"How to Do Things with Emotions is a welcome corrective to Anglophone philosophy’s tendency to frame Western presumptions as universal. And it presents an appealingly sensible moral program."—Becca Rothfeld, New Yorker
“This is no ordinary book on emotion. Flanagan sees society as ailing, and believes that two emotions, anger and shame, are the problem. He takes us on a tour of philosophical thinking about, and cultural difference in understanding of, emotions, all in the service of convincing us that emotions are things we do. If so, he says, we can learn to do anger and shame differently, and be better off for it. Reading this engaging and well-crafted book gave me hope. What a gift from an author.”—Joseph LeDoux, author of The Deep History of Ourselves: The Four-Billion-Year Story of How We Got Conscious Brains
“This is an urgent book for our times, both inspiring and provocative. Flanagan invites us to work on our emotional style, to tamp down our anger, and to develop a mature and responsible shame. His argument involves a subtle theory of what emotions do and why we can intervene, and considers what culture and anthropology can teach us. We can learn to be different. And we must.”—T. M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God
“In this state-of-the-art account, Flanagan examines the multilevel constitution and cultural diversity of emotions. He builds on the anthropological observation that shame and anger are complex moral emotions—not only felt, but also enacted and performed. In the West, and particularly in post-Trump America, Flanagan contends, ‘we can do shame better.’ Likewise, our ubiquitous rage can be channeled into reasoned, constructive anger. This forcefully argued book takes philosophy into the field.”—Andrew Beatty, author of Emotional Worlds: Beyond an Anthropology of Emotion
“How to Do Things with Emotions offers a fascinating commentary on contemporary American culture, a thorough social and cultural analysis of the emotions anger and shame, and a critique of the current state of moral philosophy. Taking us on a tour of how anger and shame are done across different times and places, Flanagan provides broader horizons of possibility and practice. This is an important and overdue update of the moral philosophy of emotions in a multicultural world" —Batja Mesquita, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Social and Cultural Psychology, University of Leuven
“This fine and important book is driven by a genuine passion for reforming the misuse of anger and shame in our WEIRD culture. It is nourished by Flanagan’s exceptional mastery of scientific and philosophical thought as well as of the writings of the wisdom tradition—Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. Personal, clear, and occasionally pleasingly epigrammatic, How to Do Things with Emotions is both powerfully argued and politically timely.”—Ronald de Sousa, author of Emotional Truth
“How to Do Things with Emotions is a breath of fresh air. With delightful, insightful, and witty prose, Flanagan describes North American views of anger and shame, and introduces us to these emotions in other cultural contexts through a philosophical lens. He asks how we might learn from these ‘varieties of moral possibility’ to improve our own ways of experiencing and expressing anger and shame in contemporary times. A must-read for all who wonder about non-Western ethical systems and their importance for emotional life.”—Jeanne L. Tsai, Stanford University
August Baker: This is August Baker. Today, I'm speaking with
Owen Flanagan, James B. Duke, distinguished professor of philosophy
and professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University.
Talking about Owens 2021, Princeton University Press, How to do
things with emotions: Subtitle is; The Morality of Anger and Shame
Across Cultures. Welcome, Owen.
Owen Flanagan: Thank you, August. Nice to be here.
August: So, you say that in your multicultural environment, no one is supposed to be allowed to tell you what emotions you can have, and which ones are good for you, but it seems to be that's what you do in this book.
Owen: I guess, I don't know if I would want to say that in my multi-culture no one thinks they can tell you what emotions to have. I think that actually people endorse certain ways of, what I call, doing the emotions, left and right. So, people come from all kinds of different traditions. Lots of human life is filled with people telling us that we should not be so shy, or not be so angry or not, be so sad. So, I think those are all different ways in which we, sometimes, for very good ends, tell each other, and teach each other about how things are going for us emotionally.
My concern in the book actually is not so much to tell people how to do the emotions the right way, not my way. It's that, at least in the case of anger, this is the case I'm most confident about. I feel that we're stuck in a bad place at this time. That we live in an angry world, people don't listen to each other well, and in my experience as a teacher and just an ordinary person, when I've talked to people about this over the last 10 or 15 years, it's very common for people to say, "Well, that's just the way the world is now, or that's the way anger works."
