On Reason and Emotion

I am no great lover of reason. It seems a bit overblown  to me. And, as a woman, it seems that I have always been put on the defensive where reason is concerned.  Women, you know, are “emotional” and, in our enlightened,  reasonable culture,  to be called emotional is no compliment.  But,  I don’t want to be defensive about emotion,  I want to be realistic about emotion – about the benefits of emotion acknowledged and felt and the pitfalls of emotion covered over and disguised as reason.

Many years ago,  during the Viet Nam war,  I took a brief excursion into the world of the Defense Department – for no better reason than a job was offered to me that gave me the opportunity to experience life in the big city — in our nation’s capital to be exact.  One day, as part of my work,  I was invited to a briefing which  was conducted by an admiral and had something to do with weapons.

Up there in front of the room with his pointer and white board,  the admiral was the very soul of cool reason, talking about kill ratios and numbers and percentages.  And there I was,  the only woman in the room,  acting – or thinking – just like a woman,  busily converting these numbers into people and these weapons into wounds . And, I kept thinking how cold and calculating and deliberately murderous this military man was being. And  I kept thinking, what if he came right out and used the words which would have more accurately  reflected  what he was really saying?  Could the meeting even have continued if we had had visual aids, showing us graphically the bodies of men, women, and children being burned to a crisp or blown to smithereens? At that moment, I thought a little emotion was in order and that the world would be a better place  if we were all forced to feel the impact of our actions – instead of converting children and injuries to numbers and percentages and then performing logical, reasonable, actions on them.

Over the years,  as I have returned again and again to this scene in my mind, I have come to see that although he never raised his voice, never shed a tear, never broke into laughter or song, never did any of the things which we associate with the expression of emotion, the admiral in his logical, reasonable delivery was doing just that – expressing emotion.  The logic and reason he was displaying were mere servants of the national emotions of fear and anger and the drive to power.  These emotions are so prevalent and have made themselves so at home in the psyche of western culture that we no longer are aware of them.The emotions I was feeling were  compassion and empathy and anger at the abuse of language which was leading in a direct line to the abuse of the Vietnamese.  I don’t think I should apologize for the emotions I felt. I think the world would be a better place if we all were encouraged to feel compassion and empathy.  Logic and reason are always tools of our emotions. We need to understand that and recognize the power of emotion.  But there are good emotions and bad emotions.  If we followed the trail of our logical and reasonable actions back to the originating emotion, we might be appalled at ourselves; we might even be able to make some significant changes.


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