tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (not offended)
A road sign that says 'emotion' with a right-pointing arrow'In subcultures like computer science academia and the technology industry that are dominated by white men, self-identification as "rational" is a cornerstone of many members' self-image and social status. In these groups, people who make sincere, vulnerable comments invoking their personal stake in an issue rather than objective, rational truth are often shamed for being "emotional".

All speech is motivated by emotion: we don't speak unless we feel that it's important to us to do so. Cognition is impossible without emotion: emotion directs our attention, tells us what's important and what's not. People who can't experience emotions become completely unable to function. Speaking requires effort, and expending effort requires an emotional reason. If it wasn't important to you to say something, then you would be silent. Derailing comments, too, are motivated by emotions: primarily, fear and insecurity. When people re-center a discussion on themselves, they are motivated by fear. For example, attempting to reframe a sentiment like "Black Lives Matter" as "All lives matter" may appear to be neutral, but it is in fact motivated by fear that valuing Black lives threatens white privilege.

When Alice states her lived experience and Bob says, "Prove it -- give me facts, citations to peer-reviewed studies," when he doesn't normally demand that level of evidence from other men, Bob is being emotional. Like all speech, his response is driven by an emotion: in this case, the desire to silence Alice.

So framing some speech as neutral or unemotional exploits a social loophole that puts an outbound filter of rationality onto whatever privileged people say. If all speech is emotional, then we have to ask what political reasons here are for labeling some speech as emotional and some speech as unemotional, and what political purposes this labeling has.

Cold and detached responses

"To me, all of this seems like typical geek behaviour: something is making them uncomfortable, and so they attack it on "rational" grounds. Most likely, they aren't even aware of the gut reaction fueling their logic." -- Jessamyn Smith
The hallmark of an Trojan horse emotional response -- the kind of words that slap you in the face while telling you that you're unhinged for crying in response -- is its cold and detached vantage point. The people delivering these cold remarks typically position themselves as authority figures, rather than citing lived experience. They're likely to use language that disclaims responsibility ("Some people say..." or "Some people might be alienated by this...") or to employ the word "should" ("You should understand that I have good intentions.")

An example of hidden emotion is the idea of "meritocracy". We all know that meritocracy is a lie, but here I want to call attention to the concealed emotion that the concept is pregnant with. Consider the following dialogue:

Alice: Why is your company 90% male when the population is only 50% male, and 95% white when the general population is only 60% white?
Bob: You see, Alice, we're a meritocracy. I only hire the best people for the job.
Alice: Fuck you, Bob.

Who is being emotional here? Bob is terrified of being found out: he's terrified that other people will believe Alice when she points out his discriminatory hiring practices. He's probably also scared that he, himself, won't measure up -- merit-wise -- in a fair contest that didn't exclude most men of color, women, and non-binary people. Moreover, he's scared of not seeming objective, because to not seem objective and rational is -- in his culture -- to come off as unmasculine. If he can frame himself as making decisions only based on merit, he can conceal the role of personal relationships in who he favors. If he can make other people think he's immune from the human tendency to filter assessments through the lens of how much you like somebody, then they'll treat him as a leader, because we've been taught that leaders are (emotionally) above it all.

So the meritocracy trope is an emotional argument, though it's rarely treated as one. Alice's frustration is nothing compared to Bob's terror of being revealed for who he is. The abuse of the "neutral point of view" concept on Wikipedia -- whose editors and bureaucrats constitute another white- and male-dominated subculture -- is another example. If you can call your own point of view "neutral", you won't have to answer questions about what caused you to have that particular point of view. If you don't have to answer those questions, you can appear as cool, detached, and emotionless as possible.

The emotional content of tone arguments

In general, respectability politics and tone arguments are always emotionally driven:

  • "I agree with what you're trying to accomplish, I just think your tone is unproductive."
  • "If you expect to win allies over, you're going to have to meet them where they are."
  • "If you don't educate me, then how can I learn?"

More important than the specific words are the subtext that all of these remarks share: "I'm cool-headed and thinking rationally about the best tactics for achieving social progress. You're unable to think clearly because of your emotions, and can't liberate yourself without help from somebody like me."

But tone arguments are deeply emotional.

I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one's own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness. -- Audre Lorde

In response to listening to the anger of somebody whose oppression you benefit from, you might experience guilt (because you've done nothing to effect change) and fear (that your power and privilege will be taken away if enough people listen to and are moved by the message you perceive as angry.) Your feelings of guilt or fear tell you to do one thing: everything you can do to make the pain stop, to silence the speech that is causing you to experience narcissistic injury, to feel guilt and fear -- feelings you don't want to have. Your emotions also tell you that if you feel hurt by somebody else's anger, they must be expressing that anger only to hurt you -- they can't possibly have any other reason for sharing their thoughs. This is a form of narcissism.