So, part of my overall idea is not to tell people quite my theory of how they should do anger, but about some of the problems and pitfalls that I think we are in, in terms of living in a culture in which one author calls it, the age of anger. That there are some kinds of anger that we might want to reflect on and be more deliberate about, and do some self work and some social work on doing them better. So, it isn't like I have a formula for how to do anger well, or a set of norms, but I think we're in a bad place with respect to anger. It would be good to reflect on it. That's the way I put it.
August: Robert Solomon's talk about the transcendental pretense, which as I understand it was the idea that you can look into your inner nature, and find out human nature. You can look at yourself and find out about human nature, and you're not having any of that. You want to look at a lot of different cultures and expand, and look inside other people's way they seem to see
Owen: Yeah, I think that's fair. I don't have any objections to sort of thinking about what makes us tick from our own perspective. But what I've been interested in for a while, and this could just be frankly, a motivation inside philosophy, the discipline of philosophy, is Alfred North Whitehead said, "The safest generalizations to make about Western philosophy is that it's, but a series of footnotes to play off. It's kind of an exaggeration, but it's an interesting thing to reflect on because if true, what we have is that about a billion people in the world have been influenced by that particular lineage. If you take all of Europe, and all of say North America, that's about a billion out of 8 billion people.
So, other people have been brought up in different philosophical traditions. So, part of my idea is that, sometimes when we're in trouble, we want to figure out things like, "Am I responding to some universal feature of human nature, which I don't doubt there are some. I mean, the emotions seem to be good examples of where we actually get something mother nature through evolution has given us some basic emotions. The evidence looks to me once we expand and look to other cultures, other philosophical traditions, but also just how cultural psychology and anthropology inform us that people do the emotions in many different ways across cultures, and some of them might be appealing upon reflection.
That's sort of the method, yes. Like, what Bob Solomon called the sort of transcendental pretense that a good philosopher could kind of, in some sense, get himself in touch with the nature of his soul, the nature of everybody's soul, and somehow gain transcendental access to the mind of God or whatever. My brand of philosophy is more naturalistic, shall we say, looking at cultural psychology, anthropology, and that sort of thing.
August: So, one of the things you talk about is, a lot is weird cultures. What weird culture? Well, August, I've mostly been, really in philosophy in my career, but because of early interests, and in things, like human nature, I've usually had appointments in psychology departments, and different times I've been more or less involved in psychology. But one thing that people will tell you who are in psychology departments is they go around joking that, "We better hope that American or North American College sophomores are representative because so much of psychology is based on information we get from them. So, around 2010, I don't want to swear that the day is right.
Joe Heinrich, who was at that time, at University of British Columbia, and he's a psychological anthropologist, and some colleagues did a study in which they asked two questions. Number one; how much of the published work in psychology is based on North American samples? The answer was over 90%. Then the second question they asked was, "How representative should we think that North American college sophomores are?" The answer to that is basically they're about the least representative population in the history of humankind. Why? We're Western. We're educated, weird, W-E, industrialized, only 2,000 years old rich and Democratic, 200 years old.
So, the idea is that most of our surmises about the nature of persons have been an exercise among extraordinarily intelligent people, but nonetheless, in the North Atlantic. So, the danger there - so this gives me, as if it were a permission. I think, "Well, how much variation is there? Again, literacy is only 5,000 years old. Modern humans have been around maybe for 240-250,000 years, but we've only been reading and writing recently. In fact, in Plato's dialogues, you may know this, but, when people ask the question, "Was Socrates literate?"
The answer is not obvious to us. He could recite any play as any good educated person could do. He could recite from Homer and Sophocles, and so on. But he worried actually, about reading and writing because he said, "The kids are going to go to hell in a handbasket because they'll lose their memory," and that's clearly what he had. So, so even [crosstalk]
August: So, that's why he never wrote anything.
Owen: Never wrote anything, yeah. Socrates, Jesus, Confucius, Buddha, none of them ever wrote anything. It's interesting. The weird thing is, and I think what has to happen is we need better and better instruments in trying to figure out what is universal about human nature and what isn't. We just need to do a lot more cross-cultural work to see what keeps turning up, and what doesn't. I think clearly what people like Paul Ekman called the basic emotions following out on Darwin, there are some things that just seem to go with the equipment and you discover everywhere, happy, sad, scared, angry, surprised, disgust, contempt, maybe, but it's a very interesting question.
