the mark of maturity and courage is not to let one feeling cancel out the other, to give people their humanity –Ta-Nehisi Coates
Keith Humphreys has a new post on the human tendency toward “affective consistency”, our tendency to avoid conflicting feelings by choosing one and eliminating the other. He argues that this tendency dominates discussions about how to respond to the bad behavior of addicts and alcoholics.
People have a range of strong feelings about addicted offenders: rage, fear, pity, compassion and disgust. Those emotions may drive stereotyped, over-simplified views of this population and what to do about them. If you are scared and angry, addicted criminal offenders may seem like thoroughgoing monsters who belong in prison. If you feel pity and compassion, the same individuals may seem like misunderstood martyrs who couldn’t possibly pose a threat to anyone. If you feel both such feelings, you may be driven to edit out the subset of facts that complicate your emotions.
I understand the desire for emotional simplicity because I have struggled with it myself. In interacting with addicted people, I have at times felt angry at them, disappointed in them, caring of them and sorry for them at the same moment. It’s a challenging emotional swirl that even after many years in the addiction field, I have never come to enjoy. I try hard to help my students accept the emotional contradictions, rather than seeing addicted people either as sociopathic blackguards or innocent lost lambs. But I recognize that I am asking a lot of my mentees, as I am advising them to voluntarily maintain an unpleasant emotional state when a simpler view would be more satisfying (if inaccurate).
If we fail to deal with this complexity, we’ll be stuck in the same cycle of bad arguments and inadequate responses:
. . . without some ability to tolerate the dual nature of addicted offenders and the emotional complexity that brings, we will keep lurching back and forth between destructively draconian and laughably lax responses to this troubled and troubling population.