Friday, July 3, 2015

Social emotions

I've been thinking about emotions a lot lately. The the thing that got me started is a great audiobook from the Great Courses people where the late Robert Solomon talks about emotions. Like all good philosophers, he gets you thinking for yourself.

1. The social media mob

I read a great comment elsewhere about social media attacks. The person, cleverly, likens these attacks to someone putting their hand in their pocket and pretending to have a gun to rob you. So long as you believe they have a gun, they have power over you. The claim is that the social media mob, like the fake gunman, has no real power and will evaporate if you call their bluff. I suspect that's true but it would take some considerable intestinal fortitude to do so.

But I think there is more than fear in our emotional response to attacks on social media. I think we are also genuinely shamed when it happens.

Years ago I was working at a home where a number of mentally handicapped young people lived. One boy, about seventeen, loved dogs. I had a dog and got permission to bring him in. Everything went wonderfully. The boy loved the dog and played with him for hours. One day, however, the boy was angry about something else and, when the I showed up, took his anger out on my dog. I was able to stop the boy before he did any real harm but I still remember the dog's reaction. He was suddenly being attacked by someone he expected love from and he didn't know how to process this. The dog reacted not angrily, he easily could have defeated the boy had he counter-attacked, but with shame, as if he had done something wrong.

A sudden attack on social media does that to us. Someone wears a shirt he wears all the time with his coworkers for a TV interview and suddenly he is being attacked by millions. He wasn't expecting the attack. We are all, like my dog, programmed to think that perhaps we really did do something wrong when that happens.

2. The terror of public shaming

I was talking to a friend of mine who is a psychologist last year about the fear of public speaking and he explained it to me in a very helpful way . I think I've written about this here before but here goes again:

For most of human history being ostracized from a group meant death. A slow terrible and inevitable death. You'd be left to wander in a wilderness slowly starving until some predator got you. Not surprisingly, we all have deep-seated fear of social failure. The consequences aren't as high as they used to be. If you get ostracized from one group now, you can go and find another; the worst you have to fear is that the new group might not have as high a status in your perception as the old one did.

However minor the threat is to us, we are still psychologically programmed by the many centuries of previous human experience and that is why we feel shame when attacked publicly even if we aren't at fault and why people attacked by social media tend to cave immediately. It's like being threatened with death!

3. Network versus community

The best thing I've read on the Internet this week is this article contrasting communities and networks at the Art of Manliness. Read the whole thing!

At first glance, you might think that communities are obviously preferable. I'd say that you definitely want to be part of one community but I don't think you'd want to be part of many communities. I don't think you could.

I also see advantages to being part of networks.

It seems to me the real point of the article is to fully grasp which is which. You don't want to mistake the people you work with for a community because one day they'll get rid of you and then where will you be.

4. Self-deception about networks

If you have 500 friends on Facebook, you're obviously using it as a network. There is nothing wrong with that but where is your actual community? One thing about networks is that you can use them to hide from yourself the nasty truth that you have no community.

There are a lot of people who put more effort into the network of people they work with than they put into their marriage. It's easy to see how this gets started. Your spouse will probably continue to love you even if you neglect her or him but your employer is far more likely to treat you differently if you fail to deliver; you'll get less cooperation from coworkers, you'll be passed over for interesting assignments or promotions and you might even get fired.

Most employers realize this and even manipulatively exploit this by telling you that you're joining a team or even a "family" when you work for them but your just an easily replaceable cog in the mechanism.  One day, you'll retire or get fired and then who do you turn to?

5. Do they want me or do they want my membership?

One way to tell if your being offered entry into a network or a community is to ask if what you are really being offered is just a membership. Membership will be phrased entirely in terms of obligations and benefits; meet the obligations and you can have the benefits. A real community is a place where you are appreciated for being just as you are. That's not without limits: if you persist in being a criminal, you won't be able to belong to any community. Nothing is more of a network and less of a community than a "prison community" and you might say that all networks become prisons if we mistake them for communities.

Those limits aside, a community is a place where you have a place even if you slip on your obligations. It's a group that holds you close just as you are. One of the hard truths I've had to accept lately is that my my mother, whom I had always imagined loving me, was only interested in me as a member of her family. Her "love" for me was always subject to conditions and that has had a huge impact on the way I've connected with others as an adult.

6. Sexual networking

Every once in a while, an old post I had thought dormant will suddenly get a lot of pageviews and show up in my stats. Sometimes it's puzzling when this happens, sometimes it's creepy and sometimes it's gratifying. This week, an old post that I think is one of the best things I've written got a little boomlet. ("Little" being the operative word here as this blog does not attract and does not seek to attract a large audience.)

The gist of the post is that a woman who cheats on her husband really began to cheat on him long before she actually had sex with anyone else because she had locked him out of her intimate life. Here's the key paragraph from the article I was commenting on:
One of the challenges Sheila hadn't expected was where to hide her sexy lingerie. 'I went out and spent a fortune at Myla on gorgeous transparent bras and G-strings – things I'd stopped wearing for my husband, Peter, even before we were married. 
And that got me thinking about fantasies.