How do they get built then once they come into the world? How are we instructed to express our emotions whether we're encouraged to express our emotions? Some of these things are genderized and racialized. I mean, it's all quite interesting, and quite complicated inside, cultures, and then across cultures.
August: Then there's the role of emotions in morality. You say, morality is an invention we created to meet certain needs, especially the need to live convivial and social lives. Am I right that you view us as doing things with emotions using emotions to enforce moral structures?
Owen: Yeah, all those things. Let me pull them apart a little bit, but that's it. So, the first thing, August, the reason for the motto about how to do things with emotions is that there is one picture of emotions. It's very firmly in philosophy, and you see it to a certain extent in parts of psychology. But this is the idea, it goes back to Plato. So, Plato has this idea that well, where each of us are born with two wild horses inside us. One wild horse is the force that wants food and sex and water. The other horse in you is your temperament, which will include your emotional dispositions, your tendencies to anger or fear, and so on and so forth.
The project of human life is you can't control those horses at first. They just as it were, do their own thing. What a human does eventually is he becomes like the charioteer controlling those two horses. Success in life is rational control over those emotions. Then you see this in Descartes, even a similar kind of model, Descartes calls emotions the passions of the soul. The idea is literally we're passive with respect to these things. So, anger is like a reflex. It'll just happen to you. What you can control is whether you act on it or not, or fear will happen to you. You can control whether you act or not, and so on and so forth for the emotions.
So, one of the things I was trying to do in the book is emphasized, there's something useful about that picture. There's no doubt because it can feel that way, but also that emotions are not like pupil contractions or knee jerks one can by way of, for example, therapy, work on one's emotions, and have them and do them differently. One can do self work, or what Confucian or Buddhist philosophers would talk about mindfulness or self-cultivation. Then finally, one can do sort of social working in an environment by changing sort of social structures. I think, well, I'm older than you, but maybe not by so much, maybe you were told this when you were a boy. I was told, "Restraint of tongue and pen."
So, that was a little advice, and it's sort of quaint when you think about it, right? But if you and I got mad at each other in the olden days, we did have to actually, well, phoning was expensive. So we didn't do that regularly. So, then we might send each other a letter, and that takes time to find the letter. You cool down by the time you write it, and then you have to get a stamp anyway, and it takes forever. So, sometimes there are things that happen like in the current world social media, which allow people to just react probably way too quickly than we were designed to react, and it has bad results. So, these are all different ways, so part of the idea is to say, "We all learned possibly, at our parents' knees, in our preschools, in our schools, rules and regulations about how to do the emotions.
Some of the; how to do the emotions are enforced by other emotions. That is when parents tell the kid at the restaurant, to use his inside voice, or when you say, "Stop misbehaving or share with your sister." Anger does play a role in helping to build a morality, but emotions I call moral, it's not because they are used all morally at all. It's just that they're often used inside morality. So, one philosopher has this idea that if you look at our morality, the two emotions that you think govern it, when he talks about 'ours', he means something like North American morality. He thinks that it's governed by the emotions of anger and guilt.
So anger, if you do something that is morally bad, I have a right to be angry at you. If you did something morally bad yourself, you have a right, and you should be feeling guilty about your action. He analyzes - his name is Allan Gibbard - He analyzes guilt as anger turned inward. So, that's very interesting that it would mean our morality is very much built around, you know...
Owen: …anger. You could tie it into the God of the Old Testament, if you want to, things like that, but yeah.
August: It seems that, I don't know in North America or in the weird population, there's a
built-in idea that emotions are internal and individual, and that's not shared in other cultures. You talk about emotions as things we do also scripts...
Owen: Right, yeah.
August: …syndromes. Tell us about how you view emotions in them.
Owen: I think this question that you're asking is a really important one. For different purposes, one can analyze these things narrowly or widely, is another way I put it. Many people, of course, distinguish the feeling of an emotion from the behavior that comes from the emotion. That's a common thing to distinguish. I think that leads us to overemphasize the internal phenomenological feeling aspect of the emotions. So, one reason I want to have us at least include dispositions to behave is if you think in terms of evolution, why do we even have these emotions, especially given the data, the evidence that we express at least, the basic ones especially.
