Book Reviews: Don’t Scream, Don’t Let It All Out
Philosopher argues we should value shame and reject rage in valuable study of role emotions play in society
Therapists live in the land of emotions. It is our job to receive the emotional content of our analysands, to follow their speech patterns, their repetitions, their stops, accelerations and silences. We strive to find the words to decipher the complexity and subtlety of what needs to be transmitted and understood. It’s not a simple job.
The emotional capacities of the therapist are solicited. We register a feeling in the person we work with, such as fear. But it’s not just fear; there is a hint of desperation that warns us of a close, almost, of a collapse and a freeze. Or we register anger, and simultaneously nestled in the seam of that anger is disappointment, a very different type of feeling, but one that, once recognized, can disperse anger. Coming to the precision of feeling allows an emotional sigh of understanding. Sensations can be digested and over time pass through and out of the body.
Feelings, emotions, are deeply physical. Where once thought to be distractions from thought, we now know that emotions are precursors to thought and deeply involved in consciousness. Or, as American philosopher Owen Flanagan argues in his new book, How to Do Things With Emotions: The Morality of Anger and Shame Across Cultures, emotions are things we do. The way we enact them, he insists, the meaning we have of them and their purposes, are culturally inscribed and given meaning through the communal embrace of the rules they enforce.
Flanagan primarily talks about the attitudes that police society in instilling in children the right ways to behave. In a long discussion of anger and shame, he makes an ethical argument – that we in the West need to increase shame and tone down anger, because our society suffers from too much explosive fury and too little modesty and embarrassment about behavior and personal desires. .
He visits the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra in Indonesia, where shame is the main instrument of socialization. Among the Bara of southern Madagascar, it is parental anger that unfolds to show children what is allowed. Flanagan opposes our libertarian view of anger, in which we feel free to indulge privately and publicly through trolling, road rage and sending intimate photos, for example, with larger societies. homogeneous, where anger is used to discourage antisocial behavior and build respect. To be scolded, to be shamed, is sanctioned by all as an accepted form of child-rearing. In such communities, anger is not the expulsive emotion to which we have become accustomed.
For the Minangkabau, tantrums and protests are simply not tolerated.
Children are taught to withdraw quietly to deal with their shame privately.
But lest you think we’ve returned to bourgeois Victorian England, Flanagan argues that this form of control is not harmful. The emotional harm we might imagine shame and anger cause is, he says, eviscerated as the cultural prescription is internalized as conscience, morals and rules of life.
If there’s a bit of naivety to Flanagan’s project, there’s also a lot to admire. As he deconstructs the forms of anger used by Westerners, he seems delighted to go back in time, as if different cultural forces could be discounted, including the anonymity of the internet blasphemy machine, the noise of Fox News, radio shock jocks, and various therapies that claim anger requires healthy expression and shame requires deconstruction.
He reflects on the question of the philosopher: what lifestyles allow us best to get out of the confinement of our personal education? He wants us in the West, North America and Britain to reject libertarian values and seek emotions that strengthen rather than divide society.
Reputation tracking, which Flanagan applauds, involves small groups in which transgressive behavior is not tolerated because we are accountable to our community. It’s appealing, but it doesn’t reflect late modernity, in which such group composition seems unrealistic and in which individuality – how I feel, how you feel – is highly valued. Many young people crave recognition – whether online likes or even negative responses – and the nature of these engagements is very different from the daily encounters within our social groups.
Ultimately, Flanagan asks this important question: what do emotions do and do they do the right thing? Her response draws from her work as a philosophical anthropologist, an approach I favor as a psychoanalyst who often experiences herself as an anthropologist of the mind. Like him, psychoanalysts and therapists understand the individual mind as the sum of other minds and yet unique. We make sense of ourselves by referring to our personal and social behavior.
The new book by American physicist and bestselling author Leonard Mlodinow, Emotional: The New Thinking About Feelings, in which he popularizes the discoveries of neuroscience over the past 50 years, is of a different nature. Mlodinow shows, through reports of experiences from psychologists and a series of quizzes, that recognizing how emotionally driven we are allows us to be more thoughtful and present, more rational.
Feelings are private, personal and social. Emotions are the building blocks of consciousness and thought. Both books argue that we should see this work of emotions as central to who we are and can be.
How to do things with emotions: the morality of anger and shame
By Owen Flanagan
Hardcover: United States
Emotional: the new way of thinking about feelings
By Leonard Mlodinow
Hardcover: United States
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