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Immoral Emotions, Intentionality, and Insurrection

photograph of Capitol mob being tear gassed outside

Psychologists believe that emotions — those physical reactions and expressive behaviors that accompany feelings like fear, disgust, and joy — are, in and of themselves, neither moral nor immoral, and neither ethical nor unethical. Rather, we assess the behaviors motivated by, or following from, emotions as being either healthy or unhealthy for the individual. Emotions in this sense serve as coping mechanisms (or ego defenses), and are identified as being positive or negative. When these behaviors are deemed negative, they result in unhealthy outcomes for the person.

One major research question that psychologists often face when studying emotional development asks which comes first: thinking or feeling? Does our physiological activity precede conscious awareness, or is it the other way around? The current research tends to suggest the latter; research supports the idea that cognition precedes emotion. The Schacter Two-Factor theory of emotion, states that an emotion, say anger, is recognized as the emotion of anger only after we cognitively interpret it within the immediate environment, and then cognitively label it as anger. (I might label the emotion as anger, or rage or annoyance, depending on the circumstance of the immediate environment since all three of these emotions are related. Rage, for example, is an intensification of anger (the basic emotion), while annoyance is anger, but to a much lesser degree.) While anger might lead one to act immorally, the emotion itself is not considered good or bad.

But this view that cognition precedes emotion might seem to put pressure on the idea we should regard emotions as being neither moral or immoral. For example, philosopher Martha Nussbaum believes that if emotions do have a cognitive component, then they must be taken into account when evaluating ethical judgments (intentions) made that precede behaviors. Jonathan Haidt goes even further by labeling emotions as either moral or immoral depending on how prosocial the resulting behaviors are, and if the emotion was elicited by the concern for others or strictly out of self-interest. If emotions are labeled as such, then the most recent events at the Capitol can be interpreted in this context.

On January 6, a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building, ransacking offices of lawmakers, hunting for specific government officials, seeking to cause them harm and do physical destruction to the building itself. They were seeking to stop the official count of the Electoral College that would certify the election of a new POTUS, even if it meant that the Vice President and Speaker of the House had to be executed. It’s easy to point to this aggressive behavior as being the result of political polarization, the in-group vs out-group phenomenon, and the effects of social media on collectives. Each of these explanations refers to group behavior, collections of people who must be brought to justice. But, what role did individuals play in the fomenting of such behaviors?

Often, when individuals moralize and then find others of kindred attitudes, a moral convergence is formed. Furthermore, it is known that when the kindling of moralization and moral convergence is present, aggressive behaviors often follow, but there must be a spark to ignite the kindling. It is important to note, however, that the opposite occurs equally as often with non-violent protest groups. There the kindling is present, but there is no violent behavior by the group or any individual within the group; the igniting spark is not present in the non-violent protest group. What makes up this so-called spark? Perhaps the answer can be found by a closer inspection of immoral emotions.

Prior to the attack on the Capitol, the mob met at the Ellipse in front of the White House where the group heard emotionally charged speeches from POTUS and his attorney Rudy Giuliani for over an hour. The speeches conveyed to the group a message that the election had been rigged and stolen from their candidate, and by extension, from them. An emotion of contempt for those responsible for this supposed theft could quite reasonably have been cognitively identified by the persons making up the mob. The speech-makers used terms like “cheaters” and “liars” to generate just such an emotional response.

Anger is elicited when one sees that something is in the way of completing desired goals. If the anger is based in self-interest, then the pro-sociality of the action tendency is low, and the emotion, by definition, is immoral. The speeches were angry ones in the sense that they conveyed the idea that the perceived common goal of re-electing the sitting president was being thwarted by cheating and lying enemies of democracy. The mob was in an environment where it was easy for the individual members to experience anger and contempt as the speeches progressed. In addition, they were under the impression, according to the speech given by the sitting president, that the theft was being carried out just up the street. Anger plus anticipation most often results in aggressive behavior. The kindling was laid, and the spark that lit it came in the form of these emotion-laden speeches filled with words indicative of the emotions of anger, fear, and contempt. Giuliani’s cry for “trial by combat” coupled with these words from their president suggesting that after the count had been interrupted that they would be “the happiest people,” and that what was required was a bit of courage “because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong,” could very well have lit the already-present kindling. If the group saw this as a moral issue (“save your country!”), a right issue, and an issue worth fighting for, then the mob was primed to commit these violent acts. As Milgram and others showed us long ago, humans are not above inflicting harm on others as long as an authority figure encourages them to do so.

But, do the emotions experienced by the Capitol mob need to be labeled as immoral in order to explain their egregious behavior? Do we need to follow Haidt and Nussbaum in condemning the emotion and not just the resulting act? Emotions serve as coping strategies or ego defense mechanisms that motivate behavioral responses. The coping strategies used to deal with their conflicting emotions, and the ego defensive behaviors exhibited by the mob can be explained more parsimoniously by the cognitive theory of emotion: there is an emotion present, anger, (but what to do about it?), there is behavior, attack (but whom?), the function of the attack is to destruct, and the ego defense is displacement (attacking something weaker than the perpetrator) in this case, a few unarmed lawmakers. Emotions were no doubt manipulated and contributed to the mayhem, but they also aren’t the primary suspect.

So I am a racist. What do I do now?

This post originally appeared on October 27, 2015.

Like most human beings, I grew up imbibing racist stereotypes. Since I am Italian, those stereotypes were to some extent different from the kind of stereotypes I would have acquired had I grown up in the United States. For instance, I thought all people “of color” were exotic and more beautiful than “Whites”. This positive, and yet still damaging, stereotype included Black women and men, and Asian men, who in the American dating market are known to be greatly disadvantaged.

