Thursday, 16 July 2015

Inside Out versus Liberalism

I have recently viewed the new Pixar film, “Inside Out” and this post is partially a response to it. This is not a movie review and will focus not on the aesthetics of the film, but on its themes. It will contain minor spoilers and (as always) criticisms of liberalism, so read at your own discretion.

When I saw the trailers (especially this one) for “Inside Out”, I was worried it would preach an annoying “positive-thinking” message. It turns out I was wrong, the film presents a refreshing critique of that message and is overall very enjoyable. I laughed and cried throughout the whole thing, including at the end.
While some liberals may disregard the film as one that is “for children” due to its relative lack of so-called “adult content” (sexual imagery and graphic violence), they would be wise to listen to its messages. The film explores how memories and situations impact emotions. It also highlights the importance of negative emotions. This latter theme is especially challenging to liberalism. Read on to find out how.

External Situations as Causes of Emotions 

The film features five emotion characters, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, who live in the mind of Riley, an eleven year old girl. The emotion characters manipulate a set of buttons and switches, dubbed “the Console”, in order to make Riley feel the emotions associated with their characters. This in term influences her behaviour.

To my relief, the film did not promote an individualistic understanding of emotion that revolved around biology. References to hormones and other biological causes of emotion were completely absent. A “puberty” button appears but, since its effects are unknown, I will not discuss its implications.

The idea that emotions are chosen is also challenged. The actions of the emotion characters and thus the feelings Riley experiences are responses to external situations. The emotion characters observe the real world through a window in “Headquarters” (the conscious part of the mind world) and respond to what they see happening. Thus the emotion characters are the means through which Riley reacts to the real world.

An important example of this occurs when the Sadness character touches a golden orb, containing a memory of Riley skating on a frozen lake. The orb turns blue once Sadness touches it and cannot be changed back. According to the Joy character, this had never occurred before. It likely occurred because Riley was no longer able to skate that way, due to the move to San Francisco (though we later see her skating in an ice rink). Thus the lake memory becomes a reminder of what Riley has lost and Sadness reacts to the changed situation.

Initially, Joy attempts to ensure that Riley remains happy, regardless of what happens to her. The parents (I would rather use their names, since people are more than their roles, but according to IMDB they do not have any), especially the father, want the same thing. In the end, Joy learns that she cannot force a positive emotional state onto Riley and that Sadness can be useful (see the next section for more information). Even Joy herself experiences sadness when placed in a depressing situation. So while the film portrays emotions as characters inside a mind, it shows how external factors produce emotional reactions, instead of implying that a “strong” person can “handle” anything.

Grace Randolph, from “Beyond the Trailer”, criticised the film for not featuring a character that represented “logic” (or rather reasoning). She claims, in this review that “emotions are governed by logic”. I more or less agree and prefer her view over the common belief that women experience random, hormone-driven bursts of emotion, which are unrelated to their actual circumstances or cognition. This latter approach, while rarely applied to men, is often employed by opponents of feminism. It discredits the feelings of women, by implying that they have no external or rational cause. The complaints women make regarding society are then dismissed as a cover for their internal “issues”, “prejudices” or (when this reasoning is used by liberals) “sexual repression”.

It is indeed important to recognise that emotions are usually supported by some kind of reasoning. Rather than “destroying emotion” (like that is even possible), this rationalist approach grants emotions (particularly those of oppressed groups) validity, as indicators of real world problems. However, I do not believe that Inside Out was missing a “logic” character. If logic were a separate entity, the emotion characters would not have been able to present arguments or propose solutions to problems, (since these are applications of logic) and would thus be useless. Ironically, logic cannot exist as a separate character, specifically because it is so important. While many people (including perhaps the creators of the film) undervalue logic, we all use it regularly, often automatically. Therefore, logic and reason cannot truly be absent from a film, though they may be poorly applied.

The Purpose of Negative Emotions 

Several of the preview clips for Inside Out discussed the usefulness of negative emotions. The Fear character keeps Riley safe, by making her take caution in dangerous situations. The Anger character ensures that Riley is treated fairly, by enabling her to express opposition to perceived injustices (including minor ones, like being denied desert). The Disgust character prevents Riley from interacting with things that are “poisonous” (i.e. harmful to her health), such as broccoli (or in this clip, a dirty grape).