One of the things about sexual fantasies is that they are never just fantasies. Part of you always wants to really do it even if your more sensible self keeps you from carrying it through (no fantasy could appeal to you if there wasn't some possibility, however remote, of it actually happening to you someday). Now, there are obvious risks to most fantasies but the real risk in carrying them out is that others will be just playing along and not really connecting with you. That's fine if you already have a solid connection with the person based on common beliefs, shared interests and a similar approach to life. It's a stupid way to make a connection in the first place because you'll just be networking and never really connect with another human being this way.

What occurred to me this week is that they are also a way of dealing with a partner who doesn't want you anymore. To return to Sheila again:
'I love Peter dearly,' Sheila says. 'He's a good husband, and father. I like cooking with him and gossiping about the neighbours. He's my pal and I'd never want to lose that. Sex with Michael is a purely separate thing; it's about erotic abandonment, being seen as just a woman rather than as Peter's wife, or "the doctor" or a mum. Any working mother will know what I mean. Every woman needs something that is hers alone. Some of my friends ride, some sing in choirs, I have Michael.' 
My suspicion is that all cuckold fantasies start as coping strategies for men who are in Peter's place—men who are strongly attracted to a woman who isn't sexually interested in them or isn't sexually interested in them anymore—it's a way of having an erotic interaction with an echo chamber. Like all fantasies it becomes more than that, a subject I'll return to with the smooth song of the day this evening.

But imagine with me that Peter, unbeknownst to Sheila has cuckold fantasies about her. Imagine that, far from being something he would get angry about, finding about her affair would actually be the fulfillment of his wildest dreams. Would that work out? Almost certainly not because she is cheating on him and she'd resent him wanting to know about it and shut him out because, "Every woman needs something that is hers alone."

7. Sex fantasies are dumb strategies for finding a partner

Everyone has fantasies because everyone spent a few years thinking about sexual bonding without doing it. Well, some people had early sex instead but that is a really bad idea. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that every healthy, normally functioning sexual adult has embedded sexual fantasies. You have scenarios you will go to to get aroused and you will have scenarios that will pop into your head when you are already aroused for other reasons. You can't help this, it just is. You sewed invasive crops in all your sexual fields when you were thirteen and you're stuck with them for your entire adult sex life.

The thing is, not only are your embedded fantasies projections, they are projections from a  time when real sex was impossible. They were inspired by whatever was in the air at the time you were going through puberty: ways people dressed, things you saw in romantic movies, things you saw in porn or even utterly random human interactions that you completely misinterpreted so you could use them as fodder for your erotic imagination.

You can see why teenage girls and cuckold fantasies are the two most common male fantasies and why rape fantasies and groups of men having sex with a woman are the two most common female fantasies. Many boys first fantasize about unattainable teenage girls because they are surrounded by unattainable teenage girls when they themselves were teenagers first starting to think about sex. Other boys fantasize about women they know will never have sex with them (that hot woman who teaches them history and, therefore, he is not only are allowed to but is expected to look at for 45 minutes a day) but possibly might be having sex with other men who have a status that an awkward student could never have (for example, the gym teacher). Rape fantasies allow a girl to think the unthinkable. Finally, the wrought up girl on the bus can imagine what might happen if all the men on the bus somehow magically knew how wrought up she was. These fantasies don't so much clear social constraints out of the way so as to allow for sex as they turn those social constraints into erotic props for a private fantasy.

The thing that should be obvious, but often isn't, is that, while it may make sense to share these fantasies with someone you have already bonded with in the normal way, it's a really dumb way to try to connect with someone you don't know yet. And it remains a really dumb idea even if you hit the jackpot and manage to recount your fantasy to someone who already has the matching opposite fantasy.

We live in a narcissistic age, however, and there is a huge variety of songs, books and video out there that treat the pursuit of the person with matching sexual proclivities as what love is all about. Find someone whose fantasies match yours and you don't have to work so hard at it. ("Dumpy person with poor grooming skills and completely lacking in social skills looking for statuesque beauty with social graces and money who is into losers who couldn't be bothered to try like me.")

I'll finish with a  weird leap. Over the years, enough women I've known have told me of unwanted, conversations they've had with married men that I suspect it's universal or nearly so: every woman is subjected to this and every married man probably does this at some point.. The conversation consists of the man revealing that his wife has lost interest in their sex life and that they have not had sex in weeks, months or years.

And the reverse? That doesn't happen so much. The reason should be obvious: because a woman who told a male friend that her husband had lost interest in her sexually would be all too clearly asking for sex and, worse, doing so in a pathetic way. Think about it: she'd be telling you that another man didn't find her attractive in the hopes that you would.

So why do men keep doing this? For that is what a man is doing when he tells his wife's best girlfriend that his wife has lost interest in him sexually. He does it because it's all just a projection. "I'm not getting it, you're here, wouldn't it be cool if sex just, you know, happened?" It doesn't cross his mind that the fact that he isn't getting any, however compelling that is for him, isn't much of selling point. And why is he saying this to his wife's best girlfriend?

Of course, that is somewhat the point. Part of him wants the strategy to fail. And part of him realizes that, even if this crazy strategy succeeds, it would be so improbable that he and the best girlfriend could treat it as something that just happened to them both as opposed to something they were morally responsible for: "We were sitting their drinking that awful white wine while she was out walking the dog and the next thing either of us knew, we were kissing" feels a lot less intentional than putting a profile up on some website.

We laugh at this when it's spelled out that bluntly, but the truth is that our culture increasingly treats that as a reasonable way for adults to connect.

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