Your Emotional Rescue

Anyone who has ever sought to persuade another that their feelings on a subject are irrational knows that it’s a waste of time. Feelings aren’t based on reason; they’re feelings. Ultimately, it always devolves into, “well, that’s how I feel,” and the time spent discussing it is lost forever.

We used to be a society that embraced the “sticks and stones” mantra, which has since fallen into disrepute.  For many, it’s been replaced with the assertion that hurt feelings are every bit as real and painful as broken bones, and for them, this is not an issue worthy of discussion. That’s how they feel.

But the substitution of tangible harms with emotional harms has become a driving force in the call for new crimes outlawing and punishing things that give rise to hurt feelings. Bullying, for example, has become a huge issue, despite its defiance of any cognizable definition and the inability of criminal laws to define the parameters of unlawful conduct in a way that allows a person to know, before he commits the “crime,” that what he’s about to do is criminal.

Almost invariably, whether or not the conduct forms the basis of a crime is dependent on the reaction of the “victim.” I put “victim” in quotes because of the inherent circular reasoning, a person cannot be a victim unless the conduct is criminal, and the conduct is criminal because of its impact on the victim.

Historically, the law was wary of overly sensitive people. Different people have different thresholds of sensitivity; some will be cut to the quick by a look, while others won’t be bothered no matter what you say to them. To base a crime on the peculiar sensitivity of another person is to provide no line at all for criminal conduct.  How does one know when he’s hurt someone’s feelings so badly that conduct goes from being lawful commentary to unlawful bullying?

We know when a bone is broken. We don’t know when a feeling is hurt.

But given that many are dedicated to the notion that hurt feelings are the equivalent of broken bones, and are prepared to abandon all objective measure in order to stop the harm they feel needs stopping, there is no arguing the point. That’s how they feel.

The question remains, however, whether those who feel so deeply that feelings are a sufficient measure of criminality are helping or hurting their own cause.  When someone we care about feels badly, our natural reaction is to comfort them, to try to cheer them up, to make them feel better.  We do this not to vindicate some societal right to retribution against the party causing the hurt feelings, but because it mends the hurt.  The point is, we try to help.

Granted, break a bone and a doctor will set it, but he doesn’t urge you to lie there, feel the pain, get angry, and angrier, at the person who broke it, and suffer, beforehand.

Is it beneficial to encourage people whose feelings are hurt to wallow in their misery?  Does it make their situation better or worse to perpetuate the hurt, to emphasize it and to empower those who suffer from hurt feelings to suffer as long and hard as possible?

Past discussions of these issues, most notably with regard to workplace bullying, raised some very strong feelings, if not much thought.*  But then, there can be no rational discussion when feelings are involved, and if you don’t give their feelings the compassion they feel due, you just don’t get it.

It’s fine to advocate for civility, courtesy and compassion as a human behavior, and most of us (myself included) could do far better in this regard.  But this isn’t a question of encouraging civil behavior, but criminalizing uncivil behavior by elevating the hurt feelings to the level of harm like broken bones. Or rape. Or murder.

Wouldn’t we all do better, and be far happier, if we ended this adoration of feelings and encouraged people whose feelings were hurt to let it roll off their backs, not let it bother them and move on to better, happier things?  That won’t happen if we spend our time harping on the hurt, reliving the misery and encouraging people to wallow in it as much as possible.

So if you really care about other people’s feelings, about your own feelings, why aren’t you choosing the path that alleviates the hurt as quickly as possible and returns us to the comfort of knowing that just because some jerk said something mean to us, we will get past it and be fine?  While “sticks and stones” may be a nursery rhyme, that doesn’t make it bad advice.

Ask yourself, would the people whose feelings are deeply and sincerely hurt not be better off if they were able to brush it off rather than wallow in them?  We that not help everyone to feel better?