Now this matters, okay? Well, the reason is that emotions are obviously communicative among people. So, if you and I are hiking together, and you see my face go scared because I just saw a rattlesnake, that alerts you. Then we both head for the hills together. If I come for your stash of food or your partner, or whatever, back in the beginning of time, you give me the look that tells me, "They'll be hell to pay." So, these things are regulative. They're useful in part because they involve, almost always, that the feeling does involve a disposition to behave. Some kind of disposition that we don't always carry through on the dispositions, and we can stop it.
But my overall view is that because emotions evolved to get us to do things, they still serve those functions. We're still, we're mammals after all, and what most cultures are trying to regulate when we all work together on emotion regulation is both how the emotions feel. Like sometimes we'll say to each other, friends will say, "I know you're upset, but I think you're more upset than the situation requires." So, there I'm trying to help you as my friend to gain some perspective about how you should be feeling. We do that a lot to the children. We say to the children, "You shouldn't be so sad. It's not the end of the world that you didn't get more than your fair share of M&M's," and so on.
We also know things, we do try to bring the behavioral dispositions under control as well. So, I had this, I called a wider, functional point of view. It's also based on some recent research on emotions, which focuses on the following sort of fact. We're all familiar with situations in which you might say, "I'm sad about something," to a friend. In fact, when you and your friends start talking your friend might say to you, "I don't think you're sad so much as you're angry." Then you might say, "Oh yeah, that's a good point. I am angry. So, this is back to Solomon's point. It isn't like we're always completely definite on which emotion we're feeling until sometimes we see both what caused us to be in that state.
So in fact, I'm not sad because I'm actually angry that the friend did that. I'm just supposed to, I think I'm just going to cry, but actually, I'm going to cry because I'm angry. I'm not, because I'm sad." I think those who are bringing in the behavior, helps us see into more real-life ecology. The work that emotions do.
August: In a footnote, you say, the motto emotions are things we do awaits refinement. You say there are many things we do that are not emotions, or standard examples of emotions. We climb mountains, spell words, etcetera. One might think that in real life most of these doings are suffused with feelings, emotions, and moods. So, the I guess the idea is when we talk about these emotional scripts, we're talking about cases where it's evident that the emotion is driving the doing, in some sense, but [crosstalk]
Owen: Really a good question. Maybe that's why I really still need the footnote because you're totally right, that everything we do in life is filled with effect. Now, it's interesting that psychologists over world historical time have tried to distinguish between what they might call cognitions or thoughts, and on the one hand versus perceptions. I see the apple versus emotions, versus moods, but even the thought, two plus two equals four as close as we come to a pure thought. Yeah, if you're taking a test in first grade, there's all kinds of emotion, and feeling,
So, I guess I'm the kind of person who's inclined to say, "There's never been a moment in my life that I haven't been in some affective state or another. I think I should welcome it as your suggestion when talking about the emotions or emotional episodes, I'm thinking of episodes that are sort of really heavily laden with emotional, reactivity, something like that.
August: Right, and now, we're going to talk about anger and shame, and both of these are used to tell people we don't like what they're doing. So, they can be used either for morality or in some sense, disciplinary. They may be supporting whatever the hierarchy currently is.
Owen: Yeah, that's right.
August: Tell us about the two cultures that you focus on, and how they use debarra[?] and I don't know how to say the name of the other one. menakjubkan [?] I don't either. I'll leave that out now. I'll describe them as Indonesian and Madagascar because they're hard to pronounce. But yeah, no, thanks for asking that question. So, well, first of all, let me just respond to what you just said because it was so important. Yeah. I think what's important to say is really what you emphasized, what you just said. I like that a lot. To say that when I call, there's one sense of calling them moral emotions, which just means they get used a lot to enforce a more normative or moral order.
Now, the course, they could be Neo-Nazis or fascists, or white supremacists, who use anger to keep down the black folks, will say. They'll even have what are called feeling rules by anthropologists that'll be like things like, ops, aren't getting uppity? So, there's all this kind of, yeah, so all emotions can be weaponized by, and used for ill or for bad. So, there's no question about that. So, in terms of the two cultures that I talk about that the anthropologist talked about, I sort of have two different ideas running together in the book, which, of course, you know because you read it.