My personal attitude was to some extent reflective of Italian culture. The fascination with women of color, for instance, is fairly widespread among Italian men, as you would expect given Italy’s colonial past and its relatively racially homogenous present.

When I started visiting the US academically more ten years ago, I grew accustomed to a much more sophisticated discussion about race, and went through an awkward and often painful process of realization of how implicitly racist I was. I learned that asking “Where are you really from?” to a Seattle native of Korean descent was racist, or at the very least racially insensitive. I realized the tricky undertones of many expressions that I deemed simply descriptive, such as “Black music”. And I found out, much to my surprise, that even my aesthetic appreciation for non-Caucasian people was highly suspicious.

I also discovered that Black women are supposed to be bossy, angry, and dependent on welfare, and that Black men are supposed to be criminals and absent fathers; that East-Asian men are supposed to be unattractive and effeminate, and all Asian women submissive; that Asians in general are good at science… Some of these stereotypes were somewhat in line with my own culture’s, if not necessarily my own, but some were a complete surprise, and that surprise, that sense of “I would never think that” gave me an unwarranted sense of reassurance. When taking the IAT, I even compared positively to White Americans with regard to implicit bias toward Native Americans. So I thought: now that I know all this stuff about race, and given that I am a committed anti-racist, I’ll get rid of all the bad stuff, and I’ll stop being racist!

But, in fact, it didn’t go quite like that… When walking in segregated New Haven, seeing hooded Black men walking behind me made me nervous. I was very aware and ashamed of my own nervousness, but I was nervous nonetheless. Later on, when living in the United Kingdom, I found myself mistaking Black men for store employees. These are only two of the most unnerving instances of my implicit racism surfacing to my uncomfortable consciousness.

And it doesn’t even stop at race: I have become aware of many other forms of discrimination, over the years, and that has greatly increased my capacity at catching myself being implicitly homophobic or transphobic, fattist, ableist, and so forth. But, in fact, it seems to have only increased my awareness, not my ability to be less biased.

Philosopher Robin Zheng, whose research is on moral responsibility and implicit bias, has reassured me that I am not alone. Empirical research confirms that fighting implicit bias require a lot more than just informing people about the reality of discrimination.

This research wouldn’t be surprising to those familiar with more general work on implicit reasoning. For those who are not, I find useful an ancient metaphor from the Buddhist tradition popularized by Jonathan Haidt in his acclaimed pop-psychology book The Happiness Hypothesis. The metaphor describes the human mind as composed by an elephant and its rider. According to Haidt, the elephant roughly corresponds to what has been called System I in dual-processing accounts of reasoning: a system that is old in evolutionary terms, and shared with other animals. This system is comprised of a set of autonomous subsystems that include both innate input modules and domain-specific knowledge acquired by a domain-general learning mechanism. System I is fast, automatic and operates under the level of consciousness. The rider roughly corresponds to System II: a system that is evolutionarily recent and distinctively human. System II permits abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking, and is slower, controlled and conscious. “The rider evolved to serve the elephant,” says Haidt, and while it may sometimes override it, trick it into obedience, “it cannot order the elephant around against its will” (The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 17).

This tension between the rider and the elephant has many different manifestations, but one that is particularly relevant to the discussion of the implicit biases is the case of mental intrusions. If we are explicitly asked to not think about a white bear, all we can think of is, you guessed it, a white bear. This ironic process of mental control is the consequence of automatic and controlled processes firing at each other: the request of not thinking a certain thought activates System II, which attempts to suppress the thought. System I activates automatic monitoring of one’s progress, which in this case means continuously checking whether one is not thinking about a white bear. That move turns out to be obviously counterproductive, since it reintroduces the thought that one is supposed to ban. But “because controlled processes tire quickly, eventually the inexhaustible automatic processes run unopposed, conjuring up herds of white bears” (The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 20). Dan Wegner, who first studied ironic process in a lab setting, has shown that it affects also people who try to repress unendorsed stereotypes.

While there is interesting research addressing more productive and effective ways of fighting implicit bias and stereotyping, I want to conclude with a remark about the implications of this empirical literature for microaggressions, a topic that has gained much attention recently.

I largely disagree with Haidt’s criticisms of trigger and content warnings in academic settings, for reasons well-articulated by Regina Rini and Kate Manne. But I do share his attention to underlying psychological mechanisms, and I worry that they are sometimes neglected in the political commentary.

Committed anti-racists are unlikely to engage in overtly prejudiced behavior. However, they may still find themselves inadvertently engaging in microaggressions such as those I described at the beginning of the post: inappropriate jokes or questions, or bona fide mistakes stemming from deeply-ingrained stereotypes. The elephant acts against the rider’s wishes, or even awareness: when something that has been internalized as a threat (such as a hooded Black man) appears in view, the elephant doesn’t hesitate, and kicks the rider in the shins, making it jump. The rider will take one or two seconds to realize that there is in fact no threat, and that will be too late: the jump was visible, the offense taken, the harm done. Not fully understanding how powerful these unconscious mechanisms are affects not only our moral assessment of the perpetrators (which can be also self-assessment). It also produces condemnatory reactions that, while appropriate in theory, are not necessarily fertile in practice, such as a certain relatively widespread paralyzing White guilt of well-intentioned liberals, who go around admitting their White privilege without knowing exactly what to do about it. Realizing that some of the mechanisms motivating our behavior are outside of our direct control allows us to focus on indirect ways to modify our behavior, and to shift from a sterile admission of White privilege to a more proactive commitment to changing the institutional injustice that gives rise to it. You can’t order the elephant at will, but you can change the environment it is raised in.