Disgust also prevents Riley from being “socially poisoned”, (i.e. humiliated or excluded). I think the more appropriate term for this emotion is “embarrassment” or “self-consciousness”. To my mild annoyance, Disgust is sometimes portrayed as highly feminine (though this is somewhat fitting for a character obsessed with social conformity). Nevertheless I enjoyed seeing all three of these characters carrying out their functions.

Though I am not a fan of evolutionary psychology (due to its speculative nature and reactionary applications), the basic capacity for these emotions predates the creation of complex, class-divided societies. Thus the claim that they evolved in order to enable human survival is plausible (though not testable). People who experience fear, anger and disgust (as opposed to hypothetical people who find everything pleasurable) are more likely to protect themselves from physical dangers, mistreatment and threats to their health. They are thus more likely to survive and produce children with the same emotional capacities.

Much of the film is devoted to discovering the function of Sadness in the mind of Riley. While Joy and Sadness travel through the exciting, imaginative, but often dangerous world, which represents the human mind, Sadness regularly points out potential negative outcomes that Joy ignores. Therefore Sadness plays a useful role, similar to that of Fear.

However, Joy does not discover the value of Sadness until she examines a memory orb, which portrays a sad Riley being comforted by her parents, who turn the sad memory into a happy one through their caring actions. Though I often criticise the nuclear family, I do believe in the general principle that people should provide emotional support to those they care about, such as children. It was also refreshing to see a father portrayed in a nurturing role, which is less pleasant than the role that fathers are often praised for (the oh-so-difficult role of playing with happy kids). Thus Joy learns that the function of Sadness is to enable Riley to request help from others.

This aspect of the character combined with the cautionary function suggests that the overall role of Sadness is to reveal problems so that they can be addressed. Once Riley acknowledges that moving to San Francisco and being isolation at school upsets her, she can share this with her parents who presumably help her address these issues (though we never see how).  While Joy attempts to ignore problems and encourages Riley to focus on more pleasant things, Sadness does not. She allows characters to recognise the reality and severity of their problems, an important first step towards solving or seeking help for them. Thus Sadness earns her place at the Console.

Liberal Opposition to Negative Emotions 

Liberals and postmodernists often claim that they defend human emotion from those nasty “rational” people who seek to suppress it.  This characterisation misrepresents rationality.  Once again, I recommend this talk by Julia Galef to those who wish to examine the relationship between reason and emotion.

While claiming to support the creative, spontaneous, emotional side of humans (which is not, in my view, truly separate from the rational, mathematical side), liberals despise negative emotions, particularly anger and disgust. According to liberalism, hate and anger are always bad (unless of course the person or organisation being hated is opposed to liberalism from a leftist or feminist perspective), while disgust (particularly when directed towards sexual acts) is attributed to arbitrary social norms. While the Anger and Disgust characters respond to situations which may pose a genuine threat (e.g. the dead rat), liberals believe that such reactions are never justified.

Liberals may argue that they have no problem with individuals rejecting sex acts out of anger or disgust, so long as they do not attempt to “control” other people. It should be noted that liberals often perceive mere statements of opinion as oppressive and controlling, especially if such statements contains the slightest trace of anger or disgust.

Those rejecting a sex act are supposed to employ either an emotionless or joyful tone and use highly polite language. While violating a gentle “no” is no more ethical than violating a loud, bold “no”, filled with anger and disgust, I cannot help but feel that the latter is a more effective for combating rape and sexual assault. Furthermore, anger and disgust can be aroused by things which impact other people. This is called “empathy”. It seems that liberals either have not heard of it or perceive it as just another oppressive tool for controlling others. In any case, liberals are the ones (metaphorically) policing emotions.

Lastly, liberals believe that people who desire sexual activities which make them feel anger and disgust should overcome these sex-negative, society-inspired feelings and practice the acts anyway. Those who do so are praised for achieving “sexual liberation” and posing a radical challenge to patriarchy or capitalism (even while they spend hundreds of dollars on sex-related products). It seems that in the eyes of liberals, the only valid reason for not performing a sex act is lack of desire. Anger and Disgust might as well be thrown in the Memory Dump and forgotten.

