On Sexism, Emotionality, and Truth

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Some of my family members refuse to talk to me because they are afraid that I will become too upset. This reasoning is my father’s creation that was born after I dared acknowledge and attempt to have a conversation with him about things he had said and done that had really hurt me. This reasoning has since spread like wildfire between different family members who now avoid talking to me because they don’t want to upset me.

For a while I accepted this reasoning with shame and embarrassment; I never knew what to say in response because hearing it feels like being punched in the gut and face at the same time. It feels like my fault for being too emotional, and that the reason why we’re distant and never talk is because I am too sensitive and get too upset. I realize now that this is a type of sexist bullshit that uses my emotionality to place full blame on me for being “too emotional” and positions them as benevolent and innocent beings who just “don’t want to upset me.”

I know that my family does not want to hurt me, but the problem is that they do, and whenever I try to talk with them about this then they say and do really hurtful things again in response, and then when I become devastatedly upset again they use this as evidence to support the claim that I get upset whenever we try to talk. This is a very toxic and nonconsensual mindfuck that I have opted out of in order to protect my mental health. I love my family, but for now I need some space from them in order to heal from this abuse, and to try to figure out what the fuck is going on here. I am channeling the pain of this situation into writing about the intersections of sexism, emotionality, and truth.

I am realizing that sexism affects perceptions of truth through its systemic devaluation of emotionality. My argument in this essay is that sexism feminizes the emotional to exclude it as a valid site of knowledge, and masculinizes the rational as the privileged site of knowledge and therefore truth. The feminine is rendered subjective though its conflation with the emotional, and the masculine is rendered objective through its conflation with the rational. I consider emotionality and rationality to be equally important sites of knowledge upon which all humans depend for survival, but think that sexism violently disregards feminized emotional knowledge in order to maintain patriarchal systems of oppression that exploit feminized bodies for emotional labor power and silence critical feminine minds. To argue for the intelligence of the emotional is therefore essential when critically engaging with sexism.

Martha Nussbaum is a philosopher whose book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001) is an exhaustively-detailed and thoroughly- reasoned argument for the intelligence of emotions. The thought that emotions might be “intelligent” could strike many as a jarring absurdity because emotions are consistently associated with irrationality. This is what makes Upheavals of Thought such an important (and potentially threatening) intellectual achievement. While Nussbaum does not state this directly, I think she is also responding in this book to the men who do not take her seriously as a philosopher simply because she is a woman.

Nussbaum’s argument is that emotions are partially constituted by cognitive appraisals of objects in the world that relate to personal values, and that emotion happens upon the realization that the objects associated with the satisfaction of these values are beyond individual control.

For example, imagine that you value being on time to appointments and are currently running late. While driving to it you are slowed down by someone who is driving below the speed limit, and you experience anger in relation to this person. This anger is based in the realization that your ability to be at your appointment on time is beyond your control (i.e., you cannot control how fast this other person is driving), along with the fact that you value being at appointments on time. The object of your anger is the person who is driving slowly, and the reason why you feel angry is because you value being on-time and this person’s uncontrollable slowness is preventing you from doing what you value; you would not feel angry if you did not value being on time or could control how fast this person drives. In this example your emotion is based in an intelligent appraisal of the environment in relation to your values along with the realization that you cannot control the environment to satisfy these values. This is the structure of Nussbaum’s theoretical framework for the philosophy of emotion, and I think is is very useful and insightful.

The lack of control that is necessarily involved with emotion is where I think sexism folds into the devalued epistemological status of emotion. Control is in my understanding an important aspect of masculine gendering such that to “act like a man” is to demonstrate control over external events through an affirmation of personal agency that is based in what Nietzsche called “the will to power.” I would argue that the masculine refers to the capacity to affect change in the environment, and that signification of this capacity is the experience of control. In other words, masculinity is an experience of control that stands for the capacity to affect change.

If emotion admits a lack of control over something important to the satisfaction of personal well-being, and experiences of control are central affects of masculinity, then it makes sense that emotionality threatens masculinity because it forces an admission of a lack of control. This is where femininity could come in to support and nurture the discomfort of this experience, but the toxification of masculinity involves violence toward femininity that not only harms women but also men themselves who must feign a lack of emotionality in order to not be teased by other men for being a fucking sissy.

The lack of control involved with emotion is what makes emotionality contrast with masculinity, and is why toxic uses of masculinity aim to either control the emotionality of another person, or invalidate the perspective of another person because their emotionality cannot be controlled. “You’re too emotional!” reflects the speaker’s inability to control someone’s emotionality, whereas “Stop being so emotional!” reflects the speaker’s aim to control someone’s emotionality. Both assertions are harmful because their function is to disengage with whatever the emotional person is trying to communicate. If this person is experiencing a lot of emotions, then that means they are experiencing something that is significant to their sense of well-being and therefore should be listened to with kindness and respect. “I don’t talk to you because I don’t want to upset you,” is a combination of both types of misuses of masculinity, as that phrase admits both a desire and inability to control the emotionality of another person. I’d explain this more but it honestly hurts too much, and you might know why.