One is, when I'm worried about anger, and the degree to which people are angry. The kinds of anger that are out there that I think are unhealthy, and some that I think are important and healthy like anti-racist anger, anger for justice. But there's other kinds of anger that are also very common, one I called payback anger. That's where you hurt me, and I zap you right back. Hurt you right back. That I think is very common, and much more easily controllable in people. Then there's the other kind of anger, I also call into question, and you and I have talked about this offline. I call it, using Carol Harvest,[?] I think her name. She calls it, the ventilation is view.
I mean, it's kind of like a general cultural permission that I'm entitled to my emotions. My emotions will be what they will be, and I should just express them when I have them. But that will mean sometimes when you're in a bad emotional state, I, just by being around you, will be, unfortunately, the recipient of the negative atmosphere. So that, whereas, the first one, payback or revenge anger, I think is bad just because it doesn't improve the situation, typically. It does harm to another person's feelings. If you're a good person, you probably shouldn't want to do that too often. The other kind just seems self indulgent, but what I do then is sometimes I go to philosophical traditions or theories, which are well worked out by articulate philosophers from the past like, in Stoicism with Seneca or Buddhism...
Owen: …or Aristotle, these wise thinkers, but other times, I just want to go and look out at the world itself and see what's out there. So, the two groups that I talk about, and I really depend completely on the authors of the relevant paper, but these are examples of cultures. The Indonesian one is one in which the people think that anger is the work of the devil, and that, therefore, people should never be angry, including never be angry towards your children. There are some other examples of this in the literature. For example, there's a nice book called 'Never In Anger' by Jean Briggs, which is from the early 70s, which is about Eskimo cultures in which it's just the worst thing you can do is to express anger to other Eskimos.
In this culture, the Indonesian one, adults just don't get mad at each other, and they don't get mad at the children. However, they do use shame to socialize the children. So, it's interesting. They will say, "Oh my God, can you believe what junior did?" They'll call attention to the family about the bad deed, but anger is prohibited. The other culture I talked about in Madagascar, is the opposite. They use really powerful, fear-inducing anger to socialize the youth into the norms of life, like you said earlier. Some of the norms that you're teaching kids, many of them aren't moral or sometimes etiquette. Just take your hat off in school. Don't be a slob. Clean up after yourself, these sorts of things, but those are just two examples.
What was interesting to me about, just take the case of Debara who are the Madagascar group, even though they use anger to socialize the children, they tend not to use it reciprocally, adult-to-adult, or at least, this is what's reported. So, it's used as a socialization tool, but it doesn't play a major role in their life, and it doesn't look like they indulge in revenge-anger on any regular basis or the kind of indulgence of pain passing, just because I feel lousy, I'd been hurt. There'll be norms against that. So, yeah, those are two examples of what turned out to be lots of different interesting differences among the way different people do.
August: Right. One of the fascinating points was about how a Japanese person will often respond to anger.
Owen: Yeah. Now, obviously, in places like Japan and America, there's lots of different scripts going on, but the Japanese one is fascinating. Yeah, so the general finding is this, that usually in terms of majority practices, American and German parents meet their children's anger with anger and it escalates until something happens. I don't know what happens there. In Japanese culture, children's anger is met with not engaging. Maybe what behavior, as we used to talk about, is extinction because we don't pick up on it. It's not permissible so you're not even getting my attention with this temper tantrum. Now, that's interesting, August, because in psychology books, it's usually said that anger is an approach emotion, and if you ask Americans, "What do you want to do when you get angry at someone?" People say, "I'll punch the guy in the nose."
If you ask Japanese people, they'll report, the disposition is to leave the room to get out of the unpleasant circumstance. So, these are interesting things, and you can see how they could get embedded early on. They become part of the taken for granted background of your life. Everyone does it this way. You're mutually legible to each other this way. You'd be acting weirdly if you were to engage, say a Japanese child, I'm angry with. So, that's part of the idea of the book, right? Obviously, you know this, but it's just to say it can be helpful sometimes when you're trying to find your way out of a practice that's causing you difficulty. If you can find or locate that there are other people doing things a little bit differently than you, that might be resources for you to think about.
