“I Have No Sympathy for Their Fear”: Emotions in Humanist Practice

“I Have No Sympathy for Their Fear”: Emotions in Humanist Practice July 26, 2020

Issy Bailey, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing, people walking by fire

Let’s begin with an update. I’ve had a rocky couple of weeks due to some difficult developments with the visa/undocumented situation here in Colombia, and they’ve taken their toll on my writing output here. However, in hindsight, they also perfectly exemplify a point I’ve been wanting to make for the last few weeks.

Specifically, after the Foreign Affairs office (which handles visa applications) denied various second-visa types for contradictory reasons, the visa agency I’ve been using took the case to the Ministry of Exterior Relations, which issued a verdict two Thursdays ago that was marginally in my favour: the Ministry agreed that the contradictions were baffling, and ordered Foreign Affairs to issue an explanation, and case-resolution, by the following Wednesday. I was told this on the Friday, but the visa agency wanted me to come in the subsequent Tuesday to discuss what it all meant going forward — so, I was on tenterhooks all that first weekend, which absolutely distracted me; I threw myself into a single task, novel-editing, to settle my nerves.

Alack, the Foreign Affairs office did not take kindly to the visa agency going to Ministry court, or indeed to being pressured by the court to explain itself on an accelerated schedule. Even the visa agency agrees that what happened next is a sign of sheer vindictiveness, a refusal to admit error to such an extent that it would contravene its own statutes even further. Why? Because Foreign Affairs decided to align all its assessments of my case by retroactively stripping me of my first migrant visa. They literally changed the record to say that I should never have received my 2018-2020 visa, either — even though the very statutes they used to justify this claim plainly illustrate that my work-contract type and work timeline are 100% included in the definition of a legitimate migrant-visa ask.

So, we’re appealing, of course (to a different office in the government), but this whole situation has been a perfect illustration of the dangers of thinking that societal discourse is ever advanced by cold, clinical logic alone.

It’s a lie that folks in the atheistic community often tell one another, too: fortifying ourselves in notions of intellectual superiority while mistakenly believing that “empiricism” is ever just a matter of invoking specific biological, geological, archaeological, and cosmological facts. When we forget that human behaviouralism is an essential body of research to incorporate into our understanding of the world, and into our understanding of how humans relate to the practice of debate, we undermine our own, self-congratulatory claims to higher insight.

But it’s not just atheists who do this, of course, because the lie comes up in general discourse as well: any time, really, when we indulge in the fantasy that “pure” objective facts and well-reasoned arguments ever advance human knowledge and public policy on their own.

Humanism tasks us, instead, to distrust any claims that well-wrought words and figures ever move society forward, or indeed that the practice of reasoned debate is the one dividing line holding civil society together and keeping depravity at bay. (We might even take a page from Hannah Arendt in this regard, and remember that German intellectuals during the Third Reich often made academic sport out of issues directly affecting the livelihood — and indeed, lifespans — of a heartrending number of people slaughtered, terrorized, and displaced during the Holocaust.)

But of course, it’s difficult to turn our attention away from the comfort of cold facts, because most of us are not well socialized to talk about the alternatives in a measured way. Rather, so often, when we talk about incorporating emotions into our understanding of why people do what they do, the assumption is that we’re asking others always to empathize with people doing unconscionable things from their petty fears and angers.

This misunderstanding stunts our practice of humanism, and it’s what I want to address today.

The “Cancel Culture” Essay

The response to my last essay was fascinating to me, inasmuch as some comments revealed a body of people responding more to the phrase “cancel culture” than to the actual exercise of the piece, a hypothetical credulity with respect to my opponents’ views on “cancel culture” (even as I outlined why “cancel culture” is not an coherent concept), which I used to illustrate that, even in its strongest formation, we’re not talking about an issue that can ever resolved by casting an accusing finger at the vox populi. People seemed to arrive in those comments with fully formed discourses from other heated debates pertaining to the general theme — which is fine! But also part of the reason I generally avoid “hot” topics. Our natural priming around them simply does not favour genuine discourse so much as shoring up our sense of who’s in our “tribe” and who’s not.

One concept from that essay seemed to pique readers, though, and it relates to my aforementioned commentary about the role of emotions in humanist practice. I mentioned that I take very seriously the articulated fears of people with whom I disagree. Then, in the comments, folks made firm declarations about having no sympathy for the fears of those who espouse a belief in cancel culture. And that, to me, was a fascinating leap, because it illustrated our lack of a vocabulary to talk about the role of emotions in public-policy formation, activism, and human behaviour writ large.

What I want to propose, instead, is that we think about emotions as elements of human decision-making that we overlook at our peril, and also to the detriment of our efforts to create a better world.

Let’s take a look at this latter point first:

When we refuse to acknowledge or engage with the emotions underpinning others’ beliefs, we might think we are taking a strong stance against those same beliefs. However, by culling the validity of other people’s emotions from the conversation, we are also playing into the presumption that another group’s arguments are best trounced in open debate instead. Worse still, many folks on the other “side” of highly controversial arguments want that. Indeed, there’s nothing that many of them hate more than being revealed to have any emotional stakes in their articulated dissent; and they can get pretty irate if someone else tries to address their concerns as in part predicated on anger and fear.

