Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Emotional" Is Not a Dirty Word

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A couple months ago, in an online discussion about a complicated issue, a friend told me that if I did not have all the facts, any argument or opinion I had could "only be emotional." When the conversation was over, that one phrase really got me thinking.

Let me start by saying I do not believe that statement to be the categorical truth, as there have been many times in life when I have had to make a judgment call on what I do not know based on what I do know; as a mere mortal, it is hard for me to think of many situations when I literally know everything that could inform my opinion or decision. Basing an opinion on known facts and feelings, in recognition of many unknowns, is far from "only emotional." But my friend did have a point in some way. Sometimes having half the facts leads to incorrect and even dangerous assumptions.

But as I thought about it more, something bigger started bothering me than whether or not I needed all the facts to hold an opinion or take an action on something. I realized that the word emotional had been thrown into the conversation with a tone of disdain. As a person who majored in mathematics in my undergraduate days and has loved intellectual debate from as early as I can remember, I realized that I too have often put that which can be proven by logic on a pedestal. I too have used the word emotional as if it were an insult, as if my factual understanding of an issue were superior to any sort of emotional reasoning. Yet as I have grown older and have learned more about life, my path has increasingly shaped me into a person who relies on emotion to relate to others and make decisions. If fact-based reasoning is the pinnacle of understanding, I have to wonder why, as I have (theoretically) grown more mature, have I more deeply valued human emotion, including my own?

I have to admit that I can see many ways in which emotion can lead individuals to make poor decisions or to draw poor conclusions. Emotion has led many a person into an unhealthy relationship, supported poor public policies that seem to treat any odd scapegoat as the enemy, reinforced negative lies that people believe about themselves, preceded hurtful words spoken in the heat of an argument, and the list goes on and on. So I would never say that we should let our emotions rule our lives, or they would almost certainly take over our ability to be peaceful and patient. But does that mean we should then ignore or devalue emotions?

This is where I have to say no. Many emotions are valuable, give evidence of our purpose, and provide unique understanding of the world around us. Experiences of compassion, empathy, love, laughter, and fun are inextricably linked with emotion!

As an example, one issue that really made this clear to me is child sex trafficking. Certainly, one could try to make an intellectually logical argument why we should fight against this industry as a matter of policy, apart from using emotions. For example, perhaps one could try an economic argument about women needing to finish their education to grow their skill sets and to provide better opportunities for themselves and their children, thus improving the overall economic productivity of their countries. Of course, they are less likely to go to school if they are being trafficked for sex at a young age. So if you ran the numbers and saw a good economic result with decreased trafficking, this might prove that fighting trafficking at a policy level makes logical sense. Great! But what if the numbers said that a given country brings in more money by hosting foreign pedophiles who stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, take taxi's, and pay for sexual services, as compared to the economic potential of educating the young trafficking victims? Would it change your view on whether or not we should combat child sex trafficking? For me, the answer is a clear "no," because my primary issue with human trafficking was never about the policy logic; it is more of heart issue.

When I think about children forced to have sex with older men multiple times a day, I feel a gut-wrenching sadness and anger over this injustice deep in my soul, and I know that the logic-based arguments ring hollow compared to the emotional reality. This sense of empathy and valuing of human life far outweighs any bullet-pointed list of non-emotional logical reasons to end this evil. In fact, if I heard someone making an appeal to end human trafficking without any touch of emotional connection, I think I would find myself considering that person unreasonable and irrational.

And from that example, this is what occurred to me. Sometimes emotions are the most rational, logical, sane thing we put forth in response to this world. Sometimes our emotional relationship to an issue leads us to the best conclusion, especially in the midst of conflicting logical evidence. And just like the host of ways our emotions can lead us astray that I listed at the start of this post, sometimes our unemotional logic can lead us astray. Sometimes our unemotional logic causes us to hurt people, because we do not consider the potential repercussions of our actions or policies. Sometimes our unemotional logic decreases our ability to communicate with others. Sometimes our unemotional logic blinds us to ethical and moral considerations that need to take priority. And sometimes it doesn't.

Neither emotional reasoning nor purely factual reasoning necessarily define who is right and who is wrong on a given topic or in a particular situation. Neither provides all the right answers on its own. Rather, both are integral to understanding the world, making sound decisions, and leading an abundant life.

Today I will declare.....

"Emotional" is not a dirty word!


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