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.
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Introduction

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).  

Conclusion 

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.
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Have you seen "Inside Out"? Let me know what you think of my analysis and wish me luck on my trip to Darwin.

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