If liberals had the Fear character in their brain they would probably dislike him too and would attempt to bring about what psychologists call “desensitisation”. This process is depicted (and unfortunately, celebrated) in this promotional clip. In real life, many liberal-approved practices (e.g. violent media consumption) overstimulate the nervous system to the point where its ability to respond to danger is reduced. While this process enables us to enjoy scary movies, it can be harmful. Desensitisation causes us to become bored by “tamer” horror films, contributing to increased violence in the media.

Desensitisation may also encourage people to participate in physically dangerous activities, such as BDSM. Liberals sometimes defend BDSM by claimed that its practitioners experience less fear-related disorders (officially referred to as “anxiety disorders”.) This does not surprise me at all. If you constantly expose yourself to whips, knives and (in extreme cases) strangulation, your capacity for fear will be weakened (or in Inside Out terms, Fear will spend a lot time unconscious). This results in less anxiety disorders, but more risk-taking (so-called “hard limits” often shift over the course of a BDSM relationship).

As stated above, fear, like other negative emotions is essential for our survival. Such emotions should only be seen as problems if they are excessive. Until the absence of fear, anger, disgust and sadness are treated as mental disorders, just as their excessive presence is, I cannot help but feel that our understanding of mental illness favours liberalism. If this ever changes, claims about the supposed mental health benefits of violent media and BDSM will lose the appearance of scientific credibility (though this may not stop liberals form making such claims).  


While I believe that the messages of Inside Out contradict liberalism, I am not arguing that the creators deliberately aimed to critique liberals and are secretly radicals (as great as that would be). 

The film is not perfect, politically speaking. It features some gender norm reinforcing elements, but most are brief and have little relevance to the plot. The portrayal of gender in this trailer may cause concern, but having watched the film, I feel the trailer exaggerates the degree to which the mother and father characters conform to femininity and masculinity, respectively. Of course, readers are free to make up your own minds. Overall I recommend Inside Out for its insightful, non-liberal messages, creative story and world-building.
Have you seen "Inside Out"? Let me know what you think of my analysis and wish me luck on my trip to Darwin.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Is Liberalism Really Anti-Authoritarian?

While this post is less explicitly feminist than others, it does deal with egalitarianism, a core theme of this blog. It also relates to the rationalist ideas from the last post.

Liberals sometimes use the term “authoritarian” to describe both conservatives as well as non-liberal leftists (including feminists) and to imply that all who oppose their highly permissive ideology want total control over all aspects of peoples’ lives. They view all their opponents as part of the same totalitarian, “sexually repressive” force.

I believe that it is possible to reject liberalism without buying into an authoritarian world view. In fact, this post will argue that the relativistic, liberal viewpoint, that anything goes with regard to behaviour and that no action (or belief) is ever right or wrong, is just another, highly individualistic, brand of authoritarianism. If the idea that extreme permissiveness is authoritarian seems strange to you, please read on. I encourage readers to consider my arguments and leave thoughtful (though not necessarily uncritical) comments, instead of just dismissing me as a dictatorial monster.

What Is Authoritarianism? 

Authoritarianism is the belief that one should rely on authorities to determine what is right or wrong, with regard to claims about both reality and moral goodness. For now, I will focus on the application of authoritarianism to moral claims (authoritarian approaches to understanding material reality may be discussed in another post). 

Authoritarians believe that there is an entity out there whose moral claims should be believed blindly, due to the entity’s supposed infallibility. Any action that the authority figure disapproves of is assumed to be morally wrong, while those which are not disapproved of are deemed morally acceptable and those which the entity commands are deemed obligatory. When authoritarians encounter rational arguments or experience inner intuitions that tell them not to obey a certain order, they will often force themselves obey it anyway. 

Liberals assume that all moral claims (or at least, all that involve labelling behaviours as “immoral”, “anti-feminist” or otherwise objectionable) are authoritarian and that the more moral claims a person puts forward, the more authoritarian they are. However, if one uses the more precise definition of authoritarianism that I provided above, it becomes clear that not all moral statements are authoritarian. A moral statement (whether it encourages or discourages controversial behaviours) is only authoritarian if it is justified purely through references to an authority (e.g. “you should not do this because the authority figure said not to”.)  

