Blog 15 – Immoral Feelings
Feelings and emotions can be suspect from a moral point of view. Anger, jealousy, envy, sadness, and every other emotion can have blinding effects on the person who has them: they can blind us to others, to not giving them a fair hearing, to not weigh their needs and claims appropriately. There is also a long tradition in philosophy of suspecting feelings. Immanuel Kant, for example, was wary of emotions as a proper guide to what ought to be done. Even Aristotle, whose virtue ethics is considered to be a moral theory that does not shun emotions, puts them in a proper perspective. To Aristotle, the very idea of a virtue is that it is a state of character that, among other things, disposes us to correctly feel things: in the right way, at the right time, for the right reason, towards the right object, and so on.
To many people, this might sound strange. After all, we cannot control our feelings, which seem to just happen to us. People often shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, this is just how I feel,” as if nothing can be done about it. Here, however, we have to be careful; we should distinguish between being able to change feelings on the spot, in the very short term, or by an immediate act of will, on the one hand, and between being able to change them in the long term, on the other. More importantly, we should distinguish between changing feelings and emotions (whether short or long term), on the one hand, and evaluating them, on the other. After all, even if it is true that “This is just how I feel,” it can also be true that how I feel in a particular situation is incorrect, inapt, irrational, or unjustified. For example, feeling rage at a minor mishap is not apt, and neither is feeling little or no anger at the slaughter of one’s family. Feeling jealousy is petty if prompted merely by the sight of someone else conversing with your spouse, while not feeling any jealousy at the prospect of losing your spouse to someone else indicates loss of love. Most emotions can be apt or inapt, justified or unjustified, rational or irrational, depending on the occasion, and it is up to us, as rational beings (or as ones who aspire to be rational) to evaluate them.
Moreover, evaluating emotions and feelings is important. It is important for its own sake—to know whether our emotions are reflecting a fair or proper attitude towards others and ourselves—but also for the sake of long term change. If we want to be good people, we need to feel the proper emotions at the right times, towards the right people, for the right reasons, for the right time, and so on, as Aristotle says. And we need to feel emotions properly because emotions are not mere sensations. They are complex states that contain attitudes, beliefs, and reactions, all of which are subject to ethical criteria. For example, if I feel angry for days on end at a minor slight, my anger towards the person who slighted me would involve beliefs and attitudes: the belief that what he did to me was awful, and that I should stay angry at him, for example, and the anger would involve a negative or hostile stance (attitude) towards him. But if what he did does not merit such a reaction on my part, then feeling that kind of anger would be clearly unfair to him (and it would eat at my soul).
So evaluating our emotions is an important moral task.
Thus, unlike ideal (or theoretical) virtuous people, whose virtue and wisdom are complete and whose emotions are therefore rightly directed by them, the rest of us have to deal with emotions and feelings that often spring on us, demanding our attention. Moreover, many people not only have to evaluate their emotions, but they also have to evaluate the wrong emotions, emotions that come at the wrong times, for the wrong reasons, towards the wrong people, and for the wrong periods of time. More often than not, we also know, or at least suspect, that we are feeling the wrong emotion. We often have to say to ourselves, “Cool it. You are making a big deal out of nothing” or, at least, “Am I right to be feeling this?” That is, we often have to subject what we feel to the scrutiny of our reason. So even if, unlike a virtuous person, we sometimes cannot help but feel an emotion, we still need to ask ourselves whether what we are feeling is apt, and, if not, negotiate with ourselves to temper or eradicate what we are feeling.
My subject for this post is an off-shoot of the above theme, and it derives from the fact that in some types of situations there is a misguided distinction made between the impact of what someone says and the intentions behind what they said. This is a distinction—the intention of words vs. their impact—that seems to be gaining currency. We see people getting outraged at things that other people say, despite the fact that in some cases the speakers said what they did with clean intentions. Moreover, the distinction is such that, if morally mishandled, it can easily block our ability to question our feelings and thus be fair to others and decent to ourselves.
Consider the following four examples to best bring out the distinction and its moral challenges.
