Emotional Honesty

I recently posted a brief discourse on restraint in which I denigrated the notion of emotional honesty as that concept is used today. I should be clear that I am not opposed to emotional honesty, I am opposed to the notion that the only way to behave in an emotionally honest way is to behave like an animal. True, animals are emotionally honest, we must suppose, but that is not by choice. The human tendency to display honesty in the form of animal behavior is a choice we seem to have made.

I suspect the notion that it is somehow a good thing to express our emotional honesty in this manner arises from a misreading of Sigmund Freud who wrote a great deal about “repression.” Later psychologists, in their attempts to develop Freud’s theory, argued that repression is an unhealthy thing and it would be healthier to be as open and honest  about our emotions as possible. The key here is that in order to be mentally healthy we need to be aware of our emotion states, not necessarily to express them openly. If we are mad, we need to acknowledge that fact and not repress it. In fact, Freud distinguishes between “proper” and “primal” repressions.  We need to know just what it is that is being repressed and why.

In Freud’s system it is the id that is repressed, that element of the human psyche that operates under what Freud called “the pleasure principle.” Many who read Freud reduce this to our sexual urges and those are certainly included, but they do not exhaust the urges of the id which includes such mundane things as the urge to eat when we are hungry and strike out when we are mad. We are talking about primal urges.

The healthy individual, according to Freud, seeks to balance the urges of the id with the restrictions of the ego and the super ego — the notion of balance going back to the Greeks, if you can imagine. The most productive way to do this is through “sublimation,” a term Freud borrowed from Nietzsche. When we sublimate the primitive urges which we all experience, we direct them away from their intended object (we don’t hit the Trump supporter) and redirect those urges into creative outlets such as art, philosophy, science, for example, or simply redecorating the living room, going for a run — or, perhaps, writing a blog.

The notion that it is healthy to behave like an animal is therefore a misreading of Freud and completely ignores the fact that repression of those basic urges is necessary if civilization is to survive. In fact, it is through the sublimation of the id that civilization arose in the first place. People need to live together in relative harmony and this is not possible if they are releasing their basic urges every time they are felt. The important distinction here is the acknowledgment of basic urges, which is necessary for mental health and the expression of those urges which reduces the human to the animal — which we all are, but which we presumably seek to rise above: no one seriously wants to live in Hobbes’ state of nature in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Thus, when a person (any person, even the president) gives immediate vent to his basic urges, or when the athlete pounds his chest like a Great Ape, he is expressing his emotions, he is being “emotionally honest” in only a restricted sense of that term. More to the point, he is not being all he can be as a human being. When he screws up and apologizes or taps his chest and says “my bad,” he is. The difference is important is we are to grasp just where we stand as human beings. After all, we are living in a precarious civilization that is trending toward dissolution if we do not make every effort to sustain it. And that requires repression, or at the very least, restraint.

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18 thoughts on “Emotional Honesty

  1. I have always had a great admiration for Freud , even although many tell me he is way out of date. You encapsulate him very neatly here and your complaints about modernism are perfectly valid. I always say to those who rave about the moral character of dogs ; see how they copulate , with no shame , in the street. The old saying wearing your heart on your sleeve is not a good one , much of our nature is best kept under wraps , self control is the art of civilisation.

      • It played on my mind Hugh so I needed to add a little rider. Society is more transparent about child abuse and that is a good thing and needs to be exposed . Rape and assault against women is now being brought out into the open another advance we have made.
        Now the question is often asked how far should the press or any of us intrude into some ones personal life? It’s one thing for a man to boast about his adultery quite another for someone else to expose him. So that part of our nature that breaks the law must not be allowed to be kept under wraps. I hope it makes sense it’s a tough one.

      • I agree with Mill. The state should stay out of personal business unless something we do adversely affects another — directly. The case of parents who abuse their children is a tough one and I have blogged about it.