* Yes, I realize that those who disagree with me will immediately resort to attacking me and calling me mean names. The irony eludes them, of course, because irony, like reason, has no role to play when it comes to feelings.

26 comments on “Your Emotional Rescue

  1. Vincent Messina

    “To base a crime on the peculiar sensitivity of another person is to provide no line at all for criminal conduct”

    Well said sir.

    Some that read this might jump to quickly and conclude that you think bullying is made up by the overly sensitive.

    What I love about your blog, and why I come back to it, is that you are always pretty clear what your assertion or argument is.

    It will be intersting to see if anyone weighs in, and skips right past rational assertion and jumps right into the pool of emotional right and wrong.

    The way I read this is you attributing complexity if not impossibility to the notion of creating actual laws based on things that are not really quantifiable or measureable, by any standard. This creates less structure and more, if not too much, room for interpertation and therefore enforcement.

    Did I read you right?

    1. SHG Post author

      In part, but not entirely. When the distinction between criminal and noncriminal conduct is the subjective affect on another person, as determined after the fact, not only does it evade objective measure, but it fails to give notice to the potential wrongdoer of where the line is between lawful and unlawful conduct. If you can’t see the line, you can’t know if you’ve crossed it.

      1. Vincent Messina

        Makes the assertion even more clear, and to me more compelling.

        I remeber being in gradeschool when one of my teachers was accused of sexual harrasment. Turns out the student had a vendetta and the accussation proved, by her own admission, not true. The point here being anyone can say anything to make an accusation, and it doesnt even have to include an emotion, or feeling.

        The problem is that now the teacher is somewhat stuck with the “label”.

        The risk seems to be the same in bullying, from what I understand you to be saying. When there is no measurable standard, there are many risks, one being false accusations that could ruin someones reputation unjustifiably. The other is the definition of the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Whos judgement draws the line, the bully or the bullied?

        Does this make it easier or harder to defend someone accused?

        1. SHG Post author

          It’s impossible to defend someone against an invisible claim. It hurts because someone says it hurts. It’s wrong because it violates someone’s sensitivities. Done to one person, it’s nothing. Done to another, it’s a crime. You may notice how I constantly harp on the need for people to define their terms. This is why. Without definition, words are meaningless and no one knows what they can and cannot do without committing a crime.

          1. Fubar

            Done to one person, it’s nothing. Done to another, it’s a crime.

            Perhaps the law in its infinite majesty needs one more wheel within its wheels, the better to grind exceedingly fine.

            Nationwide registries of special snowflakes would do the job. Just like various “do not call” phone number registries stopped “Betty calling from credit.card services” in her tracks.

            Special snowflakes could register as such. Thereafter, any less than complimentary comment addressed to them or about them would be a crime. We could call it the Prosecutor’s Full Employment and Special Snowflake Empowerment Act. It would both prevent economic downturns and make special snowflakes happy.

            What’s not to like?

            1. Fubar

              You’re right. It’s Rachel who didn’t stop calling me. I never was very good with names of people I don’t like; and senior moments don’t help either.

              That should qualify me as a special snowflake when they create the nationwide registry. Otherwise it would hurt my feelings.

            2. Patrick Maupin

              I think Rachel’s great.

              But I have to change my voice now, because she’s started to recognize me. I hate it when she hangs up before I’m done talking to her. Maybe she’d stay on the line longer if I actually bought something.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    There’s nothing here I can’t agree with. But…

    Wouldn’t we all do better, and be far happier, if we ended this adoration of feelings and encouraged people whose feelings were hurt to let it roll off their backs, not let it bother them and move on to better, happier things?

    I try to do this with one of my daughters, but she’s convinced I’m an insensitive clod. That’s perfectly true, but by focusing on that, she misses the message entirely.

    Which is only to say — this advice is great in theory, and I try to practice it, but I don’t have a clue how to do so competently, with one of my loved ones. In practice, theory and practice are not the same.