(1) The first example is real, extracted from an article by Eric Hoover in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Make Yourself Uncomfortable” (August 16, 2019, A12-A15) about ACCEPT (Admissions Community Cultivating Acceptance & Peace Today), a new group about diversifying and making sure that admissions are equitable. In September 2016, at a conference for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Phil Trout, the association’s departing president, referred in his opening remarks to the killing of Tyre King, an African-American teenager who had been shot by a white police officer a few days earlier in Columbus, Ohio, the same city where the conference was taking place. Trout said that the killing of King is a tragedy that “challenges us once again to remember that all lives matter.” Trout, it seems, did not know that “all lives matter” is an expression that some people use to oppose Black Lives Matter; he seems to have used it intending to “express sympathy and solidarity.” In the outrage that followed, many made the comment that despite his intentions, people were upset merely by the impact of Trout’s words.
According to the Chronicle article, “on any given day, you might see a discussion [on the Facebook page of ACCEPT] of ‘intent vs. impact.’ OK, maybe that white person didn’t mean to offend, but his remarks did, in fact, offend a person of color. What should he do? Acknowledge his privilege and apologize. He also should acknowledge the impact of his remarks instead of describing his intentions” (A14).
(2) The second example is fictional (but based on a real event). Suppose that we are listening to Daria, a speaker giving a talk about her experiences as a Latina young woman upon arrival to Chicago and matriculating in high school. She describes an incident in which five of her female white class mates surround her one afternoon outside school and call her a “trashy bitch” and then chant, in unison, until they hound her away, “Spic! Spic! Spic!” This word is a slur, and hearing it is no doubt jolting. On hearing Daria, we feel with her, we come close to understanding what she might have felt on that afternoon, and how that word would have cut deep into her psyche. And this feeling of ours might transform into anger at the people who put her through this experience.
Now imagine another speaker, Jessica, a white woman, giving a talk about Daria’s experiences in the United States. She recounts the same incident and quotes the same words as Daria did. Moreover, Jessica’s intentions in doing so are clear: they are not to mock Daria, to belittle her experiences, or to call her a “snowflake,” but to inform the audience of how experiences of racism have shaped the lives many Americans. Still, upon hearing the word “Spic,” some people in the audience get angry, and they get angry not at the young women who used it to taunt Daria on that one afternoon, but at Jessica because she mentioned that word.
Granted this is how some people actually felt, should they have felt that way? More generally, what should our reaction to hearing Jessica quoting the S-word be? Would anger at her be rational or merited?
(3) The third example is again fictional (and based in a real event). James is a white man who teaches a Contemporary American Literature course at his college. On one particular day, he is reading a passage from an American-Asian writer, in which the narrator describes an incident in which he was called a “Chink” by other characters in the novel. After quoting this passage, James goes on to explain to his class how the word “Chink” has been used in the United States as a slur against Asians and Asian-Americans (the Chinese, specifically, though slur words have a way of glossing over differences between ethnic and cultural groups!). After class, some of his students go up to him to tell him that they were upset by his use of the word, at which point James tries to explain to them that he was not using it, but mentioning it to explain to the class its bad meaning and its use by the author in the passage he had read to convey a complex experience. This explanation, however, does not help, and those who are angry with James claim that even though James’s intentions were not to offend or hurt, the impact of his words nevertheless did and that this needs to be acknowledged.
Is anger at James merited or justified?
(4) Finally, a personal example. The word “manyak” in Arabic (or in some Arabic dialects) has a bad history: it refers to a guy who likes to “take it up the ass” and who is, more often than not, effeminate. It is the closest word in Arabic to the English “fag” or “faggot.” I have a few good (straight) friends in Beirut who use this word with me and I with them. That is, we often pepper our conversations with each other using this word. When we use it, we use it to mean something like, “Dude.” Yes, the word has been used in the past and continues to be used as a slur. But it has come to acquire a more neutral meaning, and that’s not how we use it with each other. (The word “marico” in Spanish is also like this: it can be used as a slur, but it can also mean something like “Dude.”) When my friends use this word with me, when they address me that using this word, I am not upset at their use of it.
Now, imagine me walking down a street in Beirut one day and someone, a stranger, calls me “manyak” because he believes that I am gay. He does not need to call me that in a hostile or threatening way, and I might not feel any danger upon hearing him (he might be a 15-year old kid who hurls the word at me mockingly and then runs away). My reaction to this is to correctly perceive it as an insult, as a slur, as demeaning—as whatever way we typically feel when people hurl slurs at us. It offends and angers me, and rightly so.
Have I over-reacted to the stranger’s use of the word against me? Have I under-reacted to its use by my friends? (Note that to use “over-react” and “under-react” is to ask the above-mentioned “should” question, because it is to ask whether my reactions were merited or unmerited, apt or inapt.)
