Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gratitude, Civility, and the Nature of Emotion


For the purposes of this particular post I have little or no interest in the origins of this Thanksgiving that we Americans celebrate once a year in the Fall. I do not wish to celebrate our ancestors, nor to curse the evils of how Native people were treated; still less do I care to lecture on how best we ought to "celebrate" this peculiar holiday. Rather, I want to make some cumulative notes on philosophic matters concerning gratitude more generally.

As can be observed in the brief comedic exchange from Barney Miller, the best humor or comedy is generated by a quite complex web of mutual incomprehension between two people, the absurdity that ensues when desired or accepted outcomes are thwarted by such clashes, mistakes in identity, or in this case, world outlooks and temperament etc. This is the kind of material that was eventually expanded to the highest art form in Larry David's magesterial Curb Your Enthusiasm series.

Yet this most humorous of exchanges is a rich starting point for the most serious of discussions of gratitude. I take Inspector Luger to be a figure for the rules of civility and traditional sentiment, a vision of moderation and social consensus. "Don't worry me and spoil everybody's fun with your metaphysical and philosophic speculations, do the right and civil thing and simply wish others Happy Thanksgiving and in return accept a mutual meeting." On the other hand, Inspector Luger is being the unthinking philistine and detective Dietrich is being the sincere thinker, approaching Socratic territory, and if you are at all curious about the world, would seem an attractive conversation starter (presumably at another more appropriate time).

There is a real question here. Do emotions have to have or always implicitly have objects? And does it matter?

It seems to me that it might matter less than we think. Whether we like it or not, or even whether we conceptualize it or not, the universe is shot through with value and meaning (to quote Akeel Bilgrami on Gandhi). That is, whether or not we believe in or feel a cause of our state, we are, all of us, in one kind of state or another, experiencing the world in such a way that something, however great or small, is at stake.

As you are reading this post I am sure that you, dear reader, are in some kind of state. You might be annoyed while reading this. You might be anxious about family or cooking the turkey. You might be elated, or even distracted, you might be sleepy or well rested, but the important point is that you are experiencing at this moment something of value because you are in a certain kind of relation with the world. Though we understandably take this for granted, it is nevertheless one of the precious and even scandalous things about our humanity.

Looked at in this way, I can imagine being in a certain kind of state that may just be powerful enough so that we may experience thankfulness as an immediate instinct. The positive state may be reason enough for our thankfulness, placing the issue of a clear cause or object of our emotion into a secondary status, (notwithstanding the issue of the believer for whom the Creator is always already omnipresent). This is a thankfulness that a serious nonbeliever can and should, as it were, get behind.

The trouble is, such a state can only be experienced after the foundation of certain preconditions. In this case we are brought back to my Thanksgiving exchange and example. Inspector Luger says that the saying of "Happy Thanksgiving" is connected to "good breeding" as if you'd be an awful barbarian to call it into question or not say it.

In a balkanized world such as ours, full of manifold, competing and sometimes ruthlessly oppositional identities on display, like so many varieties of organic cookies at the local health supermarket, it gets difficult to negotiate competing values.

The examples are legion: when an atheist activist student protests that her rights are violated when, upon coming to class with a cold, a neighboring student says "god bless you" after every sneeze; when there is a successful campaign by various groups to remove the Playboy Club show from network television, a show featuring not only no nudity whatsoever, little or no sexual indiscretion from what I can tell, but instead mild dramatic arguments about, say, the rights of gays - the kind of middlebrow posturing that would otherwise be perfectly acceptable on prime time television - because the opponents of the show are fundamentally offended by the existence of the magazine itself even as it appeared in 1962, (the television show is gone for good - and maybe for the good if you share this particular sentiment - and I can't help but feel such opposition was the cause), when we see such cases it is abundantly clear that there seems little unanimity about meaning or polity.

It is not so much the case that we are two Americas, one conservative and one liberal, but rather the case that we are potentially hundreds or thousands of Americas, (and most importantly, not in the sense of individual identity or liberty but rather group identity) all speaking in languages walled off from all the others by "imaginative mutual incomprehension" in Thomas Nagel's brilliant formulation.

But perhaps we are asking representation in media and rules about language in schools to do the work that something like civility used to do. There too is the case of the Parental group who claims that the mere presence of such a particular television show on the airwaves is already an affront to civility (presumably because it is not neutral: to not attack the character of Hugh Hefner - critic Nancy Franklin practically attacked the show almost solely on the grounds that she did not like the character of the man in real life, completely dispensing with the crucial matter of the aesthetic representation of the show as a fiction - is already to implicitly endorse his project?)

There is a lot to say here about civility but I shall leave the last words to Robert Pippin:
"If civility can be understood as an enactment in daily life of mutuality or the actual establishing of the norm of rational agency, as an active attempt to recognize and help to promote each other as free beings, then, as suggested, such a dependence and commonality must already exist and be experienced in daily life as existing."

In such a climate it seems that for simpler pleasures, if indeed one is lucky enough to be able to experience such pleasures, gratitude is always appropriate. You may be gracious towards a person in particular, it may towards an entity. But the state itself could be at once rational and Romantic or at least be meaningful enough to please both Romantics and Rationalists among us. It is connected to Pippin's notion of civility as "not a duty, a responsibility, or an entitlement but already a manifestation of something else not subject to moral will or legal coercion."

It is useful to meditate upon what one has left once one has eliminated all of these false ways of describing civility. Such meditation would go a long way towards thinking about our emotions as an art, as a reason, or an irreducible virtue, not amenable to quantification or fiat. The first priority, of course would be to realize how "shot through with meaning" each of us stands, maybe even by the simple fact our existence, with no further need of justification or explanation.

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