This is in large part because many folks on other “sides” of such debate tend to weaponize emotions themselves, using them to dismiss and otherwise drive people out of a social discourse artificially framed only around certain, highly comfortable notions of “civility.” But we on the side of compassionate humanism do ourselves, and humanity, no favours by playing into this view of emotion as something separate from rational discourse (the neuroscience makes plain that it is not), and by otherwise tolerating the treatment of emotion as something separate from our societies’ collective conversations about how best to develop policies that increase security and well-being for all.

Identifying the fears underpinning many other points of view, then — not by belittling those fears, but by naming and naturalizing them into debate — thus deflates a great deal of power from “sides” that are convinced their views are 100% rational and everyone else is simply denying The Facts.

As to my other point, about the role of emotion in human decision-making…

When we play into the fantasy that change has ever meaningfully been wrought by words and facts alone, we delude ourselves into seeing the world other than it is. It is one of the most fantastical things atheists often believe in, that the power of the words alone can defeat, say, a belief in the Word. Certainly, well-reasoned argument has its place! But Hitchens’ famous line, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence,” which is so reverently invoked by many a young or recently transitioned atheist, is highly misleading, because it entirely excludes a logical assessment of what draws people to beliefs without empirical evidence in the first place.

A humanist approach to the world, conversely, requires a far more comprehensive understanding of how human beings function — and this means recognizing that even if words on the page seem absolute and unalterable; even if the use of quantifiable figures in articles about human proclivities and aptitudes seems unquestionable — we are nevertheless creatures that form associations through affective relationships to everything around us.

This means that a word is never received simply as a word; it’s also a whole body of sense-memories and habituated uses. And the same is true for whole concepts, fields of study, information silos, and identity labels.

Religion, for instance, is a powerful force far less because of the words on the page (after all, words from other gods and eras have had their time in the sun, and now lie leaden in their respective texts), and much more about the communal feelings that its practice forms in the minds of those either raised up from birth with a given vocabulary, or else given this welcoming sense of community at some later, disorientingly isolated time in life.

The lie of a great deal of basic atheism is that, in choosing to “leave” religion (if we were ever in it), we have also automatically given up our affective relationships with word and fact in all other spheres as well. As such, so many of us fall prey to the belief that scientific research is ever objective (it’s not; it just has more self-corrective mechanisms over time than many other ways of negotiating and cataloguing the world); or that there exists a perfect form of argument capable of winning over whole populaces by itself (instead of, say, the idea that the right person, with the right platform, in the middle of the right groundswell, is actually needed to turn an argument into real-world change).

This lie absolutely primes us, then, to neglect the development of a critical vocabulary around the role of emotion in improving human outcomes. In doing so, it also leaves many of us feeling righteous in dismissing the sheer fact of other people’s emotions — lest we feel compelled to empathize, again, with a person whose views we despise.

The Take-Away

Now, I promise you, I’m not asking you to open your heart to every hate-filled person in the world.

I’m not asking you to shed tears for gang-rapists who brutalize and murder women for sport, on account of how distorted an emotional relationship they must have with the world, to think of and treat others this way.

Or for politicians whose narcissism costs hundreds of thousands of lives, either in wartime or pandemic (or both), and who was probably raised up to believe that by ego alone one might triumph, and can no longer see the world through any other point of view.

Or members of the affluenza who measure the value of human life against the value of their stocks, in part because their neurobiology has been affected by the sheer fact of having inordinate wealth and stability in the first place, which has left them so fearful for the loss of both that their capacity for genuine empathy has been stunted for years.

Or people in general who stump for theoreticals with wilful indifference to the real-world cost to other populations, then latch on to others’ outcry at their points of view — and the hurt that this volley of outrage causes them to feel — as evidence of their own victimhood and unjust pariah status.

No, I’m not asking for anyone to be a “saint” in all this exhausting interplay of hurt people hurting people.

All I’m asking, of fellow humanists across the spectrum, is that we strive to develop a more nuanced vocabulary around the role of emotion in public discourse.

Because whether or not we like this facet of our humanity, our affective relationships underpin everything: the issues we choose to focus on, the kinds of authority we turn to (and from), the shape of our tribes, the ways in which we respond to rebuke, and most critically of all, the extent of our ability to change our minds in the face of new evidence.

So, if we truly recognize that human beings are the most critical agents of change in the cosmos, it falls to us to gather even this most frustrating facet of our condition into the immense data sets we’re using to try to improve the world; and then… to work ever so hard to ensure that personal emotionalism doesn’t get any further in the way.

(With you in this most human of struggles, my friends — just, at a bit of a sporadic remove these days, as the slings and arrows of being undocumented for… 66 days now… sometimes wears me down and keeps me away.

All best to you and yours.)

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