Emotional non-negotiables

I was reflecting last night on conversations I’d had with two different people recently. The subjects had been the environment, the state of the world, and the likely directions history will take in the near future.

Both my friends clearly understand the situation that we (humanity) are in. They are not denialists in any sense of the word- they really get what’s going on.

But, I noted, they were both emotionally distressed about it. And that their distress was causing them to waffle back and forth between seeing the situation we’re in clearly and then switching around to trying to ameliorate it by saying something like, “Well, humanity has tremendous powers of creativity – surely we’ll think of a way to avoid these problems.

Watching them squirm got me to thinking about what it was that was making them squirm.

One of my friends has older parents who live in a major metropolitan area and she’s made a commitment to them and to herself to live near them in their closing years. She’s also dependent upon them financially as well. Later, when they’ve passed on, she will be able to live where she wants and how she wants – but for now, she’s made commitments that tie her to this city.

My other friend had been thinking very seriously about immigration to New Zealand as a result of his analysis of the world’s situation. But, after a lot of agonizing and thinking about his extended family here on the U.S., he decided that he couldn’t simply abandon them and go off to save himself. So, he’s decided, out of love of family, to stay here with all of them and face the hard times together.

To me, it looks like both of these folks have the same problem. They’ve both made emotional decisions to stay but at the same time, they are both confronted with convincing reasons why they should go. Cognitive dissonance is the result. And the way that the mind tries to reduce cognitive dissonance in a situation like this is to try to reinterpret the data that suggests they should leave into something less convincing.

It seems to me that their rational mental processes are being distorted by the presence of emotional non-negotiables in the mix.

When this first occurred to me, it seemed like a bit of an epiphany and I spent several hours over the next day or two noodling it over. In the end, I saw that it was no epiphany at all but just something I’ve known about and acknowledged forever. It’s just that I hadn’t quite looked at it from this angle before – especially as it relates to how people see the world’s current situation.

On the web site Al Gore’s put up about his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth“, he has a quote that I’ve admired since I first saw it.

It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

– Upton Sinclair

This captures a lot of what I thought was my epiphany.

When, in the past, I’ve asked myself why people seem so obtuse about seeing the state of the world right in front of their eyes, I’ve assigned the cause to a variety of things like ‘He’s a Republican.‘ or ‘He’s a Libertarian.‘ or ‘He’s a right-wing Christian.‘ or “He has no understanding of science.‘. Or any of a long list of other reasons.

But, amazingly, I’d never seen that all of these folks, just like you and me and everyone else, are encumbered by any number of emotional non-negotiable factors that limit their ability to process the data before them solely on its own merits. We are all twisted by our emotional attachments.

Men who run corporations and have their identities and all of their finances tied up in those endeavors cannot think objectively about the good or ill that corporations do in the world.

People who cannot move away from an area of danger (like my two friends), cannot see the data indicating the danger they are in clearly without cognitive dissonance. And that cognitive dissonance generates stress which the mind will try to lessen how ever it can.

Religious conservatives have staked their faith on the fact that God has everything well under control so how can they objectively view information that shows things are getting badly out of control around them?

Libertarians believe that free markets will find appropriate solutions for all conceivable problems so how can they assimilate the fact that the financial sieves that are multinational corporations and Globalization are steadily increasing the wealth of the very few at the expense of the many.

I’ve had to smile privately at Republican friends of mine as they held forth on the merits of less government and free markets. And then I watched them stress as they tried to explain why all these ‘free’ corporations and ‘free’ markets, which only care about next quarter’s numbers, are sending all of our jobs and manufacturing overseas to the benefit of their bottom lines but to the ultimate degradation of the country and the lives of those who live here.

I recall reading a Buddhist tract a long time ago. It said something like,

One can only see what one is looking at clearly when one doesn’t care what one sees.

Yep, that about sums it up. And we, all of us, are emotional creatures who are emotionally bound to certain ideas, creeds, places, points-of-view and whatever. And all of us, therefore, are not clear and rational thinkers to the extent that these emotional non-negotiables warp our rationality.