Before answering these questions, note that there is an important difference between the types of intentions in examples (1) and (4), on the one hand, and in examples (2) and (3) on the other. In (2) and (3), Daria, Jessica, and James all intended the same meaning of the slur words. They also all had the same intention in using the slur words: they intended to use them in an anti-racist way, to illustrate the evils of racism. In example (4), the kid who calls me “manyak” intended a different meaning than my friends intended; while they intended “dude,” he intended “fag.” Moreover, he intended to use the word in a demeaning way. In example (1), Trout did not intend the meaning of the expression “all lives matter” to be “contrary to what Black Lives Matter believes, all lives matter,” but to mean something like, “I am appalled by the killing of Tyre King whose life matters as everyone else’s does.” And Trout also intended to use his words to condemn the way that black people are treated.
In general, words and intentions can cross paths in at least two ways: the intention to imbue words with a certain meaning, and the intention to use the words in a certain way, given their meaning. The first type of intention is rarely up to individual people, because the meanings of words and expressions is largely public. I cannot say “Nothing travels than the speed of light” to mean “I will love you forever” (unless it occurs in, say, a poem and the context of the poem clarifies that light and speed are being used as metaphors or similes in connection to love). This is why my friends can intend words like “manyak” and “marico” to mean “dude” only if such a meaning is public, in some form of social circulation. If no such meaning were present, and only the slur-meaning were prevalent, their use of it that way would be problematic, and their intentions to the contrary cannot so easily override its public meaning. (This is why we often tell our students in art critiques that, despite their intentions, some symbols and words can go beyond them and be taken up by their public meaning.) We can think of public meanings as a group of cats, and individual intentions as people trying to herd them and keep them in line. It might happen, but not likely.
This is also why I wrote above that the intention to use certain words or expressions depends on their meaning. For James to intend to use “chink” in an anti-racist way, he has to rely on its public meaning as a slur. Ditto for Jessica, Daria, and the kid in Beirut. We cannot use words in a certain way unless we rely on their public meanings. Otherwise, our attempts can go seriously awry. If we go back to the Trout example, his explanation for using “all lives matter” in a non-insulting way sounds sincere precisely because this expression does mean what he intended it to mean, even though there is now a rival, insulting, meaning of it.
Because the intention to mean something with a word or an expression is hostage to the word or expression’s public meaning, leaving little room for individual intentions in changing the meaning to suit the individual’s purposes, and because the impact vs. intention distinction depends on the pre-existence of public meanings, what follows is only about the intention in use.
So, to return to our questions: What explains the difference in our reactions to Daria and Jessica in the second example and to James in the third example? What explains my different reactions to being called “manyak”? Should there be a difference in the reactions? The basic answer is that what explains and justifies the difference in the reactions is the attribution of a different intention to each party. This, in turn, explains why the impact of words cannot—more accurately: should not—be shorn of their intended usage. Put differently, the intention behind a word or an expression should dictate, at least to a large extent, how we react to the use of that word or expression. Thus, given the “clean” intentions of all the speakers in the above examples (except for the kid who uses the slur against me), the anger is not justified at all.
Might one, however, be able to argue that it is? How? One argument is that slurs are ugly words with ugly histories, and that one can be easily jolted upon hearing them, regardless of the intentions, which would explain and justify people’s being upset. Slurs are hateful words based on group belonging that have been used to demean, to insult, or to put someone in their (lower) place, all on the basis of their group belonging. So that, one can argue, regardless of the intentions, these words are impactful.
But this is not convincing. One reason that it is not convincing is that it would apply to anyone who uses these words, no matter to which race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic group they belong. Yet this does not jive with the facts, and the facts are that the anger is always directed at out-group people who use these words, especially if the people are white. Put differently, it seems that people’s reactions cut a lot of slack to members of in-groups who use the slurs in a non-demeaning way, but no slack, or barely any, to members of out-groups who also use these words in a non-demeaning way. So the ugliness of the words’ meanings does not explain the differences in reactions to who utters these words.
The above argument also glosses over the distinction between intention-in-meaning and intention-in-use, which I already explained. It does so because it attempts to explain the negative reactions to slur words only by relying on their meanings, thus setting aside how they are used or intended to be used. I will return to this shortly.
This leaves us with one explanation for the difference in reactions: That when members of in-groups use the words in a non-insulting way, it is acceptable, but when members of out-groups use it in a non-insulting way, it is not acceptable.