    FWIW, if you have someone who might be able to generalize from a larger context down to this message, I would recommend leaving the book “That’s outside my boat” on the coffee table. But don’t give it to them, no….

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re trying to buck a cultural trend that endorses wallowing in emotion rather than shaking it off. You must be older than you look. ;-)

    2. Vincent Messina

      Not that the Spartan way of doing things would apply in todays society, on the whole, but there could be a lesson in the way they raised their sons, and daughters, that directly ties in here.

      It sounds like Scott is saying that there may be some utlility in NOT over indulging in feelings in that it makes us more able to stand on our own and survive. That to me is not the same as saying “shut the F up your feelings suck ass”.

      The world doesnt meet us half way. Mental and emotional toughness OR perspective is absolutely a requirement to getting along.

        1. Vincent Messina

          Fricking hilarious. I read Patrick’s comment initially as he CAN agree with. I thought he didn’t agree with you. My comment was less an interpretation than it was an agreement.

          Sorry man. You are correct. You most certainly do not need an interpreter. My bad.

  3. John Barleycorn

    Are you trying to hide the “Click here if this post hurt your feelings” button data from the grand jury again?

    1. SHG Post author

      They really hate it when I use the special snowflake rhetoric, but I think that’s because it hurts their feelings.

  4. Marc R

    What would you think about a criminal statute that quantified “harm” the same way as does a civil standard of garden variety emotional distress? Or a step more quantifiable and akin to civil courts, perhaps a misdemeanor if under $2K in psychological/psychiatric bills or a felony if over $2K?

    If we give juries the power to assign liability and damages for emotional distress does that negate it per se being too vague for a LEO to make a similar assessment?

    I agree with your post, just trying to see how far you think we can extend that line of thought.

    1. SHG Post author

      If it were really blameworthy conduct, then the time lost to reaching the dollar psychological threshold would seem to defeat the point of it being a crime. There are a number of other issues relating to the need, valuation, etc. While it makes sense for computation of civil damages, it doesn’t make a lot of sense criminally.

    2. John Burgess

      Anyone with the inclination can run up psych bills to just about any amount you want. It would be impossible, after the fact, to show that this was fraudulent as it only need be portrayed as successful psychiatric intervention.

      You’d somehow need to get a panel of disinterested psychiatrists/psychologists to make an assessment prior to any treatment. Just defining ‘disinterested’ would be a fraught task.

      I just don’t see it as a good or even possible metric.

  5. Bill

    And if more of these laws are passed, there’s certainly nooo chance they’ll be arbitrarily enforced. Sadly, helicopter parents are reproducing at ever increasing rates and no helicopter parent would be complete without a hyped up obsession over anti-bullying. The world would be a lot better place if Sticks and Stones came back en vogue.

  6. jahigginbotham

    The idyllic society of “sticks and stones” mantra may be overdone. There was also (probably predating) the “Them’s fighting words!” mantra which holds that mere words justify a physical reaction. Fortunately that has become less common.

    1. SHG Post author

      I can’t recall any parent teaching their child “them’s fighting words,” but maybe we grew up in different neighborhoods.

  7. Steven M. Sweat

    I would have to agree. This is a slippery slope when we begin to outlaw actions that are ill-defined and subjective. Where does it end? If someone threatens to kill me and the circumstances are such that I reasonably believe they could carry out that threat, then this could be criminal. If someone calls me a name on Facebook, I should probably just un-friend them!

    1. SHG Post author

      In fairness, much of it goes a whole lot farther than getting called a name on Facebook, to the extent that it can be an onslaught of slurs, threats (even if not real or imminent) and lies. It’s not benign stuff by a longshot, and it would be a mistake to trivialize some of the worst nastiness. But what we do with it is where we make the choice of telling assholes to shove it or letting them control us.

      It’s understandable that people’s feelings get hurt by this, and sometimes hurt very badly. It’s how we respond to it that dictates whether we control our lives or they do.

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