I don’t think any of this changes my prognosis for the world. I still think it is bleak. Perhaps, even more so given that I now see that many (most, all) of us are incapable of rational perceptions due to our emotional attachments. But, it does, perhaps, make the problem a bit clearer.

6 Responses to “Emotional non-negotiables”

  1. Cam says:

    Excellent. You managed to articulate something that I have been failing to put in to words for a long time. Perhaps people are simply distressed by things like global warming – and they are trying to escape their distress by dismissing the evidence for it.

    “distress causing them to waffle back and forth” was the line that really jumped out at me. I’ve been in so many discussions where the other person has gone off on what to me seemed like a baffling tangent at the time, but now it’s at least understandable in the context of them trying to ameliorate the situation. Like: ‘Global warming may be real, but its the politicians that are hyping it up and cashing in on it, so why should we trust them on it and why should we do what they say?”

    Two separate issues, conflated, with a lot of real anger directed at politicians. If it’s a matter of cognitive dissonance, I might be able to think of a better response for the next time.

  2. Very interesting post. I’ve long been critical of the modern business paradigm that puts the quick distribution of profit to shareholders ahead of all other considerations—including the long term viability of the corporation itself—but it hadn’t occurred to me how, exactly, that might be tied to other seemingly irrational behaviors. This gives me a new way to think about it. Thanks.

  3. AT says:

    I like what you say about emotional ties overwhelming rational control. Makes me wonder what mental state allowed some jews to leave Europe as Hitler built strength?

  4. auntiegrav says:

    Very good. Next step: the feedback systems that have been designed to PREVENT humans as a group from contemplating Sinclair’s concept. It’s all well and good for you and I or even college environment protected groups to consider the futility and self-destructiveness of civilization, but anyone taking action against the status quo is going to be breaking some societal law, either statutorily or politically. Ever noticed the dead zone around a large thistle plant or burdock bush? Once the power of suppression is in place, it is hard for anything less than total annihilation by a more powerful force or depletion of resources (dieoff) to change the dominant structure. Corporations have eliminated the ‘diseases’ of unionization and popular control (government) by outsourcing labor and bribing government wholesale.
    They are just one example of ‘civilization’s facets of dominating the ecosphere which we ourselves are dependent upon to be broadly distributed and diverse, not living in homogenous ‘spikes’ of ‘normality’ where the uncomfortable parts of life that make life robust are isolated from our experience. Wendell Berry described the modern automobile or tractor as a coffin: simulating death to provide us with perfect isolation from the ‘jolts and bumps’ of the fields and life. I submit that humanity has built itself into a societal coffin called ‘civilization’ , and the only way out is for the coffin to rot, but if anyone survives, it won’t be us. Nature has handily provided disasters over the eons to prove that the fringe is just as important as the 3 Sigma in the middle.
    “Drive like an Arab got your cash.”

  5. Dennis says:

    There are new voices being raised pointing out the problems with civilization as it is currently configured. James Gustave Speth, author of “Red Sky at Morning” and a major environmental force for decades, has decided to step outside the system after working within it for most of his professional life. He’s written a new book, “The Bridge at the End of the World”, and in it he basically acknowledges that the environmental movement, to date, has been ineffective and is likely to continue to be so. He’s shifted from trying to work within the system to stepping outside and pointing the finger directly at consumerism and the out of control corporations.

    There’s another new book which I’ve yet to get a copy of called, “The Dominant Animal” by the Ehrlichs. From the reviews I read, it seems that they’ve picked up an association that I’ve long thought was badly under appreciated and that is the highly causal link between the evolutionary forces that shaped us as animals and our current aberrant behaviors as residents of the planet.

    If voices like these keep stepping forward, then when the inevitable crash comes and people are finally driven into accepting that we (those who survive) need to change, then they will a least have a reasonable idea where the real problems lie and hopefully will turn their new-born willingness to change towards those culprits.

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