September 18, 2019

Don't Tell Me What to Feel

“If you tell me to calm down, I probably won’t. The same goes for: “be reasonable,” “get over it already,” “you’re overreacting,” “it was just a joke,” “it’s not such a big deal.” When someone minimizes my feelings, my self-protective reflexes kick in. My body, my mind, my job, my interests, my talents—these are all “mine”—but nothing has quite the power to declare itself as “mine” as a passionate emotion does. When waves of anger or love or grief wash over me, that emotion feels like life itself. It wells up from an innermost core, like my voice, which it usually inflects. And so if you move to tamp it down, I parry by shutting you out: I erect walls around my sanctum sanctorum, to shield the flame of my passion—my life—from your soul-quenching intrusions. Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot feel?!

Now imagine a much more ambitious intervention—someone who doesn’t just want to quench some particular bout of anger or grief, but to put an end to anger or grief, simpliciter. Who could possibly have the gall to tell the entire human race what it should and should not feel? Philosophers, that’s who! Philosophers have been legislating emotional life since the time of the Stoics, and the newest vanguard of the movement is currently at work right under your noses. Allow me to introduce you to the Emotion Police.

First we have Rüdiger Bittner, a philosopher at Bielefeld University in Germany, arguing for the wholesale elimination of regret.[1] Sure, Bittner concedes, you should acknowledge that you did something wrong if you have, do what you can to rectify the situation and commit to future improvement—but what’s the point of feeling bad about it? Psychological pain clouds your judgment and misdirects your energies; there’s no sense in adding a second, unnecessary pain to the wrong already done: “double misery, the second for the sake of the first.””

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