Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Case for Emotional Correctness

First of all, Sandy Kohn's TED talk about emotional correctness is relevant to the present discussion, and in fact, prompted me to write it, though the thoughts that follow have been boiling in my mind-kettle for some time.

I intend to argue roughly that anger is counterproductive to serious debate about important controversial issues, and in fact, irrational.

When you feel very strongly about something and hold a very strong opinion about it, possibly on account of having conducted a careful and thorough rational analysis, it is easy to view those with whom you disagree as simply being unethical morons. That is, it's easy to feel justified in disregarding your opponents' opinions via a line of thinking that amounts to something like:

  1. On account of my careful and thorough reasoning, my stance is the ethical and rational one.
  2. Thus, if my opponent had considered the issue as seriously and as carefully as I have, then he or she would agree with me.
  3. My opponent disagrees with me.
  4. Therefore, my opponent has either failed to consider the issue seriously and carefully to a satisfactory degree or else has done so but nevertheless holds a different stance because he or she is unethical, irrational, or stupid (possibly some combination thereof).
  5. Engaging in a serious debate about an important issue without considering the issue seriously and carefully is itself unethical, irrational, and stupid.
  6. Ergo, my opponent is unethical, irrational, or stupid, and probably all three.
  7. Unethical and irrational morons do not deserve to be treated with respect.
  8. Therefore, I shall disrespect my opponent.

In my estimation, this is very common. However, I also consider it to be very rude, but also very counterproductive because it tends to cause the focus to be drawn away from exploring the issue and placed onto the goal of defeating one's enemies by any means necessary.

For instance, suppose Drew and Glenn are debating the issue of abortion and have this brief exchange:

Drew: I think abortion should be banned.
Glenn: So you support rising child homeless rates? I can't understand how you are willing to hold such a position!

Or possibly:

Glenn: I think abortion should be legal.
Drew: So you support the murder of babies? I can't understand how you are willing to hold such a position!

Both of these cases are problematic because in each case the indignant responder projects particular ethical assumptions on the other person, who probably doesn't make those assumptions. They also erroneously assume particular reasoning on the part of the other person (i.e. no one wants to ban abortion specifically because doing so will increase teenage homelessness, and similarly no one supports its being legal specifically because they want babies to be murdered). But unfortunately, this is not an extreme hypothetical situation. These are the sorts of things we actually hear people say with respect to this issue.

But suppose I am very, very, very convinced that my opponent's stance is completely immoral or incorrect. Am I justified in being angry at them for their immoral position? Possibly, but if you are so angry, then it is at least wise to make a conscious effort not to let it affect your performance in an intellectual debate.

However, I argue that it is better to avoid such anger when possible, and especially with respect to issues that are very controversial. The reason why is that it undermines the importance of the issue. If the opinions on an issue are divided roughly equally, even amongst intellectuals, then it stands to reason that there exist seemingly rational means of arriving at either opinion (for the sake of argument, let us suppose it's a binary decision in question). One's anger about the opposing opinion seems to imply a belief that the correctness of the correct answer is roughly obvious provided you think about it reasonably carefully. In essence, rather than saying (implicitly) "my opponent disagrees with me because of their use of a different argument, one which I consider invalid but which a reasonable person in their fallibility might consider valid, which is undesirable but still morally acceptable" you are saying (again, implicitly), as I suggested above, "my opponent disagrees with me not because of an ultimately invalid but seemingly correct argument, but rather because they are stupid or immoral or both, and this is bad, bad, bad!!!" However, given that it seems rational to assume that there exist apparently rational means of arriving at either opinion, the second attitude is actually likely an irrational one. It is the attitude of a person who presupposes that their own reasoning is not only flawless but also obviously correct to anyone who will hear it.

Am I saying that in debating important real life issues we should be emotionless robots? No, of course I am not. It is natural to become angry at what we perceive to be immoral attitudes. What I am saying is that it behooves us to rein in that anger and give the benefit of the doubt to those with whom we disagree and presume that their actual reasoning (of which we are initially unaware, since it is someone else's reasoning) is at least worthy of genuine examination, because it is by doing so that we dignify the importance of the issue under discussion.

Emotional correctness, as Sally Kohn puts it, supports this motive, and emotional incorrectness is in stark opposition to it. The example Kohn uses is a good one. Someone who claims to hate immigrants doesn't necessarily actually hate immigrants because they're just a hateful person who has chosen to be immoral and mean. It is probably because of some other emotion, such as fear, which we can easily identify with and understand. This is the common ground that Kohn seeks to find. I believe we should all seek to find it.

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