Logic and Debate · Psychology

Your Feelings Aren’t an Argument

Continuing to look at various concerns that come up in debates, feelings have recently become a major issue when discussing social issues. In colleges and elsewhere, Safe Spaces have become very popular as places to avoid upsetting ideas. Trigger Warnings have made their way into college courses to warn students of potentially upsetting topics. In some circles, the very mention of something upsetting can be considered “hate speech” and deemed unacceptable. The problem is feelings don’t reflect what many people think they do. Instead…

Feelings Are a Result of How You Think

Consider a simple thought experiment. A good friend of the family walks up to you and states, “Your mom said she hates you last night. I thought you should know how she really feels.” As the listener, you could have a wide variety of reactions. If you’ve always assumed this was the case, you might feel relieved to know she’s finally being honest. If you have a very close relationship with your mom, you may challenge your friend about why he/she is lying. You might even get angry at the friend. If you’ve had some tension in your relationship with your mom, this revelation might both explain what’s been happening, and be very hurtful.

In all of those reactions, however, there are three factors that determine your reaction.

  1. Your investment in your relationship with your mom.
  2. How much you believe your friend’s report.
  3. What you believe your current relationship with your mom is.

The statement from your friend does not cause your feelings. It is your thinking about the statement, your relationships to your friend and your mom, and various other things that determine your emotional reaction or lack thereof. As a result…

Your Emotional Reactions Say More About You Than They Do About the Statement

A while back, I defended some of Trump’s statements on Facebook as “locker room talk” and the sort of thing that I heard on a regular basis. The woman I stated this to was horrified, stated that I needed better friends, stated that his comments were part of “rape culture”, and went on to discuss the many problems with them. In the face of this, I remained very calm, and the back-and-forth went on in a rather predictable way.

Things that came out of the discussion:

  • She had been sexually assaulted and/or raped.
  • She spent a great deal of her free time devoted to helping sexual assault victims.
  • Several of her friends who were able to observe this discussion were also sexual assault victims.
  • I know people who have been victims of sexual assault.

For her, Trump’s recorded comments brought to mind a traumatic event that was still very raw for her and some of her friends. She saw in his statements the mindset of a man who feels entitled to women’s bodies. By contrast, I was reminded of many talks with friends where we discussed which girls (in high school) or women (in college and later) we found attractive, what we wished we had the courage to do or say, etc. As someone who spent most of his life intimidated by women, I recognized it as the sort of things an insecure man might say to impress friends, or to try to psych himself up to ask a girl out.

So here we have two people with two completely different backgrounds, two completely different frames of reference, two completely different sets of challenges in life, hearing the same statement and processing it in two completely different ways. Our reactions revealed these things about us, not the nature of Trump’s statement.

Emotions are not Always Rational

This is the core of the issue. As illustrated above, how a person reacts to any given statement is a result of whether they believe a statement, what they think about it, and many other factors.

Using another personal example, a decade ago I used to get seasonal depression as I thought about how a relationship with one of my family members had been shattered. Every year, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mind would go back to when that relationship broke, and I tried in vain to come up with ways to restore it. Around February, the depression would lift as the period of family holidays passed.

This depression was based on two simple beliefs: the other family member loved me, and therefore I had done something wrong to break the relationship. Despite all my efforts, I was unable to make sufficient amends to restore the relationship, even though I wasn’t sure what I was making amends for.

After several years of putting my wife through torture as she watched this, I went to counseling. Over time I came to absorb two new truths into my thinking: the other family member did not love me, and I had done nothing wrong. Instead, that family member engaged in very dysfunctional relationships, and it had been my turn to be “the bad guy”. I could only restore the relationship by becoming dysfunctional, too.

With those revelations, and some time, the seasonal depression left me. I was no longer dwelling on what I had done wrong. I was no longer trying to fix something out of my control. Instead of basing my thinking on wrong beliefs and wrong conclusions, I was basing them on true beliefs and true conclusions.

My seasonal depression was very, very real. It was also completely irrational. When people have strongly held beliefs challenged by equally strong evidence, it can make them angry. This is the reaction to having your worldview challenged. It’s not caused by the evidence being “inherently offensive.” The logical reaction to evidence suggesting a belief is false is to weigh the evidence. The illogical reaction is to get mad.


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