August: Absolutely. Yeah, and one of the other things, - this is a footnote also - the most common American style results in escalating anger, that is anger being that with anger. Meanwhile, Japanese anger is conveyed with a similar ideology of personal blame and responsibility. It does not normally involve giving the other a piece of one's mind, and it is commonly met with smiling, nodding, and acquiescence, which I actually can remember in my own case. I didn't realize that it was cultural until now, but I can remember getting angry at a young Japanese when I was in graduate school. A Japanese graduate student, and yeah, his response was to smile.
Owen: Yeah. There are all these different practices. The first time I remember going to East Asia, similar kind of thing. Someone said to me, like you know how in America someone hands you a business card, and you just stick it in your pocket they said, "No, no. There, you take it with two hands, you read it carefully in front of the person." That's interesting that you have that. When I see this, I remember your story reminded me once about an interesting, 60 Minutes show I saw years ago about an African-American family in Brooklyn who were wanting to find the best school for their 10 or 11 year-old-son. The best school they found was in Chinatown, and they shipped the kid off to Chinatown.
This particular Chinatown school was mostly the kids of restaurant workers. It was bilingual, English and Chinese. They scored the third highest in English language scores in the state of New York, and highest in math scores. I remember the 60 Minutes interviewer went to the principal and said, "You must be so happy. You must want to clap and jump up and down." She was just so, and she said, "We're pleased that we're doing our job," but you just couldn't get her to have the emotion that would have been the right emotions to have as an American. It was very refreshing, and to see a very different attitude towards... yeah.
August: You point out that in our multi cultures, we're observers of lots of different ways of doing things day-to-day. Lots of ways of doing emotions.
Owen: Yeah, I think we are, although not being - I remember as a boy, I think I mentioned this. Where I grew up outside of New York City, my neighborhood had Italian Catholics, Irish Catholics. Nearby were black people and there were some Jewish people. I just remember when I would go to my friend's mother's house, that's where I would see these different emotional displays or where I'd see my Italian friends, the men would kiss and hug each other, and I'd think, "We don't do that."
Yes, but every day, when you get on a subway in a big city of London or New York or something, you're around people whose inner lives are probably very different. Not only their beliefs, maybe their religious beliefs, but also the way they engage the world is probably pretty different in many cases from what we have. We have to reach, though, a modus vivendi where we can get along and we share a certain level of norms.
August: Right. So, there are lots of types of anger that you like, and there are some that you say,
quite want the reader to question, "Could we do less of this?" So, the two that you are questioning, one the one of them is the pain-passing anger. The other one is revenge.
Owen: Yeah, the pain-passing is where you're ventilating. You're angry and you vent on people who didn't cause you to be angry. You're just around them. The other one, the first one is the kind of revenge anger. [inaudible] I'm worried about. Yeah.
August: So, I guess, and we talked a little bit about this offline, but I understand this pain-passing perfectly. You are really in a bad mood, and you're really angry, and there's only one person there, and for some reason, I want that person to get angry or upset, too. I mean, I don't even know, is there a theory about why people do this?
Owen: I don't know. It's an interesting thing. You want them to get angry too; that's an interesting one. You could maybe hope that they don't get angry, but you can't stop from making them angry you're being busy.
Owen: Then there was this view of, you're right, ventilation is good. Right, at one time, the story was, "Oh, don't keep your emotions bottled up. That'll lead to cancer or something." Also, this idea that your emotions aren't wrong.
Owen: Yeah, good.
August: So, when that happens, or you point out like, when customer service on the phone, right? You get angry at them, and you say, you've talked to people, and you say, you talk to people and say, "How often does that work out for you?" It doesn't, right? But it just seems so ingrained - I mean, my one comment, and we talked a little bit about this is that, there is the question about whether the person on the other side is going to be affected by it, right? You can try to pass your anger, but if you look at the situation, it's really two-sided. One thing is, "Should we ventilate?" The other is, "What do we do when someone is ventilating?"
Owen: You just put it beautifully because these things are so unbelievably complicated because like you say, it takes two to tango, and whether the other person is good at doing what you want them to do or not. So, we know, there's Folia[?] the people can get into. I think that you just said a whole bunch of things that I think are really interesting. I like the way you put this. Emotions can't be wrong. That is when a piece of ideology that at the one level, there's part of me that wants to say, "That's right." Just accept. You're going to have, whatever emotions or feelings you're having, then you're going to have that feeling. That's the way it goes.
