By day, it’s power we wreck. But by night, we soft as hek.”

As radicals our goal is to get to the root of things. We want to spit gasoline on the twin fires of empathy and maximized freedom. In order to do these things, we need to figure out both what direction we’re fighting in and what will work. This is a kind of truth-seeking. Truth-seeking is thought of as intellectual but it is also deeply embodied. When you are deeply curious your mind and body swim together. Before, during, and after laying siege to ICE facilities and abolishing all border infrastructure, we need also to be human (at least for now). Part of that is our emotional landscape which, whether we are aware enough of it or not, deeply impacts the way we make decisions.

Feelings are information. Information is inherently neutral but deeply powerful. Feelings are also tools for understanding sub-verbal and intimate cues about a situation and our role in it. Feelings tell the experiential story of our life which is a type of truth. Emotions are always somehow reflective of our current state, so in that they are subjectively true in a relative sense. For example, noticing we are scared will give us information about what internal factors are likely influencing our decision-making. So feelings are often true about our state. But, emotions can also be wrong in an absolute sense. We may notice that not only are we scared, but that we are so scared that we feel like we’re dying when in actuality we’re just losing grasp on a particular conception of how reality is or should be according to us. Feelings can be wrong about reality even if they’re right about our state. Both of these scenarios contain complexity though. We can be feeling fear because there is an actual objective external threat, or just because of something we miscomprehended. This reveals that there is a relationship between thoughts and feelings.

This is clearly shown in the mountain of research into things like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that tease apart the ways you can change what you feel by changing the ways you conceptually frame things, which in turn changes the way you behave. This positive feedback loop is the inverse of a vicious cycle of self-deprecation. CBT is fucking hard. Changing patterns is fucking hard. Of course, the woo-ism that you can just “think positive” is acidic wishful thinking and naive denial about the very real structural causes of suffering in the world. This can tread into such obscenities as “anything bad that happens to you is your fault” or “your suffering is just a result of your mindset about the fact that you’re literally on fire.” There’s no shortage of reasons to feel bad. We have achieved post-scarcity with regard to legitimate suffering. But the world is also teeming with incredible acts of radical kindness and just pushing like a freight train for complex connection and passion. Thoughts can impact feelings but the world also exists and needs changing.

There’s a gross new-atheist style macho rationality (1, 2, 3) that is, in part, a response to these innane woo oversteps. They rightfully want to challenge the notion that just because something has a placebo effect or a death-spiral of positive feelings (1, 2), doesn’t mean it’s right or good. It often places coldness as a virtue in a way that is generally extremely suspect. And of course, there is absolutely a time and place for calculated decision-making, but mostly what this looks like in practice, is a bunch of dudes who are so clueless about their own internal states (as a result of patriarchy and other factors) that they think that they’ve overcome their emotions and are acting rationally, when they’re actually just using pseudo-logic to confirm the emotional reactivity they’ve repressed. This is where you get the kind of internet hubris of someone on a diatribe about something that is clearly a result of their prejudice that they’re just finding decontextualized facts to support. People may pop up and write something like, “Yeah I hear what you’re saying, and sure you’re good at arguing, but it actually just seems like you hate queers.” To which they have a meltdown and start calling them “TRIGGERED LIBERAL CUCKS!” Although this fictional strawman dialogue certainly does describe countless real interactions, it’s more intended as a jab at why people hate a certain type of arrogance that is so obviously flawed to everyone but the person expressing it.

Despite this, I advocate for certain forms of arrogance and am skeptical of many forms of humility. Arrogance can just be having the audacity to search for truth in a post-truth world. When someone makes a testable assertion of Truth, they are not only opening themselves up to critique but also saying that others who disagree are Wrong. In a world where it’s so hard to get our facts in order, this can be either brave or wildly misguided. It can be brave because introducing a new truth, especially a deeply challenging one, can result in incredible backlash. It can be misguided to the extent that it is itself a product of hidden factors such as internalized racism and the like and doesn’t see its own biases. Conversely, much of what passes for humility is actually just manipulative social positioning. It’s congratulatory self-flagellation or of signalling virtue to our compatriots.