  2. Quote: “After all, we are living in a precarious civilization that is trending toward dissolution if we do not make every effort to sustain it. And that requires repression, or at the very least, restraint.” When I look at man’s works throughout the history of his (never her’s) civilization I see nothing that makes me desire to sustain it. Roger (Woebegone but hopeful) calls this the Age of War and I concur. This has been the age of the patriarchy; the age of misogyny, enslavement, exponential exploitation of all and sundry, genocides and endless war, none of which this “civilization” is interested in either curbing or changing. And why should I give of myself to sustain (sustain means to support, which means to sacrifice and give away of my freedom to hold up a thing that sees me as nothing more than a means to and end, that being power over, and monetary profit) such a historically proven anti-human monstrosity? No matter what “man” does, his civilization is morally corrupt and socially twisted beyond any redemption. In fact, redeeming it would be the last thing the oppressed of the world, particularly women and children, should think of doing. Just learn to move back and survive somehow as it implodes just like the towers on 9/11.
    It is the purposelessness and internal corruption of civilization that is urging people, particularly those in the limelight, to act much worse than any animal. For those not in the limelight, watch the driving; listen to the language being used (borrowed from infotainment), on the street; look at the deliberate slovenly dress; listen to the noise being made by vehicles and boom boxes for the sole pleasure of destroying the peace and quiet of a neighbourhood; endure the endless thievery from homes and cars; shoplifting as if it was a right while surveillance increases, as well as insurance costs creating a growing marginal society unable to “pay to play” and emboldening the security state to violate civil rights,creating for itself new opportunities to do so. There is no turning back the clock on this, it’s a global cancer that will eat man’s civilization until there is nothing left. You know what? The sooner, the better.

    • Whether we agree that our civilization is worth saving (and as one who has taught its treasures for more than 40 years I would say it is) there is little question that it is being slowly but surely replaced by a new age of barbarism — as I have argued on a number of occasions. On balance, however, for all its warts and shortcomings I would choose civilization for Hobbes’ state of nature.

      • I don’t know much about Hobbes’ state of nature-I gather it’s his concept of what life was like for people before they “invented” civilization, envisioning a world without any laws or morality. I think he was quite wrong about that, but be that as it may, what do we mean when we say we should defend civilization? Lesser of evils and all that? It seems that is how we always end up solving our real and present problems without much thought to the long term effects of our fixing.
        Question: do you believe that the current political and monetary corruption that rules civilization is fixable, and if so, how is that to be accomplished? What tools should we be handing out to the world to fix the worst aspects: moral corruption? The last major tools offered were religion and communism and they didn’t do so well.
        Next question: instead of the lesser of evils, can’t an intelligent species come up with something better than the current civilization? If it was possible in ancient times to invent this thing presumably because people got tired of lawlessness (that’s total bs by the way because all one has to do is study non-civilized societies to realize that is not how it was prior to civilization) can’t we invent something better, something just and totally inclusive; something that doesn’t need to feed off the poor, the weaker members, the disenfranchised, the voiceless in order to keep its leadership sated?
        Perhaps we don’t need to re-invent the wheel; perhaps with a bit of humility we can indeed consider how the indigenous peoples lived before ‘the white man’ and his civilization and go back to that sort of life? It wasn’t perfect but it was better than ‘this’ by a long shot. So they didn’t build bridges or Taj Mahals; so they didn’t conquer the world and establish mighty military forces to defend their borders. So they didn’t paint the Mona Lisa. There was greater integrity and social equality and to me that trumps all the rest or the clap trap of civilization mostly gained by the blood, sweat and tears of serfs, slaves and underpaid labour. Of course I realize that “civilization” was already creeping in (via the Aztecs for example) and it would have poisoned the world regardless of the spread of Christian Western empires.

      • This topic is too large for a brief response to a comment. But I would suggest that humans — regardless of the time or the particular civilization to which they belonged (and there have been quite a few over the years) have always been bellicose and inclined to war with one another — even the “peaceful” native Americans of whom you speak. To change that involves changing human nature as it has appeared over the millennia.

