#12: Feeling Good, Doing Good

Some time ago, a fellow on LiveJournal wrote some words of wisdom I think bear repeating:

1. Just because I feel bad doesn't mean somebody else did something wrong.
2. Just because I feel good doesn't mean I'm doing the right thing.

These two things, taken together, would do much to alleviate about seventy-five percent of the angst, pain, and suffering afflicting the human species today, were they more universally understood and appreciated. Hell, these things should be tattooed on every human being alive today--as long as, y'know, it's in a nice font or something. In fact, I'm going to say them again, because I like them so much:

1. Just because I feel bad doesn't mean somebody else did something wrong.
2. Just because I feel good doesn't mean I'm doing the right thing.

Universal application of these ideas would probably do more good for the sum of all mankind than universal application of the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule prevents people from behaving evilly to one another; these two principles, properly applied, prevent people from behaving evilly to one another even when they feel justified in doing so.

During my time on the Internet, on various forums scattered all over the place, I've participated in conversations with a person who was upset because her partner has passed a relationship rule forbidding her to masturbate; with a person who says that certain forms of roleplay in a D/s or BDSM context are always unacceptable under all circumstances, and that she would "beat up" anyone who engaged in, for example, Nazi roleplay; and with a person who's been personally attacking and viciously slandering one of the lead software engineers of the company that makes one of the compilers I use, because the latest version of that compiler's IDE has a radically different user interface than earlier versions did.

Now, on the surface, these seem like completely separate, unrelated things. But each one actually has the same roots. In each of these three cases, exactly the same thing is happening: someone is feeling a negative or unpleasant emotion, and that person believes that the way to deal with this negative or unpleasant emotion is by controlling the people around him. That is, each case describes a situation where a person is seeking an external solution to an internal emotional state.

Western philosophy and thought makes a great deal of the distinction between the rational self and the emotional self. We talk about these two things as thought they were entirely different; "Should I go with my head or my heart?" "What do you do when your thoughts tell you one thing and your feelings tell you another?"

This idea is pure poppycock.

Thoughts and feelings come from the same source; they're not different things at all. Feelings are how the parts of our brain that do not have language talk to us; thoughts are how the parts of our brain that do have language talk to us. If there's a contradiction between someone's thoughts and his feelings, it likely means that person simply hasn't taken the time to understand his feelings, that's all.

Of course, we all know what it feels like to believe something is true, and then later to find out we were wrong; or to believe we understand something, and then later find out we don't. Happens all the time; it's no big deal.

Feelings can be wrong as well. In fact, it may be that feelings will be wrong more often than rational thoughts; the parts of the brain responsible for our feelings are much simpler, much more primitive, less able to understand abstract ideas or complex situations.

So why is it people rarely seem to understand that their feelings might not always be right?

Emotions are one of the ways we make sense of the world. Unfortunately, an emotion always feels right, by definition. People tend by default to feel justified in their emotions, and accept without question that those emotions are true. The person who feels wronged believes he has been wronged; the person who feels betrayed believes without ever even stopping to consider, or even thinking about whether he should stop to consider, that he has been betrayed.

On one of the UseNet newsgroups I read, there is this guy who has written--loudly, noisily, and repeatedly--about how a change in the user interface of a particular compiler represents a personal "betrayal." He feels, quite strongly, that the software vendor has abandoned him, and to retaliate for this perceived injury, he has taken to (among other things) posting the most amazing rants while masquerading as one of the engineers from that software vendor. He has also attacked the engineers from that vendor, even posting excerpts from their personal Weblogs with what can only be described as "colorful commentary" on the newsgroup.

Now, this guy is probably quite sincere in his feelings. He genuinely feels slighted and personally affronted; I have no doubt whatsoever that his feelings are very real. What he can't do is step away from those feelings enough to see how completely outrageous and over-the-top his behavior is; if he does have a legitimate complaint about the redesigned user interface of his compiler, it's totally buried beneath the landslide of extremely inappropriate behavior, and nobody's going to listen to anything he says because of it.

When someone behaves in such a clearly outrageous way, it's pretty easy to point and laugh and say "man, that guy's a real nutjob!" But people do this same kind of thing, especially in romantic relationships, every day. A feeling of injury or slight always seems real from the inside; it takes a good deal of discipline and good skills at self-understanding to be able to step far enough away from them to say "Just because I feel hurt does not mean that someone attacked me."