To be clear, I am a hardcore advocate of rationality. I’m largely a subscriber to the High Church of Bayesian Rationality and probability densities that update priors based on new evidence that pays rent in accurating predicting reality. My practice is to make maps that better reflect the territory. One of my main goals in life is to be an ever better epistemological rationalist, searching for truth for truth’s sake even if it makes me uncomfortable and challenges me deeply. I cringe at people who believe that truth isn’t real, as if in speaking such a platitude they are not also trying to touch truth. If truth was strictly subjective with no consensus reality anywhere to be found it would be impossible for us to plan, coordinate, or survive much less communicate with others through language. A strictly subjectivist view of truth is also strictly relative. That’s why it has no bite against something like a person that just “feels afraid of people of color.” You can’t really say, “Interrogate that feeling!” if you don’t believe that there is any level at which a person’s subjective view of an actually existing situation could become biased by material phenomena or that, at some level, a view can be more legitimate or correct than another. If you believe in the biasing, then you believe in some material reality. Even if the truth is “somewhere in the middle” and both sides have some valid points especially with regard to their positionality, there’s still something “in the middle”. Real humility is searching for the limits of our knowledge and being honest about where our evidenced confidence in our belief tapers off and our pride or self-conception steps in. Both intellectual and emotional rationality can help us notice when we’ve fallen off course. Building emotional intelligence is a domain of rationality, even if emotions can be wrong–because of course, so can thoughts, and (almost) no one is calling for their abolition (looking at you Zerzan and nihilists). Strictly objectivist thought that mistakes the map (our perception of truth) for the territory (whatever is actually going on) makes a similar mistake. Further, just ignoring the limits of our knowledge or refusing to use a tool because it’s imperfect, is the faulty mode of arrogance.

Emotional and intellectual humility that focusses on doubt about what we actually can or do know, acknowledges that serious mistakes are devastatingly common, even for people who try really hard to be decent. A single word misheard can start the chain of explosions that destroy a relationship, cutting deep ties in the networks they’re a part of in the fall out. The stakes are high when our entire emotional landscape feels like it’s on the line. One false move, and BOOM! TRAUMA! TRIGGERS! DISSOCIATION! ANGER! TEARS! BETRAYAL! We are trying also to develop a culture that embodies the anti-ableist culture in the sense of deeply honoring where we all are internally, what we need, and what’s uniquely difficult for us given our context.

We are trying to radicalize compassion while at the same time holding each other accountable. We know that we fuck up. We know that we need the space to react how we need to, but that also we need to acknowledge the ways that our reactions and needs around our trauma impact other people. We are trying to get better at this even though we also suck at it sometimes. We have to cut each other slack and be understanding, but also protect our hearts. Shame and guilt are like diseases that destroy our functioning and sense of self-worth, but in other incidences they are also the gifts of knowing we’ve done something wrong. We need to learn better self-care while recognizing our pain and alienation isn’t solely our fault. We need to know when self-care is actually becoming harmful to ourselves. There are all these fine lines that we’re constantly missing while we traverse the minefields of connection.

We are enmeshed in a web of interactions and thoughts and feelings are glue and the kerosene. Intellectual humility is deeply thinking through the implications of the parts of the situation that we don’t have access to while still trying to make sense of the pieces we do have. Emotional humility is paying attention to that pang that means we’ve overstepped ours or anothers boundaries.