As another example, suppose that Alice says, "hey, fuck you if you think women quit jobs in science and technology because they're not interested -- we quit because of harassment." And suppose Bob says, "Stop being emotional. We should study whether women leave because they just have different interests." Bob's detachment from the issue may cause others to perceive his statement as unemotional, where Alice is perceived as emotional. But Bob's statement is motivated by emotion too: the fear that something bad will happen if Alice is allowed to share her personal experience. Terri Oda pointed out that if you think biology explains the low numbers of women in CS, then you're bad at math: the "logic" that leads men to speculate about causes for women's lower participation in science that don't involve men's active efforts to exclude women is actually emotional. Their emotions about their own power and privilege and whether or not a more egalitarian science culture would jeopardize those things stop them from seeing the truth.

False empiricism can be another form of emotional argument. Suppose that Carol says, "hey, it hurts me and makes me feel excluded when you address a mixed-gender group I'm in with, 'guys.'" Don might respond with, "Well, actually, 'guys' is used in a gender-neutral way." This is false, but more important than its truth value is the emotional charge that Don's statement is imbued with. While at first blush, it might seem that he is making a factual point about language usage or descriptive grammar, attempting to shut down Carol's first-person account of how she feels being called a "guy" is an appeal to emotion: it is motivated by Don's discomfort with examining his behavior and with being told that something he didn't intend as harmful is harming people. Don doesn't really care about what the dictionary says "guys" means; he cares about stopping Carol from speaking, and the dictionary argument here is an ex-post-facto justification for Don to try to shut Carol up. Appealing to empiricism is how Don channels his discomfort with hearing Carol be open about how it makes her feel when she's casually misgendered; it's irrelevant, since how common misgendering is doesn't obligate Carol to change how she feels about it, but he knows that accusing her of being factually wrong is likely to create an emotional reaction in her -- or at least in the people observing -- that will silence her, and that's what matters to Don.

Another form of false empiricism comes up in discussions of trans people. The discourse of "biological sex" is something cis people use to derail discussions in order to de-center trans people's lived experience in favor of making trans people seem "unscientific" and therefore crazy, illogical, or emotional. In reality, biologically essentialist narratives have very little to do with biology and a lot to do with cis people's fear of a world where gender and sex are consensual. (I've written about this before, starting with "Chromosomal Politics" and continuing: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6].) Cis people are terrified of the gaping void that opens when it becomes impossible to define your identity solely by appealing to your genitals. So they say things like, "Gender is social, sex is biological," or that sex is determined by someone's assessment of your genitals at birth.

People who say these things don't actually understand biology, so their comments -- sciency-sounding as they might seem -- are based in emotion, not fact. It's emotion that lets them make the leap from "most of the time, men have penises and women have vaginas" (an empirical observation) to "any posited exceptions to this rule are because someone's lying rather than because the rule could be incomplete." Emotion blurs the mind enough to confuse this sloppy thinking with rigorous analysis. But sciency-sounding stuff has cognitive authority. Meanwhile, trans people who state our lived experience of being men or women, as well as non-binary people who state their lived experience of being other genders, are labeled as "emotional", which goes along with the idea that gender is different from sex: gender is said to be all in your head, therefore not as real when it doesn't match your sex, which is real and observable by others. So fake-scientific discourse motivated by fear wins here over honest avowals of lived experience. Borrowing cognitive authority is a tool to avoid addressing how cis people would feel if we accepted both gender and sex as traits that are impossible to determine through objective observation.

Another example is the drive to disbelieve marginalized people who report sexual assault, discrimination, or harassment: common responses from privileged people tend to sound like, "Let's give them the benefit of the doubt" (where "them" always refers to fellow privileged people), "We shouldn't jump to conclusions; not all the facts are in yet", "We should hear both sides", or "There could have been other reasons why she was fired." Privileged people who obsess over proof in these situations tend to be motivated by a need to discredit and invalidate whatever a marginalized person says, especially when it threatens the power of someone they identify with. Their fear drives them to sow doubt about marginalized people's authority to speak about their own life experiences. "We need to hear both sides" may sound logical, but the selectivity with which white men employ their skepticism is guided by emotion: disproportionately, it's used against the people they fear and hate. When somebody only demands extraordinary degrees of evidence in response to claims made by marginalized people, you can be sure that they make these demands for emotional reasons. The end result of a double standard that demands extraordinary evidence to support patriarchal actions (e.g. women being raped, people of color being discriminated against, trans people being harassed) without requiring the same evidence for assertions that don't challenge patriarchy is to uphold patriarchy itself. Patriarchy perpetuates itself through emotions -- fear and insecurity -- rather than logic, and part of how it works is characterizing typically-masculine emotional outbursts -- outbursts that include repressing other people's emotional expressing -- as logical.