And the real bitch of it is that someone who feels hurt or slighted will behave in ways that under any other circumstances he knows are wrong, because when a person feels hurt, lashing out at the author of the perceived injury feels like the right thing to do. It seems perfectly justified and reasonable.
Feelings are deceptive, and should not be taken at face value, The fact that a thing feels justified and right does not necessarily mean that it is justified and right--but realizing that, and doing what is right, is very, very difficult to do.

It gets worse when the feeling genuinely is justified. There are many people who have a strong emotional reaction to Nazi symbolism, and rightly so. The Nazi party was an abomination, and perpetrated acts of atrocity on an almost inconceivable scale. The symbols associated with the Nazis still have an incredible emotional power; the Holocaust is still within the memories of people who are alive today. It's reasonable to expect that this kind of symbol will trigger an absolutely overwhelming emotional response in a great many people.

The trap that goes hand in hand with that emotional response is the belief that the emotion justifies an action. The person on the forum I read who says she would commit acts of violence against people who use Nazi symbolism in a BDSM context is so overwhelmed by her emotional response that she lacks the cognitive ability to distinguish between a symbol and the thing that symbol represents, and feels so justified in her emotional response that she lacks the ability to differentiate between a feeling and an action. She, like the Usenet kook who believes that stalking, impersonating, and attacking a software engineer over a change in the user interface of a computer program, sincerely believes that her emotional response justifies her actions; she believes that it is acceptable for her to commit an act of violence because of the way she feels when she sees certain symbols.

The willingness to commit, justify, advocate, defend, or rationalize acts of violence on the basis of an emotion is arguably among the most evil of all human impulses. The irony, invisible to her, is that in her attitude, in her willingness to believe that her internal emotional state justifies violence, she is actually not so different from the very thing she hates. The only difference between her belief that her emotional reaction justifies her violence and the belief on the part of a Ku Klux Klansman that his emotional reaction to the thought of a black person having a romantic relationship with a white partner justifies his violence is in the minor details. In essential philosophical and moral attitudes, these two people are birds of a feather.

As human beings, we react emotionally to symbols; it's written in our brains. When people confuse the symbol with the thing it represents, evil happens. Emotions are not sophisticated; the emotional part of the brain does not understand subtlety. To the emotional part of the brain, the symbol and the thing it stands for are the same; it takes the application of intellect to understand why they are not. In its petty forms, you get people who become so emotional over someone burning a flag that they imagine the nation that flag stands for has somehow been attacked; in its more virulent forms, you see people reacting so strongly to a symbol that they believe their reaction justifies acts of physical violence.

The thing that's important, though, is that the emotion does not, of and by itself, justify an action, even in cases where the emotion itself is justified. I would be very uncomfortable if someone showed up at a play party I was attending dressed in full SS regalia; the difference between me and the person on the forum I'm reading is that I recognize that my discomfort is an emotion that belongs to me, and my emotions do not justify violence.

This same philosophy applies on a smaller scale as well. The person who feels uncomfortable or inadequate at the thought of his mate masturbating, and acts on that feeling by ordering his partner not to touch herself, is making the same mistake as the person who beats up someone for engaging in role-play that makes her uncomfortable, just on a smaller scale. In each case, the mental malfunction is exactly the same: the belief that the appropriate way to deal with an uncomfortable emotion is to force others to change their behavior.
Emotions tend to justify the actions they prompt, and emotions tend to try to make people believe that they are justified and right, so if there is a contradiction between the world and a person's emotional state, it's the world that has to change. The desire to try to force the world to change to suit our emotional state, rather than changing our emotional state to suit the world, is a very natural one; our emotions are one of the the mechanisms by which we determine whether something is wrong or right, especially in social contexts, so of course our emotions will always feel right. You cannot use your emotions to determine whether or not your emotions are justified; emotions, almost by definition, always feel justified. If we feel slighted, then our emotions are telling us we have been slighted; even if those emotions are wrong, they will still feel right. Believing that you are justified because you feel justified is not good enough.

The way out of the self-referential morass is actually quite easy: evaluate your actions with your head, not your heart. If you feel slighted, don't assume that the feeling is valid; check your facts first. It's tough, though, because "checking your facts" does not mean "look for things that validate and support the feeling," but if you're not careful, that's exactly what you'll end up doing...because, you see, it feels like the right thing to do. Doing what actually is right means fact-checking your feelings, which means that you cannot trust your feelings to give you the right answer.

Just because you feel bad does not mean someone did something wrong. Just because you feel good does not mean what you are doing is right. Feel with your heart, but check your facts.