Another example of the delicate interplay between intellectual and emotional rationality is empathy. Empathy is not just the jolt of shared pain that you get from seeing someone injured, it’s also the intellectual act of consciously blurring yourself with another. It’s seeing someone else’s freedom as your own, which is also the premise of anarchism. It’s knowing that your liberation is my liberation at a deep and tangible level. Empathy is both thinking and feeling that my life isn’t inherently more important than anyone else’s no matter how urgent and immediately we experience it. Emotional empathy can lie though too. It can tell us that the problem we see is more important than the one far away from our view. Emotional empathy cannot handle scale. We cannot feel exponentially more suffering for 1 thousand or 100 thousand suffering people. That visceral empathy is also why it’s easier to focus emotional empathy on an individual case– the person in front of us. This can be an important thing. Emotional empathy can destroy prejudices. It’s sneaky and moves like water cutting through bias and engaging some core notion of shared experience. Empathy can defuse an anger bomb being lobbed between lovers turned enemies in the blink of an eye. Suddenly we remember that we love them. We really see them for a second and start to think about what that means and it shifts the whole tone.

This strictly visceral empathy can also be emotional nationalism though and unmediated, it is one of the roots of many tribalistic ails such as ethno-nationalism and white-supremacy that focus on an immediate imagined community instead of complexly networked relationships between all sentient beings. But when empathy lies it’s short-sighted and for this, we need intellectual empathy. We need to think, “This one person’s suffering hurts really bad, but it’s indicative of this trend of exploitation. How can we not just strike out at the symptoms, but truly attack the root of this coercion?” Emotional empathy lights the match, and intellectual empathy tells you where to throw it.

It’s staggering to imagine that aside from the clear causes related to things like power and patriarchy, so much sexual violence itself could be destroyed by a deeply embedded culture of empathetic emotional rationality. Thinking about anothers feelings as being equally important to your own and also feeling them, makes hurting someone exponentially harder because it hurts you too. This is the magic of an expanded notion of self that can come from deeply exploring and tunneling with our feelings and practicing and learning together about how to love better. This woman wrote in an amazingly nerdy way about how sexual violence should be a concern of effective-altruists and rationalists alike and yet ultimately committed suicide in part due to sexual violence in rationalist communities. There is no doubt in my mind that the vision of post-emotional rationality played a role in the fact that sexual violence wasn’t more understood, was ignored when it came up, and ultimately helped push her towards suicide. Just straight up emotional recognition skills, emotional processing and management skills, and emotional communication skills are quintessentially important in preventing endless waves of suffering and destruction even it communities that are trying to do better.

I’m not totally certain that I know the best way to be emotionally or intellectually rational. I try hard but that’s the most I can say. Being the best version of myself is draining because it means fighting uphill against all my life-saving coping mechanisms turned bad habits. Compassion isn’t an on-off switch. I have to constantly remind myself that it’s valuable. I have to hold my own hand and guide myself back to that warm but at times difficult place I know and love but lose sight of in a flash when I’m scared. Because it’s hard, I fail– a lot. I fuck up, at times in big, embarrassing ways that look bad on me and hurt other people. I hate it and it terrifies me but it’s true and I believe, an important part of the journey.

I think most honest radicals do, at least in part, come from a place of earnest love and empathy. But it’s all those shadowy drives and slimy payoffs that I have to keep watch for. I’m like a rat to cocaine water with dopamine hits. My shallow drives are constantly trying to steer me towards my largely selfish ends and away from pain. As a radical though, it’s my lifelong desire to interrogate and play and explore all those caves and subtle dynamics to get a better grip on my personal landscape of emotional and intellectual rationality.

Emotional rationality is radicalism. This invisible work we do on the inside to survive and hurt others less is the fabric for any kind of sustainable radical praxis. Fortunately, we don’t have to do it alone. There are friends, forums, therapists, pen-pals, blogs, and pets to help along the way. And that’s that good shit. Radicals are soft as fuck and that’s awesome. We have to be gooey with each other so that we can fight out there. Harnessing and cultivating emotional intelligence is a field of rationality that we need to practice if we are to truly get to the roots of abolishing power and maximizing freedom.

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