Pattern recognition and the paradox of openness

What do all these people have in common: the meritocracy-citers, the pseudo-scientists, the selective skeptics, the phony empiricists? They hope that their fear will look like neutrality when they use magic phrases like "innocent until proven guilty." They don't feel secure letting somebody else who has a different life experience talk -- they fear their privilege won't stand if disprivileged people are heard.

They forget that we are capable of recognizing patterns and that we notice when they reserve all skepticism for claims that threaten the status quo. They think ticking off a list of logical fallacies will fool us, that we won't notice their terror at having to engage with the substance of an argument that poses a threat to their power. Fear doesn't become invisible when concealed by a veneer of faux-rationality and pseudo-logic. When someone says "you're just being emotional," we know to look harder at what they're trying to hide. We can't smell fear, but we can infer it logically from the presence of rhetorical strategies that have the function of guarding privilege.

"Female emotion itself is being portrayed as a destructive force that must be tamped down, contained, and (if at all possible) totally denied, because if it ever breaks through and becomes visible, that woman will become dirty, shameful, and disgusting." -- Sady Doyle, Trainwreck

To a much lesser extent, men expressing emotions that are usually coded as "female" also receive the treatment Doyle describes. Masculinist definitions of "emotion" often construct the anger men often feel and express as non-emotional. Anger is often a veneer for fear, which is also an emotion, as much as gender-conforming men do their best to conceal the fear they experience. Fear of having to compete with women and minorities is emotion too, and drives all manner of behaviors, from enforcing sex segregation in competitive sports to pseudoscientific arguments as to why women are worst at math. Anger is also an emotion: as marginalized people we frequently hear "don't be so angry, you'll scare people," but we rarely hear anyone tell us directly that we scare them. Meanwhile, we are expected to tolerate their anger as they browbeat us about our tone or scold us for believing a woman "before all the facts are in." Privileged men are scared of emotions outside the narrow band that men are allowed to express, and will do pretty much anything to suppress their expression.

There's a paradox that dictates what speech gets labeled as "emotional." Often, it's speech from people who are being open and vulnerable about their emotions (which is a rare thing for people to do, by the way, outside the context of close relationships in private.) But speech doesn't become less emotional when the speaker is frantic to cover up their fear, insecurity and worry with logical-sounding words and phrases. Just because the speaker may not be fully aware of the emotions that underlie their speech doesn't make the speech less emotional.

Ironically, sincerity will get you tagged as "emotional" and not credible; when you conceal your motives, you get tagged as "logical", and the more social status you have, the more logic gets attributed to you.

The drive to side with people who have power and status is also emotionally based: it's grounded in the belief that seeking the protection of people who have power will keep you safe.

"You're being emotional" means "I'm trying to make you feel shame." When you are trying to make someone else feel ashamed, it's a pretty good bet that you are feeling shame or guilt yourself and are trying to displace it onto somebody else, as if shame were a hot potato. in reality, shame is more like a virus: it spreads.

"You're being emotional" means "I have more credibility than you." Most of the time, accusations of "emotional" motivation are driven by the need for power. Fear of powerlessness and helplessness is also an emotion.

"You're being emotional" means "I'm feeling an emotion I would prefer not to feel, and it's your fault." (I wrote about this before in "The Second Job, or, Men Feel Entitled To Not Feel Things".)

"You're being emotional" means "I feel upset because of what you said, so you must have said it because you were upset, too."

"You're being emotional" is a form of false dismissal. The "false dismissal" pattern, which I previously wrote about in "Gendered Language: Feature or Bug in Software Documentation?" is a sign that someone is being emotional and trying to hide it. We see this in a common class of ad hominem attacks (which are rarely recognized as ad hominem) along the lines of: "You care, so you must be wrong" or "You have strong opinions, so you must be wrong." Beyond the logical flaws inherent in dismissing an argument because the person making the argument cares, bringing up your own assessment of somebody else's emotional state or intensity is generally not conducive to logical argument unless you've been asked for it. I think people who jump to the "you're being emotional" silencing tactic often confuse the absence of emotion with the presence of truth.

"You're being emotional" means "I'm uncomfortable with my own emotions, especially those that are coded as female, and I reject them in you as a way of acting out my rejection of the same emotions in myself."

Maybe we should just retire "you're being emotional" and stop obsessing over eradicating emotion from conversations about social and political issues. What would happen if we treated speech that comes from a place of emotional vulnerability as more compelling, not less? If all speech is motivated by emotion, isn't it better if we state and examine our emotional states in regard to speaking and listening, rather than desperately pretending we don't have emotions -- which in itself is motivated by desire to protect ourselves and our status? Can we view reason and logic as tools for accomplishing goals that our emotions guide us to, rather than letting our emotions govern us by pretending they don't exist?

Further reading

Thanks to Gwen for her comments on a draft of this essay.

Image credit: Creative-Commons-licensed image by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.


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Tim Chevalier

October 2017

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