Those who attempt to support their moral statements (or claims about the world) through rational arguments, evidence and a concern for the welfare of humanity are not practising authoritarianism. This does not mean their positions are always right, but they cannot be accused of being unthinking sheep or dictators who command blind obedience (unless, of course, they are arguing for such things.) Nor should those who are perceived as making too many moral claims (or labelling too many actions as “immoral) be labelled authoritarians. The authoritarianism of a person or ideology is not determined by how many moral statements are made, but by how those statements are justified. 

It should also be stated that the strictness of a moral claim does not determine how authoritarian it is. I define a strict moral claim or rule as one that does not have many exceptions. For example, the belief that violence should never be used by progressive movements is a strict moral claim. The recognition that violence is generally wrong, but may be morally justified in cases where its use is necessary to achieve worthwhile aims (e.g. repelling a military invasion) is a less strict claim.  

While stern, difficult to follow rules are associated with authoritarian institutions (e.g. conservative churches) there may be valid reasons for making strict moral claims. I cannot think of a realistic circumstance in which the use of pornography will have significant benefits (either for individuals or society as a whole) thus I take a strict stance against it. I also refuse to make exceptions for milder versions of pornography (e.g. sexualised depictions of women in mainstream media). Though I recognise that milder practices are, in general, less harmful than the alternatives, their prevalence may encourage the more extreme practices. In either case, my strict positions are not justified through references to authority figures and thus are not authoritarian. 

Is Permissiveness always Anti-Authoritarian? 

Being permissive means refusing to lay down rules or moral principles and instead allowing people to obey any whim that occurs to them. Liberals believe that permissiveness is the opposite of authoritarianism. In reality, authoritarianism can be used to justify both excessive permissiveness as well as excessive strictness.  

A dramatic example of this is the “just following orders” defence, famously invoked by Nazi officers during the Nuremberg trials. Nazi Germany is often perceived as a strict society and to an extent this claim is accurate. However, the Nazi state also allowed and encouraged things that modern Western society often does not (such as blatant racism in the mainstream culture and unregulated, physical fighting among young males). In any case, the “just following orders” argument attempts to use the commands of an authority figure (in this case, the state) to excuse actions, rather than condemn them. It is thus an example of authoritarianism in the service of permissiveness. 

Fascists are not the only ones who believe that the state determines right from wrong. Anyone who argues that an action is morally acceptable, because it is legal, is guilty of applying authoritarianism. A non-authoritarian understanding of ethics leads one to realise that laws should be determined by moral principles, not the other way around. Liberals rage against the state when it condemns or outlaws behaviours or institutions which they like (such as the sex industry), but in cases where the state approves of or allows a practice, such approval is perceived as proof that the behaviour is ethical. Since liberals have more political influence than their “sex-negative” feminist opponents, liberals who appeal to the law are to some extent appealing to their own power. Thus equating power with moral rightness is a feature of liberal, as well as reactionary, thought. 

Another example of permissiveness coexisting with authoritarianism is liberal Christianity. The term “liberal Christian” is often applied to any Christian who is not conservative. I use it specifically to refer to Christians who believe that gay relationships, pornography consumption, promiscuous sex and other behaviours (wrongly or rightly) condemned by traditional Christianity are in fact morally acceptable, because their supposed god permits them. They say things like “God does not judge” and “God has forgiven me”. Whatever annoying cliché they decide to invoke, their argument can be summed up as “this behaviour is okay, because God thinks it is okay or, at least, will not punish people for it.”  Many argue that liberal Christians are less authoritarian than conservative Christians. I disagree. The belief that an action is permissible, because an authority said so, is no less authoritarian than the belief that it is wrong, because an authority said so. In either case, the words of an authority are viewed as the standard of moral goodness. 

Thus I do not believe that permissiveness is the opposite of authoritarianism, rather it is the opposite of strictness (as defined above). To reject authoritarianism, is to base all moral claims (including claims about the acceptability of a behaviour) on something other than an appeal to the statements of authority figures, such as concerns about the harms caused by allowing or disallowing particular actions. I do not know of an English word that properly conveys the opposite of authoritarianism (if you think of one, tell me in the comments), but I am pretty sure that “liberalism” and “permissiveness” are not it.  

