Published on:

March 17, 2014

On Emotional Authenticity

(by Kelly)

Whatever action you take on behalf of the oppressed, be emotionally authentic when you carry it out.

(My personal position and advice is to be entirely authentic at almost all times if not actually all times, but I write here specifically with regard to how important it is FOR THOSE WE LEND OUR VOICES TO that we communicate our emotional -- not just intellectual -- truth.)

Sure, when our grief over this atrocity the magnitude of which history has never seen manifests as rage, channelling and constructively directing that emotional response is a wise thing to do, but repressing our emotions to favour the "well-mannered" (authority-indulging), calm (expressively indifferent) rationality of a gentle "educational" approach over the compelling force of emotional authenticity is TRIVIALIZING.

Don't give me any patriarchal humanshit about how we look weak and dismissible if we're being emotionally open or how humans are moved by information and rational arguments, you know that's all nonsense. Change is catalyzed by powerful emotional experiences (including, significantly, experiences of social pressures), not by verbose Vulcan chit-chat over cigars and whisky.

The Enlightenment model of human cognition is wrong. We know that the vast majority of humans -- and moreover, humans as collective units -- do not come to decisions by making rational cost-benefit analyses. We selectively accept what information confirms our identities and existing values, and simply reject conflicting information. Really, information isn't actually worth much. (And that's coming from someone who really values knowledge, learning, evidence and reason -- I just know that no matter how much I care about those things, they ultimately only matter at all because by whatever cause, I have developed an emotional attachment to rationality.) Ultimately, people are moved by emotionality, not rationality. So we have to motivate people emotionally.

If all it took to change people's perceptions and behaviours was rational argument, the whole world would end speciesist enslavement and atrocity within a day. Maybe two, for those places the Internet doesn't reach. "These animals want to live, and they don't need to die for us to live." Voila, vegan planet, right? Evidently not. Our emotional investment in the social norms that define our identities and make us comfortable is too strong.

It's worth noting that when we are hurt, we cry and scream, we don't dispassionately give the person hurting us the rational reasons that they should stop. Frak, we don't even need words to communicate when we're in pain -- and actually, when we're really upset, we tend to be at a loss for words because we're not even thinking (in any coherent, verbal, logical way at least). In our moments of deepest pain, we're just feeling -- probably like whichever particular animals (including infant humans) who can't "rationalize" pain away experience all of their emotions. When someone is deeply pained, we know it from their authentic physical expression, not from their reductive verbal translation of their emotional experience. Emotional authenticity communicates so much more than indifferent words.

We can (and should) be honest about this: We're fighting a Holocaust of literally unfathomable scale. (As in, there's no way that I, with my human privilege, can have any idea what it's like to be dragged onto a kill floor, much less conceive of what that's like 58 billion times over -- trillions of times over if we include the fish who we suffocate every year.) Is any crime worse? Do the stakes get any higher than this? We can NOT afford to fail to communicate that imperative.

But when we talk about consumer "choices" (making nonhuman's suffering have anything to do with human convenience, taste, health or whatever to do with anthropocentric self-interest) we make the stakes as low as the stakes of choosing a favourite band. And if we just disinterestedly (or smilingly) educate people about facts, we don't compel them to give a damn about the reality we're trying to make them aware of.*

Actually, I wouldn't even call something like "kidnapping" or "castration" or "confinement" or even "murder" the reality, per se, of those animals. Their reality is grief. Their reality is excruciating physical agony. Their reality is confusion and depression. Their reality is fear and desperation. And that's what we need to communicate.

If our objective is to speak up for the animals, we need to communicate not what external processes we can see being imposed on them, but what internal, emotional experiences they are going through (which is what they are trying to communicate with their cries). People can only understand that things like "confinement" and "murder" are bad if they are empathizing with the experience of the victim in question, and that experience is one of suffering, so when we communicate on behalf of the animals, the details of the violent act should be secondary to the emotionally impactful stories that make it clear that the violence is wrong.

