"You are an emotional wreck" and other lies.
There are points in my career as a feminist blogger when I have pumped my arm like Mike Seaver and said “I’ve made it!” even though I knew, realistically, that I still had a long way to go.
But few things have made me more excited to be a feminist blogger than accusations from commenters that I am “too emotionally charged,” (as though there is some invisible line I have crossed) or even just comments that swear at me (though, those are only allowed to stay up until I notice that they’re there, and are quickly deleted). Maybe it’s just the evangelical realm in which I was raised, but I seemed to be mentally trained to take insults and comments disagreeing with me in stride, almost as a matter of pride. At least I’m stirring a reaction.
[caption id="attachment_587" align="aligncenter" width="409" caption="This is a screenshot of the email I get when you leave a comment. As you can see, Mr. Hendricks saw fit to call me a "dumb bitch." I apologize if it is a little blurry."][/caption]
Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to get a blog post up about this issue is that I’ve been unsure of how to approach this particular topic. Tone and method of debate – the meta-topics of actual discussion – are frequently talked about in the blogosphere, usually ending up in a giant circle of accusation. Sometimes it’s brought up by a blogger who’s been insulted one too many times and is royally FED UP and wants to complain about how she’s only attacked for tone when she’s talking about feminist issues.
This, of course, is an accurate assessment in many instances – very often, bloggers (particularly female bloggers) only get attacked for tone when they are discussing feminist issues. For example, my tone does not (consciously, and I’m a pretty consistent writer, style wise) change between how I discuss human trafficking and how I discuss abortion, but no one has ever accused me of being “too emotional” when I’m discussing trafficking.
The other side is the commenter who pleas for a more toned down conversation, a conversation devoid of emotional arguments or appeals, one focusing on logic and facts and the argument itself.
This is also good thinking, in a way. But it has several problems.
When a debate becomes about the tone or the method of debate over and above the actual topic of discussion, the debate has failed. There is, certainly, a time and place to discuss tone, to discuss how the debate is going – these are important discussions to be had. However, I would contend that all too often, the argument that one is relying too much on emotion is often used as a fallback position, an accusatory holy hand grenade lobbed in a kind of Hail Mary debate pass when all other avenues have been exhausted.
It’s an argument without any real substance to it other than to undermine the opponent’s position by accusing them of a vice that cannot necessarily be controlled.
There are two points I’d like to make when discussing tone/emotion.
First, it is virtually impossible to have a debate about feminism without some aspect of emotional argument. As a woman, I cannot have an argument about complementarianism and its relation to abusive relationships and oppression without connecting to it emotionally because it directly impacts my life. For a man involved in such a discussion (and I am speaking generally here), intellectual separation is much more possible because, regardless of the outcome of the argument, they remain in the position of power.
It does not matter, on a visceral, every-day life level, whether or not leaders in the church advise abused women to stay in an abusive relationships because they will never have to worry about marrying a man who shares that view, they will never have to worry about discovering that the one they love believes they have a God-given right to be the “leader” in the relationship. It simply, on a very basic level, does not impact men the same way it does women, and so, for many women, it is a completely ridiculous request that we “not get emotional.” Instead, it reads as simply another attempt to put us in our place in the world of male-dominated debate and rhetoric.
Second, according to the ancient Greek models of rhetoric – those models which are taught in almost every college freshman composition class across the country – emotions have an important place in a debate.
The Greek model of rhetoric contains three parts: logos, ethos, and pathos. The logos is, quite obviously, the logic or the reason of the argument. The ethos is the appeals to authority or the author's credibility. And pathos is the emotional appeal of the argument – the ability to make the argument mean something to your audience on a basic, emotional, level. And all three of these portions have equal weight – I frequently would demonstrate this to students by drawing a triangle on the board – you need all three pieces in order to complete the argument.
Big broad (possibly insulting, but purposefully so) claim: debaters who claim to be able to be emotionally divorced from an issue are intellectually dishonest.
Those who behave in such a manner – pretending that they are just debating something for fun – are engaging in mere intellectual masturbation and are doing their own high-minded intellectual pursuits a major disservice. In the name of truth-seeking, they are ignoring a basic truth of debate: that emotion, tone, and real-world, real-person impact, are all a part of the discussion. To level an accusation at an opponent of being “too emotional,” to say that “I’ll consider your argument when you’ve calmed down” are at once emotional arguments in themselves (translation: “you’ve made me too tense so I’m bowing out until you improve”) and ignorant of the human element that permeates every single intellectual discussion. They bespeak of an idealized form of debate – emotionally divorced, calm, and totally, 100% rational – that simply does not exist, and should not exist, because the minute we divorce human experience from discussions about human beings, we have failed in our truth-seeking initiative.
Is there such a thing as relying too heavily on emotional arguments? Yes, the triangle of rhetoric is supposed to be balanced between the three points. However, the accusations tend to be leveled more at perceived emotional outrage, without evidence of actual emotional treason – in other words, perceived tone rather than actual tone. If a reader already disagrees with my basic premise of feminism, then it is more likely that they will read an abrasive or highly emotional tone – studies have shown that how we interpret the tone of a written text depends greatly on our own mood at the time of reading.
So here’s the point: requests for unemotional arguments from a person heavily invested in the topic at hand are a betrayal of any claim toward truth-seeking. If you request of a feminist that she come back and make the argument when she’s willing to be calm and rational (especially when she felt she was being calm and rational [or feels justified in her anger]), you are digging your own rhetorical grave.
There are topics I am allowed to be justifiably angry and emotional about. That anger and emotion is a legitimate part of my argument – if I am unable to tell stories of women I know who have been directly hurt by sexist policies, if I am disallowed from an emotional appeal as a portion of my argument, then the human element is being actively ignored.
So, go ahead, call me emotional: it is your own cause you are harming.