Is Individualism Anti-Authoritarian? 

Not all liberals worship a god and few would admit to worshipping the government. Does this mean they are not authoritarian? No, they still can be. Conservative Christians accuse less religious people of making themselves into gods. I do not believe that this accusation applies to all non-religious people, but it does accurately describe liberals. While most liberals do not literally believe that they have god-like powers, they do view themselves as perfect authorities with regard to “their truth”. They also believe that any action they practice or permit another to practice upon them is acceptable, because they chose it. Thus liberals perceive themselves as infallible authorities (or metaphorical “gods”) with regard to their choices and their personal, so-called "reality".

One problem with this relativistic approach is that it cannot account for changed minds or regret. If everyone were a perfect authority on what was good for them (practically or morally), no one would ever willingly do something and decide afterwards that what they did was unwise. To change one's views or regret an action is to contradict one’s previous beliefs. If infallible beings actually existed, they would never contradict themselves.  

Liberals respond to this problem by claiming that remorse is always (emphasis on “always”) a product of "hateful", "moralistic", "sex-negative" social norms that infect the mind with “shame”. Of course, when other movements claim that “brainwashing” (or rather indoctrination) occurs in our society, they are accused of “denying agency”. Well, the liberal notion that all regret (or “shame”) is caused directly by social forces and never by a rational assessment of one’s actions (in accordance with common values, like equality and kindness) sounds like an appeal to “brainwashing” to me. That said, I do not belief that all "brainwashing" claims are false. In fact the view that society indoctrinates people into rejecting liberalism or feeling shame might make sense were our culture not dominated with pro-sex and generally individualistic messages. 

Furthermore the belief that every individual is an infallible authority with regard to their own actions, forces people to accept contradictory moral propositions. Two people, in the same exact situation, might make conflicting assessments of an action (one might label it as morally acceptable, while the other labels it as unacceptable.) If everyone were an infallible moral authority, both views would be accurate. Such contradictions can be solved only by employing relativism. Liberals claim that behaviours which may not be right “for you”, are nonetheless right "for him" or "for her" and thus we should not attempt to prevent actions undertaken by others (even if such attempt consists of nothing more than publicly expressing your objections to an act). 

Those who make this argument do not truly understand the nature of a moral impulse. Such impulses usually apply to the actions of humans in general. If a person genuinely believes that an action is severely immoral, they will not want others to carry it out. There is nothing virtuous about passively allowing actions which you recognise as wrong and thus refrain from. While liberals blindly praise “tolerance” and “acceptance” (their new buzzword), the reality is that such traits are only as virtuous as that which is being tolerated or accepted. To tolerate (or “accept”) genuine wrongdoing is to compromise one’s own moral character. Of course, one should tolerate behaviours which are not harmful or immoral (or at least, in the case of gay relationships or marriages, not more harmful than the alternative), but tolerating behaviours, while knowing that they are wrong, is nothing more than cowardice.  


Liberals and conservatives who read this may wonder, “If I cannot trust the government or the god of Christianity (or any religion) or even myself to make perfect moral judgements, then who can I trust?” If so, they have missed my point entirely. There is no being whose moral judgements are infallible. The better question to ask is not “who”, but “how”. How do we determine right from wrong? This is the part that many liberals and conservatives fear, the part where you have to use your own brain, by which I mean the ability to reason and reflect upon what is in the interests of humanity.  

In spite of the “you view yourself as god” accusation (discussed above), I believe it is possible to reason about morality, collectively and independently, without viewing either ourselves or others as infallible. It is important that we critically examine our own thoughts, intuitions and desires along with those of others and devoid dismissing other people’s criticisms of our views and actions as “personal, subjective truths” which are relevant only to them and not to us. As individualistic as relativism and liberalism are, they are no less authoritarian than conservatism. The only true alternative is genuine critical (including self-critical) thought.
While I will continue to write about feminism on this blog, I am considering expanding the focus of this blog to cover topics like rationalism, morality, revolutionary socialism and history. Let me know what you think of this idea.