The Trust Crisis
An Emotional America

The growing role of feelings in shaping our reality.

Published on: January 8, 2018
Peter N. Stearns is University Professor at George Mason University, and has written widely about the history of emotions. Thanks to Vyta Baselice and a number of student researchers at George Mason University for help in getting this piece together, and to Adam Garfinkle for additional suggestions and encouragement.
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  • QET

    man, who nourishes his grief and has as the measure of his affliction not what he feels but what he has decided to feel. — Seneca

    This is pretty much the only explanation needed, although one might also refer to Nietzsche’s elaboration of the bad conscience.

    • Boritz

      Or this from Luke 18
      God I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

      • QET

        Interesting. Please elaborate.

        • Jim__L

          It’s the prayer of a Pharisee (or unconscious hypocrite).

          It’s usually good to read the surrounding chapter, for context. It’s shorter than many of the articles here on AEI, and is well worth your time simply to understand the literature that references it.

          • QET

            Right, I know the parable. I was just trying to understand how Boritz was relating it to this article. But I think I was overthinking it.

  • Joe Eagar

    I find the decline of humility puzzling. Humility is the most powerful tool in my professional toolkit, bar none. I would never have achieved my current level of skill without it. People are shooting themselves in the foot here.

    • Tom

      Humility is the exception, rather than the rule, largely because it makes people uncomfortable to admit that they don’t know everything and might be wrong.

    • Steve Smith

      “I thank God for my humility.”
      –Richard III

  • Anthony

    “It is both tempting and easy to poke at the other side.”

    Quite a few socially relevant observations contained in essay, as well as trend diagnosis vis-a-vis Emotionality! We Americans (Humans) at the end of the day have allowed emotionality to become prominent in our social/political interactions (identifiable in the solipsism author infers). Perhaps, as the author also infers, to understand such behavior and the rising attitudes therein, we need to plow more deeply into both our societal and our own psyches to get a grip on cited rising emotive citizen (human) expectations.

    In the same way, I think the essay ends open-ended to initiate this reflection: we need to better understand our psychological fragilities as thinkers, decision makers, and operant individuals in a compact society. To this end, a final observation: essay (author) notes that Pity, Compassion, Sympathy, Gratitude, and Trust have all lessened (declined) during rise of Emotionality; for me, that implies a need to shore up social norms and perhaps initiate more civic engagement locally – get strangers talking and working together, which means understanding that the “mindfullness” of others is far stronger within an in-group dynamic (so the effort ain’t easy).

  • sestamibi

    Oh, please. Peter, you know damn well why emotions are valued of reason, but you’re too PC to tell us, so I will. The ascendancy of feelings has paralleled the rise of women, particularly feminists, into positions of real power in government, academia, corporate America, and even among the clergy. Furthermore, they would be the first to admit this and to claim that it’s a feature not a bug, and that America is a better place when we combat “microaggressions” and provide “safe spaces” so our snowflakes won’t be traumatized.

    Feminism ultimately can be boiled down to two fundamental principles:

    1) The truth is whatever I believe it to be, and whatever is true for me must be true universally.
    2) Life must be all bliss, all the time, and government must step in (no matter with how heavy a hand) to make it so.

  • Gary Hemminger

    This article is interesting, but I am not sure isolation is what is causing this emotionalism. What is causing it, in my opinion, is that it works. It sells, It reproduces itself and people are too wired for emotion to differentiate thinking from their emotions. The social intelligence of people is not that high. Unless it is counteracted it will get worse before it gets better. This is a phase. Like all phases, it will end.

    • Jim__L

      Sadly, the “phase” may well be the Enlightenment inversion of the importance of Aristotle’s rhetorical categories (ethos, pathos, logos).

      Aristotle, like most of the ancients preserved through the Middle Ages (including, for example, St. Paul) were canny observers of the human condition. Absent training otherwise, humans will first prefer authoritative arguments, then emotional arguments, then (if at all) arguments from evidence and logic.

      Would-be authorities who don’t like this setup and so are trying to undermine traditional Western values, are using both emotionalism and basic authoritarianism (argument from asserted consensus, etc) to get rid of the need to present logic, proof and thought for their positions.

  • Marathon Youth

    America’s recent bout of Emotionalism stems from the field of Psychology and Psychiatry where men like Freud and Jung taught generations of Doctors to get their patients in touch with their inner self. It stems from the baby boomers indulging their children’s every neurotic need. It comes from a school of thought to avoid punishing wrong. It blossomed during the 1960’s and the “me” generation of self indulgence, self centeredness and selfishness. A world of superficiality . The touchy feely world of hypersensitive overly neurotic pill popping narcissists I quote Professor Henry Higgins from “My Fair Lady” [I am an Ordinary Man]

    I’m a quiet living man,
    who prefers to spend the evening in the silence of his room,
    who likes an atmosphere as restful
    as an undiscovered tomb.
    A pensive man am I, of philosophic joys,
    who likes to meditate, contemplate,
    free from humanity’s mad inhuman noise.
    Just a quiet living man.

    As for the emotional state Americans tend to be I quote Professor Higgins [A Hymn to Him]
    Americans are irrational, that’s all there is to that
    Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags
    They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening, and infuriating hags.

    • werewife

      There’s a show tune for every occasion.

      • Marathon-Youth

        True and some of those songs capture the mood so well.

  • FriendlyGoat

    “The startling prompts from the most recent Republican National Convention, at which speaker after speaker explicitly urged Americans to “be afraid, be very afraid,” and to see “carnage” everywhere they looked, reflected clever awareness of the nation’s emotional mood, while also contributing to that mood in turn.”

    For the emotions elicited from nincompoops by those bits of theatrical shtick, they said “We seriously don’t care what our health insurance in the future might be. Donald Trump needs tax cuts! We haven’t seen his returns, but we KNOW he needs tax cuts to build another golf resort! Not only that, we KNOW his club members need tax cuts as well!

    Spare us the allegations of emotional frailty in bleeding-heart liberals and tree huggers, please. Republicans from coast to coast were completely “had” by tricks on their emotions. IMAGINE if YOU (not a baker) were forced to bake a cake for a gay wedding!

    • Tom

      Turn that last bit around: IMAGINE if YOU (not a baker) were forced to bake a cake for your local alt-right convention.

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