On the other hand, that can lead to a certain kind of self-indulgence because we all know that sometimes even for ourselves, we will judge that the emotion is, as the word, ridiculous. I don't know. You just think, "Oh my God. Why do I...?" I was just on my way to the party, and I just scratched my newly polished shoe. No one in the history of the world ever noticed that, but I am rip shit crazy, insane, furious." So, in those cases, we do think that we're having more of an incorrect response, and we want to bring ourselves back to center. There are emotions, I mean I really do get, both just speaking personally. I mean, I understand, schadenfreude is an interesting emotion, right?
Owen: The person who brought my dad's business down, and now I hear he's dying of a painful cancer. Well, I get it. I get the impulse, and it probably is evolutionarily hard to completely overcome. The reason the Old Testament is so compelling, Lex Talionis, eye for an eye, is because it speaks to a fundamental aspect of our emotional nature. So, one doesn't want to ask, call upon us to be entirely different than our nature makes us be, but I do think that sometimes, like I say, I think of those two kinds of anger that I am concerned about, I think that the modern world makes the world in which I grew up and restraint in tongue and pen.
Now, the fingers can immediately respond to any latest outrage with further outrage. So, you and I talked earlier about Americans meeting anger with anger, and escalates. Well, we have technologies now that they're making worse, maybe a natural tendency that we have. So, I don't know how to get control of that, but as the kids say, "Knowing is half the battle."
August: Right. We've used up so much time, let's talk about shame. You think that shame gets a bad rap. Now, you're against shaming.
August: But you see a conceptual difficulty in the way people view shame. I guess shame is usually - okay from one point is, we can talk about shame and get into lots of nuanced discussions about the difference between shame and embarrassment, but it is kind of interesting that most people use them synonymously. So, it's not clear what we're doing when we're talking about these things. as different in a nuanced way, if people don't know that.
But anyway, when people talk about shame, they talk about, it's partly a violation of a community, or a group. I think often people think of it as something that leads to stigma, and it seems like maybe the threat is there of some sort of ostracism at first, or some sort of you're not allowed in the group. I think that I have also heard that the difference between shame and embarrassment is that shame is, you think that you are a bad person overall. I thought you've made a very interesting point that that doesn't necessarily follow, at least the last one.
Owen: Yeah. Good, that you bring out all these issues really nicely to see. So, the first thing you said is exactly right. A lot of people, I mean, again, maybe we're just going to think at first here about people, like you and me, well-educated white men in America or something like that. If you ask around how we distinguish shame and guilt, shame and embarrassment, we're not that good at it. Although I think you pick up on exactly the right point. If I'm embarrassed, I'm just kind of embarrassed. You're not going to ostracize me though, whereas if I have reason to be more than embarrassed, but be ashamed, you might actually kick me out of the club. Okay.
But there is a lot of overlap, and there's also overlap between shame and guilt the way Americans actually use it. Although the official theory about shame, because of what you said about the ostracism possibility is that, it involves something like thinking I'm a bad person overall. The reason I got interested in this one is a little different from how I got interested in anger. Because I've been working a lot, August, on just different cultures and philosophies, I've been aware for a long time that you never see in Chinese philosophy, or Indian philosophy, discussions of what we would call guilt. You always see discussions of what we would call shame.
I was also aware that shame is almost universal in those cultural traditions, which may be that modern people in China and India are heirs and heiresses too. That would constitute about 3 billion people on earth. So, I kept my eye on that, and I kept thinking, "Well, they don't think of it as involving the bad person overall, but you're right that in Western psychology, it tends to carry that connotation. Part of what I thought I could do here was to show how much of an outlier view that was in the rest of the world. Then even to reflect on how, if we feel like, if we use the word 'shame' and socializing children or even on our own case.
Like the pope, Pope Francis this morning in the New York Times - I mean, he didn't do it in New York Times - in the New York Times they reported that Pope Francis apologized to Canada for the schools that they had that the Catholic Church runs 70% of them for Indian displaced children, Native American children. The pope said he felt great shame. Now, the pope isn't saying, "I feel like I'm a bad person overall," or the Catholic church is bad overall. I think in the same way, if a parent teaches a child that they need to learn how to share the Legos, A; it'll be more fun, but B; that's what a nice good child does, it shares. They should be ashamed if they don't share. They're not saying you're a bad person overall. They're just saying, this disposition of not sharing or being selfish is something, which we want to encourage you to get over it.