      • You got it, Hugh. It is, indeed, human nature that has got to change. But that’s quite the chameleon! It can be done, but strictly on a voluntary basis, one individual at a time. Christianity began with full intent on changing human nature. This was going to happen as each believer was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and instructed by that divine entity. “Be transformed therefore, by the renewing of your mind…” When I entered my “born again” phase, that is what attracted me to the faith: that it would change the way I perceived other people and the world. Unfortunately I discovered in a very short time (3 years of effort) there was no holy spirit and I was just as much on my own after I entered into this process of change as I had been previously after I’d left the Catholic church also for the reason that it produced nothing of what it claimed. I project that after the fall of this civilization, man, as a mutant species will create a world of cooperation and justice driven by knowledge coming from self empowered and compassionate individuals. I predict the complete destruction of all collective efforts thus negating the need for leaders, leadership being in itself an instant form of power corruption. Our new world will bear no resemblance to the one we exist in now – I think that’s what scares people who do not understand self empowerment and insist on collectives to collect power \(through leadership) and to use that collective power to make and actuate the ‘great’ decisions. After enough people like Trump exercising such power on a global scale, individuals will come to see the problem isn’t in specific types of leadership or “isms” and will accept the need to take up the reins themselves. We’re on the way, only it isn’t going to be a smooth transition because the current power holders will not let go so easily. The elites and the entire concept of someone, or some group, having any right to more than any other will have to be utterly destroyed, beyond the very last vestige of such ideas.

      • This I agree with: “Our new world will bear no resemblance to the one we exist in now. . .” But the rest of your prediction strikes me as pie-in-the-sky. Good luck with that!

  3. Isn’t it odd that humans pride themselves on being of a ‘higher order’ than the animal kingdom, and yet often act more primitive than say, wolves, bears or lions?

    That said, my own belief is that there is a time and a place for everything. Surely the angst must have a vent, but a public venue may not be the proper one. On the flip side, though, in close personal relationships, there should be no room for prevarication or hiding of emotions/truth. No, I don’t think that ‘baring one’s soul’ is necessarily cathartic, and even if it is, why on earth would you subject the world to such. But, I also think there comes a point where a person needs a steam valve, and that’s what close friends are for.

    Sometimes it seems to me that the human race has made life unnecessarily complex … ’tis why I hope to come back as a wolf rather than a human. 🐺

  4. I’d agree with Mill, too, with the addendum that in America, the First Amendment grants the press (and, by extension) the public in general, the right to have access to data and other information the government uses. In terms of how far should the press pry or the public know, there are some clear-cut guidelines and some that are less so. Legal guidelines are generally firm; personal ones not as much.

    Whenever there is an arrest or court charge for something like parental abuse of a child; a man abusing a woman, or woman abusing a man; for sexual assault; for a priest raping a child or any parishioner; etc.: in every state, and at the federal level, once an arrest is made or criminal complaint filed, the information automatically becomes public data. The same is so with public meetings, minutes of those meetings, correspondence (print and e-mail) between public employees, etc. There’s no quibbling on that, and Lord knows I’ve taken enough cops, city administrators, school administrators, a college president, even a judge, to court or an administrative law judge to ensure that public data stays open, to be adamant about it.

    The same is also so of most information that goes before a civil court with divorces, business lawsuits, etc. Other than protections for minors, sometimes for trade secrets, most of the rest is codifiably open to the public.

    The question becomes what do we, as members of the public or the press, do with the information once we have it? The breakdown of traditional media has made this a mess in a lot of ways, since all kinds of hands have all kinds of ways of flinging the data not only across backyard fences but across the Internet. But the access has to be universal, much as free speech itself. Otherwise, we start to get into the game of someone arbitrarily deciding what information is public or not. Hard enough when officials think they have the right to do that when the law firmly says they can’t.

    How we handle the information falls into one of your strong suits, Hugh: ethics and morality. There are responsible ways to treat data, accusations, etc, and there is the TMZ and Fox News Way of distortion and titillation. (Not wholly new, of course. Hearst made millions once upon a time with newspapers that did the same.)

    For instance, in cases that don’t involve legal proceedings, it can depend on the subject of the incident, and the nature of it. If a politician who has campaigned fervently on a family-values platform is alleged to have committed adultery or admits to it or is found out, that’s a legitimate news story. It shows the hypocrisy in the politician’s character and political platform. A congressman from Pennsylvania lost his seat last year (or perhaps 2017). He was a staunch anti-abortionist, but when his mistress thought she was pregnant he told her to have an abortion. (She wasn’t pregnant in the end. But word got out of his wanting her to have an abortion. His political career was over.)

    Do I want to know if a rock star doesn’t wear underwear when he sleeps or whether Donald Trump spray paints his hair? Nah. I’d draw one line there, for sure.

  5. I thought emotional honesty meant being honest to yourself and being aware and conscious about ones emotions – and here Freud will pause to analyze them. But I never thought it meant to express yourself without restraint or thought for others. I think it might be a term team leaders and salesmen might use.

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