Let’s critically examine the concept of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS).

How many times have you heard someone appeal to PMS to account for a woman being “too emotional” to be taken seriously? I have heard women excuse themselves from serious consideration by apologizing for their emotionality because they are “PMSing” and therefore are allegedly “not thinking clearly.” I am not denying that there are predictable shifts in emotionality that accompany the menstrual cycle; what I am challenging is the view that this shift inhibits epistemic access to sites of important knowledge.

What if PMS grants greater emotional insight into the abuse so many women suffer as part of their relationships to abusive men? What if feeling more emotional during PMS enhances understanding of what threatens personal values? The emotionality that accompanies PMS could be respected as a type of wisdom about subjective needs and personal well-being… but this is not the case in America, where the concept of PMS is always already available to silence women who dare display passion — especially if their passion challenges the sexist status quo that continually subjects femininity to ritualized forms of masculine domination. “She must be PMSing,” is always available for sexist men to conclusively invalidate the perspective of women who are trying to be heard and respected, and sometimes women use this reasoning to silence themselves. I think this is very sad.

This kind of oppression is why men must be included in feminism, and why men committed to feminist ethics should use their masculine privilege to challenge other men about sexism. Women should not be expected to address sexism among men for the same reason that people of color should not be expected to address racism among white people. If men challenge sexism within groups of other men, then they cannot be invalidated as simply PMSing, and will probably not be read as too emotional. Members of dominant groups need to hold each other accountable for their own behavior, and in the case of sexism this means men ned to hold each other accountable for the sexist bullshit that rolls their eyes and folds their arms in response to women who make good points that threaten masculine dominance.

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Mother Nature is a woman, and sexism has a lot to do with climate change denial.

Mother Nature is a woman, which is why mankind systematically disrespects and devalues her. Denial of climate change should be understood as a sexist phenomenon wherein the emotionalized subjectivity of Mother Nature’s deteriorating condition affects the same kind of scornful disregard that men display when telling a woman that she is too emotional to be taken seriously.

Did you know that hurricanes were originally only given female names because it was thought that the erratic and unpredictable quality of violent weather accurately reflected feminine emotionality? Alternating male and female names for hurricanes didn’t begin until 1979, and it seems to me that the most destructively memorable hurricanes are still given women’s names (e.g., Katrina, Sandy, etc.). There are patterns of sexist abuse that inform these kinds of patterns, and we must expose how the very notion of objective truth and subjective experience is part of a broader cultural project to maintain masculine dominance and feminine subordination.

We should also think of “Fake News” as a gendered phenomenon whose development is based in a wealthy heterosexual white man (i.e., our current president) (mis)using the masculinized concept of objectivity to decide what counts as “real” and “fake” knowledge. The straight white man is always-already positioned as an objective knower because his privileged positionality locates him closer to cultural perceptions of truth. The president capitalizes off of histories of associations between white men and truth that leads his supporters to believe him simply because of his positionality and not because of his rhetoric.

I have news, folks (and it’s not fake): human subjects are not objects, which means that we are based in subjectivity, not objectivity. Emotions are subjective experiences that are closer to who we are as a species than the objects we collect to represent who we are. Objectivity is not enough to understand who we are; we must turn to subjectivity without trying to control or objectify it.

No one escapes emotion, for emotions are subjective experiences, and humans are subjective beings. Our president is one of the most emotional men I have ever seen on television, and yet his emotionality is rarely acknowledged; what we focus on instead is the objective absurdity of what he does and says, and we become more and more upset because we value our country and cannot control him.

Trump embodies and transcends the limits of objectivity and rationality, and exposes how these constructs are not sufficient on their own to explain human behavior. I think we are so upset by his behaviors because he exposes this deeper scandal: he’s not just a terrible bigot and conman, but he also shows us that objective rationality is conceptually inadequate to explain human behavior.

We must understand subjective emotionality in relation to objective rationality in order to have a fuller understanding of who we are and what we do as a species. Trump and his supporters are forcing us to realize that the scientific method cannot explain us very well. I keep meaning to write an essay about melancholic uses of science that are based in cultural failure to grieve the death of god, and if I had done so by now this is where I’d link to it while saying something about how Trump is a wakeup call about how we need to pay attention to our emotional needs and mental health.

We need to understand that every human, regardless of gender, is emotional, and that there is nothing wrong with emotionality. We are socialized by sexism to believe that emotionality is inferior to rationality, but must understand that this is a form of oppression that should be actively resisted and reconceptualized for the greater good of our species.

queer theorist and affect alien

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