This, however, is not a reason, let alone a good one. It is mere assertion (and one that smacks of a bad –ism of sorts: of anti-white racism, of anti-straight phobia, of anti-male sexism, etc., if such things exist). For it to go beyond mere assertion, it needs to give a reason why a slur word in the mouth of a white person who is using it with clean or anti-bigoted intentions is still somehow morally wrong. I cannot think of a single reason why it would be. And this reason, were it to exist, would have to grapple with the distinction between intention-in-meaning and intention-in-use. Without showing how even with a good intention-in-use the out-group speaker is wrong to use the word, the reason won’t go anywhere. So, questions such as the following need to be answered: Why would Jessica, who was not only informing us of the racism that Daria had been through, but also condemning it, and who was turning our attention to Daria’s experiences to show us how awful they were, be wrong to use the word as she does?
One might argue that we can always find an adequate substitute, such as “the S-word” or “the N-word” or the “C-word.” If we can do so with no loss of meaning, why not do so? It would spare everyone a lot of strife.
As a tactical or pragmatic argument, it is convincing. After all, if I know or highly suspect that my use of a particular word, no matter how well-intended, will offend and offend deeply, I should avoid using it. But this argument is not a good moral argument. After all, for the suggested word to be a good substitute, we need to have a reason first as to why a substitute is needed, and it is this reason that I think still needs to be supplied. Moreover, such substitutes might fail to adequately convey the horrors of what one is trying to convey. If I am quoting a passage from an anti-Arab racist, using “camel-effer” instead of “camel-fucker” to convey the hatred would not be as powerful. Absent a good reason to avoid the word, I should recount the words in an unvarnished way (as a colleague has plausibly suggested to me). I have no moral reason to step away from using certain words simply because they might offend, when the offense is premised on not taking my intentions-in-use into account and thus smacks of over-sensitivity.
So it seems that there is no such thing as a justified or merited impact of words without a proper knowledge and evaluation of a speaker’s intentions. We need to know what a speaker intended with their words to know whether to be upset or joyed by their words. And if we are already upset by their words—if we cannot help but feel upset—we need to know their intentions in order to evaluate what we are feeling. Given that the intentions of a speaker can change the valence of a word from being negative to being positive, we cannot—it would be irrational and unjustified to—feel a certain way for or against the speaker simply upon hearing that word; we need to know how and why she used it. Only then will our feelings be apt or inapt depending on the case. To be sure, we can feel whatever we want as long as we are careful to not transform this feeling into a moral case against (or, less commonly, for) the speaker. If we are to do so, we need to take into account the speaker’s intentions-in-use.
Therefore, those who rely only on the impact of the words and refuse to take into account the speakers’ intentions in using these words are making a moral mistake: simply put, they are being unfair to the speaker. In refusing to take into account a speaker’s intentions, and in embracing anger or rage at the speaker’s words, they are basically saying to the speaker the following: “Even though, ethically speaking, your intentions should inform how we feel about your words, we are nonetheless not going to consider them in how we feel. We are going to be angry regardless of your intentions.” This is an injustice to the speaker in two ways. First, it overrides what the speaker intended to say, treating her as a non-conversant or a non-communicator—in a sense it objectifies the speaker, reducing her mind to a mere string of words with their own meaning. Second, in doing so it makes an exception of the speaker precisely by suspending, in her case, the social and moral convention of interpreting speakers’ words in light of their intentions—it singles out the speaker for unfair treatment by refusing to apply to her the usual social and moral interactive conventions.
But there is another ethically troubling aspect to the way impact vs. intention distinction is used, and it is one that rebounds on those who disregard the speaker’s intentions. Simply put, those who refuse to take a speaker’s intentions into account willfully deceive themselves into hearing what they want to hear. So, instead of giving themselves credit for being good inter-actors with another person, they override the intentions and hear what they want to hear. This means that they deprive themselves, willingly, of hearing a potential truth, of being open-minded, and of engaging with what they hear. These are all epistemic defects, and they are defects in the hearers themselves.
The impact vs. intention distinction has to be handled carefully if we are to be fair to others and to ourselves. Specifically, we cannot claim that the impact of words is justified regardless of what the speaker intended in using these words. Ideally, the intentions of a speaker explain how the words have impacted the hearers via their intentions: the speaker’s intentions were racist, so the impact was hurtful. But more importantly, they justify the impact via the intentions: because Jessica’s intentions in using the slur word was not racist, I should not be upset by it (even if I happen to feel upset by it). Such evaluations of emotions allow us to be fair to others and to be better human beings.