So, that's sort of on one side of things. Just the mere fact that an emotion, which we think causes addiction, anorexia, bulimia, suicide attempts, all kinds of stuff, we think that because we've defined it as, "I think I'm a bad person over all."
Owen: But I don't think most people use shame that way or think of themselves when they feel ashamed about something. I just don't think that's the common usage.
August: No, I thought that was very well-taken, and I guess the idea would be, you can use shame, say with your children saying, "When you do this, it discredits our whole family. Not that, that means you're bad forever."
August: This here, it has the effect of discredit. It implicates me, the whole family. That doesn't mean, it does not necessarily mean, you're bad forever. Tomorrow's fine; in an hour, you'll be fine.
Owen: That's right, exactly. Yeah. I think that's really nice the way to put it because that is always what some people will say. Well, and you do see, obviously, I'm not asking for us to be like confused people, where there was that story about the ferry that sank with a lot of school children. It's off the Korean Coast about 10 years ago. The principles of the school, the mayor of the town, the owner of the ferry company, I mean, it was what we would call an accident, but a lot more people than we would think should have taken responsibility.
But your example of the fact that my child's behavior at the friend's house overnight, reflects on me, is simple to say, it's true. You've informed the child about the scope of the problem. Not that he's a bad person over all.
Owen: Then my hope, and this is where I'm reaching with this whole thing is that I did one of the motivations, the practical motivation of the shame part of the book was both to bring out this general intellectual point, but also to wonder a little bit about how it was, and how unfortunate it is for especially young people, that there are so many people who live as it were, shamelessly, and play it fast and loose with the truth, or with their role as a public servant. I was thinking specifically of recent politicians, current politicians, and thinking [crosstalk]
August: Have you no shame, sir? Yes.
Owen: Have you no shame? Yeah. It isn't just that someone like Trump should feel guilty about the bad things he did in playing fast and truth, and loose with the truth, and with people's lives, and being a narcissist, but he should feel ashamed in the sense of trying to work on himself. Not that we're getting any leverage on him, but [inaudible] perfectly appropriate. Even in that case, much as I have very negative feelings towards that individual, I don't have to think that he's a horrible, horrendous human being. It might even be fun to play golf with him, if I'm here to play golf. But there's a lot of work he needs to do on himself.
August: So, I think one of the things that's interesting is, this is not a book like a self-help book where you as an individual have issues with anger and shame and let's try to fix them. You're really talking about more of a macro thing, a collective thing, and serving as role models. Yeah, not just, in fact, the cultural self-help.
Owen: Right. Well, you and I know, we were old enough to remember there were people like Martin Luther King Jr, and the Kennedys. These people with worth and all, Eugene McCarthy. I mean, there were all these people who really were worthy of role modeling. I just don't see that the younger generation has that. What they see in terms of, especially the display of these emotions, is emotions are just really - well, especially, just take the anger aside, basically you got to be a real quick reacting system, a person does and zap back every time you get zapped.
I also think you could do this with other emotions too. There's a lot of cowardice. The only social media I'm on is Facebook, but I hear this. Well, I guess I'm on Twitter too, but I don't really know how to use that. But you notice a lot of cowardice in the following way. People say things about other people, things they would never say to their face.
August: Of course. Yeah.
Owen: I think that's atrocious, especially you could say to their face. Now, I dare you. That will restore that kind of knowing that if you have something really negative to say about another human being about what they did or said, say it to them. But from a cowardly pose of just... because people will say much nastier things, hurt the reputations of people through the third person form that they wouldn't say to a person's face.
August: Right. Yeah, that's that ventilation, "I'm going to get it out of me. Right. It's been a real pleasure talking to you. I really loved reading this book. It pissed me off, and provoked me in different places, and other places, I really agreed with it, which is quite a reading. I should say, we didn't get to talk about your own, but you talked about your own personal experiences with shame. I really appreciate you writing the book. It taught me a lot, and it was a pleasure speaking with you.
Owen: Thank you so much, August. You're a great interviewer, and it's a great opportunity to talk. I appreciate it.