Emotional meaning is mainly comparative

Having considered the cognitive component of emotions in ‘Speech as Action’, here I want to turn to their comparative dimension. After establishing some basic points I will give an example of how situations can be reframed to change an emotion.

Here is some of what Aaron Ben-Ze’ev has to say about the comparative concern in The Subtlety of Emotions: (all emphases are mine)

‘Emotions occur when a change is appraised as relevant to our personal concerns. Concerns are our short- or long-term dispositions to prefer particular states of the world or of the self. Emotions serve to monitor and safeguard our personal concerns; they give the eliciting event its significance. Emotional meaning is mainly comparative‘ (Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, The Subtlety of Emotions, p. 18).

He goes on to provide some examples:

‘The background framework against which emotional events are compared may be described as a personal baseline. We envy those whose standing is evaluated to be higher than our current baseline. We pity or have contempt for those who are significantly below our current baseline. We are ashamed when our behaviour is well below the standards perceived to be part of the state in which we ought to be, and are proud when it is well above these standards. We feel gratitude when the gift received exceeds the one expected, and we feel anger when others’ behaviour deviates from what we consider as a behaviour others ought to take towards us’. (ibid, p. 19).

The ‘take-away’ from this is that we compare our personal situation with other situations—actual and imagined and this shapes our emotional experience.

When we experience this comparative concern it feels the most natural thing in the world. It feels utterly real and immutable, as if it permeates our very being. But it is actually a socially constructed experience. We learn how to experience emotions as we pass through life. We also learn who and what to compare ourselves to and with. The comparisons we make depend on our social circumstances such as religion, ethnicity, gender and age.

The Utkuhikhalingmiut Inuit of the Canadian arctic, described in Jean Briggs’ Never in Anger have all sorts of social mechanisms in place to control and discourage anger. They regard it as childish. Anger is discouraged, not because they are saintly, but because they fear harming, even killing, each other, should these controls fail. This is their point of comparison.

Young men out on the town on a Saturday night in just about any Western city know no such constraints. They tend to regard anger and aggression as a masculine quality. So too with the hockey tribe of North America, players young and old. ‘You looking at me?!’

We might acknowledge that the comparative element in emotions is socially constructed, but so are many things and the flywheel of emotional habit and tradition can be an irresistible force. It usually takes a personal crisis and intense suffering to compel us to reflect on the comparisons implicit in our emotions.

The undisputed laboratory of human suffering is the Nazi death camps 1930-1945. They tend to be thought of as Jewish death camps, but many groups of people—communists, trade unionists, homosexuals, mentally ill, Polish and Soviet prisoners—ended their days there, not just Jews. But the chronicles of those days are written mostly by Jews.

Primo Levi

Primo Levi

Primo Levi, for example, was a member of the Italian anti-fascist resistance, arrested and taken to Auschwitz. His experience there is documented in If this is a Man, The Drowned and the Saved. Extraordinary writing.

But to illustrate the comparative dimensions in emotions, and how emotional meaning can be changed, I want to draw on Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 118). Under the sub-heading ‘The Meaning of Suffering’ he writes:

We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation— just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer —we are challenged to change ourselves.

Let me cite a clear-cut example: Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how could I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice. (my emphasis)

It’s easier to read than to achieve, but it makes the point: there are always other comparisons—actual and imagined—to be made. To make them we have to change ourselves and reframe the situation, in the above case by imagining how his wife would have suffered had he died first. One’s emotional experience follows the new comparison.

Another point of comparison in the first words here:

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