Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Worshiping of negative emotions

You know you're a philosopher when... you analyze a commercial for its philosophical elements.

For example, this commercial for Vlasic pickles:

I like this commercial, because it shows negative emotions as a source of amusement.

The opposite approach magnifies negative emotions into a scary giant which must not be mentioned at all in any form - it's the approach people showed when they called the Glenn Beck show complaining about frog abuse or the approach I'm sure some people show when they called "animal cruelty!" about the making of this commercial which involved... scaring a cat.
It's a very common approach these days - that negative emotions are important and should take a major role in human interactions (be avoided at all cost).
This social climate makes this commercial a little gem - a reminder of good old fashioned American spirit, under which a little pain is nothing to worry about or pay attention to. Nowadays, a little pain is what we're told we should pay all our attention to, feel guilty about and avoid at all cost. Don't startle, don't insult, don't upset anyone, don't judge.

The philosophical foundation of the commercial is the benevolent universe premise. The opposite - the worship of negative emotions is based on a malevolent universe premise (a term coined by Ayn Rand).

It is based on a view that human beings are not strong, but fragile - that they are not naturally happy, rather they are victims - and that by making the slightest joke, as friendly as it is at their expense, one is committing a terrible crime of attempting to break their spirit.
We are expected to treat each other as if we were all weak victims and made to feel guilty of being a monster if we treat people as strong and happy - as capable of enjoying a friendly joke at their expense (I emphasize friendly).

So, no, this commercial did not say all of this, but it represents this approach, or rather, can be classified under the good approach.

Here are a few cases to illustrate my point:

In college, I decided, one day, to share my sense of humor with my roommate. We were in the kitchen between classes when she started telling me about a certain vegetable and where it grows or something of the sort. It was so boring that I zoned out. I decided that she would find it funny too that I zoned out since the topic was a vegetable, so I told her with a smile that I dozed off. She was so offended she nearly stated crying - she locked herself in the room and would not talk to me for at least a week.
What the hell makes a person fragile to the degree of taking offense on account of a vegetable story? I find it hard to understand. But it is cases like these that make it hard to treat people as strong and independent, that drive people to consider every word they say and honesty on the large out of fear of upsetting someone.

I met my best friend in college in a story entirely opposite to this incident.
We were both undergoing a check by a security guard while we were entering a train station. We had to show our IDs. The guard took specially long time looking at my friend's before letting him in. I made a joke to him that it must be a pretty ugly picture to require so long to decide whether or not he's a security threat.
He laughed and continued talking to me.
I can't imagine how my college roommate would have reacted to such a joke.

Education today seems to be the same. Teachers try to build self esteem in kids by saving them the need to face making errors.
This approach is the same because it views kids as fragile, as unable to deal with failure - since failure is seen as big, as huge and threatening, and kids must be shielded from it.
This, of course, achieves the opposite result - it teaches kids that the proper way to view mistakes is not as something small to correct, but as something big to avoid and fear. Since making mistakes is a normal part of life and of learning - this turns these kids into fragile, unconfident people - the exact opposite of what this approach was suppose to achieve.

A word of clarification before I finish: I do not mean to imply that negative emotions are insignificant or should be ignored or viewed as insignificant. It is important for psychological health to know why one feels what one feels - be it a pleasurable or a painful emotion.
But to view negative emotions as powerful metaphysically (by their very nature) is to view people as fragile by their very nature, and that is what I am against.


  1. Good observations. I've noticed as such that the less a person puts himself up for scrutiny the more sensitive he is to such an endeavor, and even the smallest hint of such a thing is enough to provoke a very strong, overproportionate emotional reaction, such as you've stated with your college roommate.

    Today during peer editing in English I inked up an absolutely AWFUL essay, and, without being impolite, gave the author the full extent of my thoughts in a closing paragraph. What the author thinks of my remarks will make for an interesting Thursday, if she feels as if she so should speak up.

  2. I think what it is about the incident with my roommate is that somehow she interpreted what I said as a deliberate attack on her, rather than a friendly joke - maybe she thought I was trying to tell a joke at her expense.

    About your story... I find it interesting and interesting that you would bring it up.

    One thing people usually avoid is telling the truth to others when it is something negative involved. I do consider it a virtue to maintain honesty in light of thinking something negative (given that one's goals require, in some way, the communication of such thoughts).

    Perhaps some turn it into the very opposite - into a dedication to say every negative thing to anyone for the sake of being that kind of character - there is that type as well.

    I personally cannot keep my mouth shut when someone is trying to pretend something in my social environment, almost despite myself I have to say something to negate it.

    In my social environment my goal is enjoying mutual honesty and integrity, so speaking up matches my goal.

    But take a different setting - like math tutoring. I tutor a nine grader and many times he is somewhat slow in getting things. Is there any point in telling him that? Is there any point in telling him that he is way behind his classmate? No, something like this will destroy whatever confident he is trying to build and will serve no goal of mine. While it is true, there is no reason to say it to him. All I do is correct his mistakes, point out whatever consistent flaws he has in his thinking or way of approaching things, but to tell him that I think his younger brother is smarter will only be destructive to his psychology and entirely irrelevant.

    Point is - communication follows goals. Rationally selected goals.

    If one takes up the time to lay out in detail the flaws in something, this effort needs to follow a goal.

    So what was your goal? Was it to help this woman improve her writing skills? Was it simply to do your part of the class and be over with it? Was it to educate others that being straight forward is good?
    Was her essay so hopeless because she is mentally lazy and deserves to be told on it?

    The goal sets the standard to judge the action and what action is worth taking.


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