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August Ideas Salon Review – Emotion Vs. Reason

August 21, 2009

Which was Victorious?

When Welshmen peed on their partners’ dresses 200 years ago, they did so sure in the knowledge that they’d be rewarded with a kiss from their beloved rather than a kick back to their caves. Fast-forward to the 21st century and we may find the British man vomiting on his girlfriend’s shoes instead – as someone quipped from the back of the bar at The Conversational’s latest Ideas Salon, Emotion vs. Reason, this week. The social and cultural arenas in which love and other emotions are played out may have changed, but their powerful influence on our emotional responses remains.

This month, The Conversational invited Calum Walker – a journalist and blogger with a particular interest in the anthropology of emotions – to challenge our assumptions about emotions.  Drawing from historical, philosophical, anthropological and psychological disciplines, Walker explored the way in which the emotions have been understood over time. His personal interest in the field stretches from the romantic love favoured by 12th century troubadours to the lack of anger in today’s Utku tribe of Northern Canada.

The conversationalists chatted their way through personal differences in emotional responses, the dominant emotions of our society, and the potential to construct rituals to help people channel negative emotions into something more positive.  Walker’s contribution to the essential question ‘What is an emotion?’ formed the basis of lively debate.  His premise is that emotions are not as innate or impulsive as we might believe – they are more akin to ‘felt judgements’ that play out along the lines of a script. 

I had personally hoped to be told that emotions were something far more volatile and romantic, desiring to answer to D. H. Lawrence’s call to put our faith in the flesh “as being wiser than the intellect”. Alas, it seems my upbringing, my values, and my expectations about the way the world should work are all called to the fore when I emote, however much I feel I’m following my “blood”. It’s cognition at play when I bridle at queue jumpers or swoon at a bouquet of flowers presented on a date.

In retrospect, it was a risky topic for the second of The Conversational’s Ideas Salons. A discussion of the emotions cannot easily be divorced from the lived experience, and it was more than a little luck that ensured that the conversationalists felt safe enough to share their own highs and lows, challenges and triumphs. Many were overheard sharing their vindictive streaks, loneliness and disillusion with the opposite sex!

By the end of the evening, it wasn’t all sadness, disappointment and frustration.  Although we speculated that our society’s dominant emotions in the years ahead seemed likely to be anger, fear or grief, Walker gave us hope: anger’s definitely on the list, but so is love.

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