Saturday, October 29, 2011


I had a dream a few nights ago, where I was some sort of volunteer assistant teacher in an inner city school. The kids in my group were all African-American boys, about second or third or fourth grade. They had a series of little books about feelings on the table near them, and they were really pissed off about having to read them. Their objections amounted to, "Don't you go telling me what to feel, asshole." Probably not in that language, but I could feel their rage coming off them.

And so I tried talking with them, saying, "You know, of course you have a right to feel what you feel, but do you really always want to be drawn into a fight whenever you feel mad, or burst into uncontrollable tears when you feel sad? And when someone else is mad, do you have to just go with getting mad right back and getting into a fight with them?" I think that's what I said, or something like that. Hard to remember; it was a dream. And I woke up before I could hear any sort of reaction from them.

I've had a couple heated discussions on Facebook lately. One was with a guy in my neighborhood arguing that conceal-carry laws are good: he carries a gun as he walks around the neighborhood and it makes him feel safer. I'm not a fan of conceal-carry, but it turns out most of our energy about this comes not from facts but from communal beliefs: he's a passionate defender of individual liberties, while I tend towards a passionate interest in communality and mutual responsibility. When you get to statistical studies, having a firearm is more dangerous to the carrier because of household accidents and moments of passion, and in terms of public safety, conceal-carry a statistical wash.

But here's the thing I noticed about our back-and-forth: he came out of the box spitting mad—calling names, making accusations, saying things that weren't threats but carried the structure of threats ("If you... then I..."). And of course he has a "right to his feelings," but what I was seeing was how much his anger in and of itself washed over the relationship. It almost instantly stopped being just his anger. It was anger that I also had to deal with.

We use the word "feelings" to describe emotions, and this makes sense for little kids that are just learning about themselves: "What do you feel?" is a really good question for little kids to step back from themselves and name the churning mass of stuff inside them.

But I'm wondering about the use of that word in adults, because feelings in a group of people are more like waves: they aren't felt by you as an individual, they are emanated. They are like germs: sometimes your neighbor gets infected, sometimes her immune system kicks in with its own anti-emotion. But none of us live in emotional bubbles. Even those of us who try to, end up emanating their own weird little "can't touch me" vibe.

The other Facebook discussion was with a friend of a friend, about this letter and quickly turned into a debate about tyranny (taxation) vs reckless individualism (anti-taxation). And the guy I had the tête-a-tête with was pretty hyperbolic. He's clearly been through the comments-section school of political commentary and debate.

If you read the comments section of pretty much any article on the internet that touches on politics, you know the language: a group of villains is named, fear-and-anger-inducing words are invoked, and and either a plea for divine retribution or a call to arms concludes. These are the tools we use to try and win arguments. Except they utterly fail at that. They help us gather allies, and maybe we swing one or two people who are confused and unsure where they stand, but they don't turn anyone from the enemy camp, because they make it clear the enemy camp is the enemy.

When Jon Stewart made his plea for civility and less hyperbole ("These are hard times, not the end times...") this summer, I was interested to see some of my left-wing friends get pissed off because to them Stewart seemed to be saying "Stop fighting for what is right." And I didn't really know what to say to that, because of course we want people to fight for justice. And liberty. And freedom. And communal responsibility.

But who are they fighting? And how do you fight a demagogue, or a whole sea of demagogues? When we say we are going to fight, we invoke a specific set of analogies: there is a battle, there is an enemy, there is going to be some kind of combat. There's a poster/t-shirt slogan, "fighting for peace is like f***ing for virginity," which makes the point crudely, but the problem is, we don't know how to talk about large structural issues except by fighting.

And I think the root of the problem is the tidal-emotion thing I started this post off with: When I am passionate about something, a lot of what you—my audience—are paying attention to is the passion. The work of understanding the something itself does not come in presentation, it comes from our internal processing and piecing puzzle pieces that fit our internal unanswered-question puzzle-pieces.

And so I wonder about the place of passion in public debate. It seems to me that opening more of a place for testimony from personal experience, and clear, interesting delineations of the field of debate, are needed. But that's me. Actually, I was bowled over by this discussion of the divided mind, from a recent talk at the Royal Society of Art. It may sound boring from the title, but the conclusion about the sort of balancing needed in our world, is profound:

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