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The Irrationality of Emotion?

Posted in Ethics by Joseph Kelly on December 14, 2012

News of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown CT has quickly erupted into an ideological war on gun legislation at social media sites (e.g., #GunLawsNow) and  among various news organizations (both satire and serious). Many are saying that, on the day of the shooting, it is too soon to discuss these issues, that the country is too emotional to make rational decisions about a polarizing topic like gun legislation.

It is problematic, however, to argue that emotion is an inherently irrational human experience. Catherine A. Lutz writes in her book,  Unnatural Emotions: Everyday sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll & Their Challenge to Western Theory:

When the emotional is defined as irrational, all those occasions and individuals in which emotion is identified can be dismissed, and when the irrational is defined as emotional, it becomes sensible to label “emotional” those who would be discounted. In this society, those groups which have traditionally ‘been conceived of as passional beings, incapable of sustained rationality’ . . . include ‘infants, children, adolescents, mental patients, primitive people,  peasants, immigrants, Negroes,  slumdwellers, urban masses, crowds, and most of all, women’ . . . . Emotion becomes an important metaphor for perceived threats to established authority. . . . To the powerful, this is their chaos; to the groups themselves, it is their impulse toward freedom.

Certainly events like the Sandy Hook shooting stir up deep emotions within us, but this is not what it means to be irrational. The person who shoots 20 children and 6 adults needs to be our example of a person acting irrationally. In our emotional state, we are reminded that we need to take  “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this.”

My sympathies go out to the families of the victims and all of those affected by today’s tragedy.

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  1. John G. said, on December 19, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Until the American populace takes seriously underdiagnosed/undertreated mental illness that can lead to an event like this, I don’t think anyone can rest safely. . .with or without guns. At best medication compliance in the mentally ill populace is 40%. . .at best! Recent studies have shown that patients with certain mental health disorders that show 100% compliance with their medications, reduces criminality across the board. I can provide the article on that one if any readers are interested. Sandy Hook, like the Colorado theater shootings of recent, were most likely perpetrated by mis/underdiagnosed/noncompliant mentally ill. Reform mental health initiatives and research funding, and you’ll have my interest in politics. . .maybe for the first time.

  2. Steve said, on December 23, 2012 at 8:01 am

    Thanks for posting this. Looking back in my life I have always had a bias against emotion and its expression. This goes back not only to my Church of Christ heritage* but my personal nature as well. Mr. Spock of Star Trek was my hero and I thought of him the model of how one ought to be. He was of course meant to be the archetype of reason and logicality and to play off of the opposite pole of the emotional Doctor. It would have been beneficial for me to have read the marvelous quote from Catherine and to have been led in that direction. She is right that emotion is perceived by some of the powerful as a threat to their authority. It is also feared by adherents of the status quo and lovers of order as the route to chaos. That being said I still want to attach the label of irrational to those who are afraid to budge even an inch on gun legislation. Images can provide a good means of emotionally conveying valid messages about this issue. I like the one titled “Second Amendment Scoreboard” which shows a blackboard and two columns. One column has a list of Tyrants Overthrown the other column is labelled Co-workers, Teachers, Students, Store Clerks, etc and of course there are no marks on the left hand column but dozens are marked off on the right.

    So what about mental illness? Back in the seventies the general culture was paying attention to psychology and what it could learn from it and how it could help. But the irrational and overly emotional leaders of the religious right inveighed against it and culture in general lost interest. Acknowledging and focusing on mental illness produces discomfort in those who desire to connect all bad things with sin.

    *see my Nov 13 post to my blog titled “Supernatural Rationalists”.


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