Virgin's Guide to Burning Man

A Virgin's Guide to Burning Man can be found here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Emotion in the Public Sphere

I just heard (yet another) fantastic discussion on NPR on the US's use of torture as an interrogation technique. The commentator, who argued that torture is not justified and punishment should lay on the heads of the top policymakers who sanctioned the abuses in the first place, (I'm sorry I missed his name, I only caught 10 minutes of the segment) was very erudite and polite in his arguments and gracious in receiving criticism. In the spirit of full disclosure, I agree whole-heartedly with his arguments. The commentary which follows addresses things his critics have called in to say and I wish to take issue with these comments, not because I disagree with their argument, but because I find fault with the presentation of their arguments—or the reasons they provided. If someone had called in using emotion in the same way to support the commentator's argument, I would find fault with that as well.

Argument #1: “I'm sick and tired of you Europeans coming here and criticizing America.”
So the commentator had a British accent, but as he so eloquently pointed out, he too has a stake in the issue. His family is fully American, he was there on 9-11, people he knew died in the 9-11 attacks, etc., etc. The point is: don't assume that because you know one bit about a person that you know what their entire life has been.
But more than that, 9-11, the War on Terror, wars abroad and American responses are global issues. We are not some backwater country living in isolation. Our actions (as a global leader, if you will) have global effects. We're not talking about some domestic issue like the death penalty or legalizing abortions. We're talking about issues that have repercussions and consequences worldwide. Other countries have a stake in these issues as well, and therefore have a right to participate in the discussion, even if we don't like what they have to say.

Argument #2: “Where is your anger?”, implying that if you were truly angry you'd agree torture is necessary. But since you're a cold SOB, your point of view is invalid.
Commentator's response: He is deeply angry but also passionate about the values that America and democracies in general uphold. He argues we must stick to our values because it is our values that sets us apart from the terrorists. It's the fact that we have a judicial system instead of beheadings that makes America great and resorting to the other side's tactics reduces us.
Hear, hear I say! But I would like to add to that and question the caller. When has anger ever led to wise decisions? We do stupid things, things we regret, when we are angry. When have you ever heard of anger leading to wisdom? (Except by way of a mistake and lesson learned.)
[As a side note, it always amazes me that some of the very same people who will argue until they're blue in the face that America is great because of the liberties it provides are also the very people who are so quick to abandon those liberties whenever it suits them—in this case, presumably because they're angry. But maybe I am wrong? Maybe they believe in liberty but not equality? Or maybe they just think the principles sound good in the abstract, but don't believe in them in real life.]

Argument #3: “Even presented with evidence that torture doesn't work and has negative consequences, I still think we should engage in torture. Because I have family fighting over there and that's just how I feel.”
The commentator said he respected this woman's viewpoint and thanked her for airing her views. But I take umbrage at this kind of argument. I will say that there are valid reasons for her viewpoint even if she didn't express them and even if I may disagree with them at the end of the day. But I take issue with the notion that in discourse people can fall back on their emotions as a substitute for reasoned argumentation. Don't get me wrong. I believe emotions DO have a role in public discourse. They help mobilize and inspire people in ways that logic and reason perhaps cannot. They demonstrate intensity in ways that hard facts or numbers cannot. Very few people can argue completely without some emotion, and I don't think people or their viewpoints should be excluded because they are emotional. But I disagree entirely when people resort to their emotions because their arguments are flawed and they let emotions supercede reasoned debate.

I understand this woman's point of view and have had to think long and hard about the justifications for torture before finally coming to my decision on where I stand. But instead of arguing she supports the use of torture just because that's the way she feels, I think the more appropriate response would be for her to examine her feelings on the subject and figure out why, even presented with evidence that torture tactics are not only useless but harmful, she feels they are justified. Is she seeking revenge? Does she think that even if 99% of the time it doesn't work, innocent people are tortured, and it causes the growth of more terrorism, that the 1% of the time it might work is worth all the risk involved? If so, why? Is there something else going on? Is there a better way to address her core concerns? If that is really her root viewpoint, she should learn to express that. If not, maybe her reaction is just knee-jerk and should be re-examined.

So, issue of torture aside, what role should emotion play in public discourse? Can there be guidelines for its use? When is the use of emotion in an argument or discussion helpful, and when does it obfuscate the point? Are there points where emotion can actually hinder good policy making?


  1. It is very difficult to separate the two, emotion and politics that is, because, because the latter invokes emotion naturally (unless of course you are Dick Cheney and you can maintain a cold, hard face through any political conversation or interview). In fact, I think it is impossible. The difference, however, and most important matter, is the ability to take a step back away from one's emotions for a short period of time and focus on the issue. That, I believe, is one of the fundamental differences between the current Republican party and Democrats. Their inability to do so is also one of their major downfalls. In times of crisis, such as 9-11, all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, got worked up and wanted (or needed) someone to blame for what happened. I was guilty of this as well. The difference is that once the anger cleared, I could then take a step back and say, "okay, now what needs to be done." I still don't think the majority of the Republican party has done this yet. They are still in the "attack and kill" mode. Their minds are fogged with anger and rage, and they cannot think clearly. Does torture work? NO. CIA officials have said this, science has shown this, and common sense tells us this. We have ruined the world's perception of us as a country because of it. I guess the point is that our leaders need to be able to separate their emotions and feelings from their work in order to not only make good decisions, but the best decisions for our country as a whole. I will also add that as someone who voted for Obama, I am extremely disappointed in his decision to release the torture memos but not prosecute. If we are to truly change our policies and image, we need to make it very clear to ourselves and the rest of the world that not only will we no longer torture or condone torture, but it will never be tolerated, and those who participated in it, whether they were actively involved or simply knew about it, will be punished and made an example.

  2. Yeah I agree. It is disappointing that the people who sanctioned and engaged in torture should be held accountable--both legally and morally--for their actions. I suppose I might understand if, politically, Obama had to make a concession in order to get the political capital and support he needs to get consensus on other critical issues. But I doubt that's true. The Republicans are not responding to his overtures. What remains of the Republican party is mired in partisanship, blame-shifting, and bickering. Instead of trying to be helpful, they're just engaging in typical partisan warfare. It's sickening. (These are the same people who said we should support our President in times of crisis, right?) I'm all for being critical of our President's policies, but the criticisms should be useful and seek to provide viable alternatives. Not just bitch for the point of bitching.
    I think they're in the "attack and kill mode" as you put it because they are afraid. They're afraid because they've bought into the fear-mongering that Fox News and others have perpetuated and they're afraid because at heart, I think they realize they have lost their identity as a party. And of course, instead of engaging in any kind of self-reflection, they just scream and yell at everyone else. Much like children.

  3. Edit: I think it's disappointing that these people haven't been held accountable.


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