As liberationists, we are obviously empathizing with oppressed animals' emotional experiences to some degree if we feel the need to speak up for them. Witnessing their suffering makes us suffer -- no, no one is saying that our simulated/empathized suffering comes anywhere remotely near what the actual victims go through, but evidently we feel enough of their pain that we feel compelled to fight back for them -- and we shouldn't hold back on expressing whatever of their experience we are able to feel. If we can emotionally communicate anything of their struggle, we really do need to. We need to encourage others to empathize with the animals, not to just rationally acknowledge that discrimination is wrong. We need to make other humans not just intellectually see that nonhumans' lives matter, but emotionally feel that their lives matter, just as we do.

When we hand people the rational arguments we all know off-hand, detailing in flawlessly logical terms "why" they should care, if our words aren't carried by the force of our emotional truth, they're not going to get us very far at all. People don't need a reason, they need motivation.

And here I am just trying to communicate that to you in words, which you are reading through a computer monitor, with whatever emotional articulation you're projecting onto them. Well, right now I'm tired and don't feel compelled to cry and scream, because our minds are super skilled at defending us against pain that would otherwise drive us genuinely insane, so right now I can just type down some emotionally neutral words. But next time I feel like crying, I'm going to cry, whether I'm in a comfortable space with my liberationist family, or having a heated argument with a bully of a speciesist, or beside the stolen infant's milk section of the grocery store with my mother. Next time I feel enraged, I'm going to figure out what the most effective way to channel that emotional response constructively is and follow through. (I'll probably decide to do a direct action -- insert silly face.) When I talk to people about vivisection, I'm not going to respond to any of the distracting anthropocentric hypothetical things they say without maintaining an uncompromising focus on the simple truth that I feel (yes, I'm putting "feel" before "think" here, for the "reasons" stated above) that the discrimination and violence and atrocity and injustice of it is wrong. BECAUSE EMOTIONALLY, INTUITIVELY, THEY ALREADY AGREE WITH ME, SOMEWHERE UNDERNEATH THE HEAVY BLANKET OF SPECIESISM THAT THEIR CULTURE HAS SWADDLED THEM IN. So I need to draw that out of them by letting them empathize with my "righteous indignation." No matter how it manifests or how I guide it into expression, I will not repress my grief any more than I need to to stay sane in the midst of this ceaseless massacre. And actually, I think I'm being both intellectually and emotionally authentic in what I'm saying to you here, even if I'm not crying and screaming like I know some part of both of us deep down really wants to at all times -- that impulse just isn't bubbling up to my skin at this particular moment.

That being said, as liberation activists, we all feel so deeply and intensely for the animals and yet we hardly even share our emotional experiences of bearing witness to this global atrocity with each other. Telling each other the stories of the emotionally impactful experiences that lead us to becoming liberationists, and being open and authentic (being vulnerable) with each other, will bring us closer together, making us stronger together -- and being authentic in our interactions with speciesists will make us more sure of our own convictions and more confident in our activism, making us stronger still. And for them to experience you being real with them will make their interaction with you leave a stronger impression on their memory.

I think we can all see that apathy is a HUGE problem in this privileged society (though I don't think we're actually all too unique among humans, since human privilege is the most significant and oppressive privilege of all and since most large human societies encourage individualism and selfishness to some significant degree or another). And I think we can all recognize without much difficulty that apathy is not a failure of rational awareness, it's a failure of emotional incentive. (Call that a kind of "ignorance" if you like, but I myself think that kind of identification reinforces false Enlightenment conceptions of how we think, by implying that we just need to be presented with new information to change, which we all know by now just ain't so.)

So whether your style of advocacy is direct action, one-on-one conversation, playwriting, singing, painting, novel writing, or however you lend your voice to the silenced, speak with the full, unfettered truth of your emotional devotion to those you fight for.

Be honest with your liberationist community. Be honest with everyone you interact with. And be honest with yourself.

The persistence of the speciesist system is not a problem of intellectual ignorance about the victims, it is a problem of emotional indifference towards the victims (and further, emotional attachment to the status quo). So we have to emotionally compel people to care about injustice and the oppressed more than they care about their residence in Normalcy.

So express how you really feel. The stakes are high. Show them that.

*Let me just note here that humourous expression can be an exception to this rule of not smiling when talking about a horrendous atrocity that itself gives us no pleasure or cause to smile, as humour definitely has its role in communicating truths, but while I would argue that humourous expressions are typically very emotionally authentic and can be quite powerful because of that expression of truth, if the expression is not identifiably using humour to deal with the pain of the topic at hand, smiling is misleading and trivializing.