Understanding the Foundation of Emotions in America

BY MICHELLE TAFOYA | EMOTIONS

America is a country in constant change The emotions and values are contradictory but not unintelligible. They reflect the overwhelming, complex, and contradictory reality of an unequal country in everything: income and education, opportunities and achievements, the social place that one occupies, and the region where one lives.

We already know a good bit about our current dilemma. For example, the decline of trust in American society, beginning as far back when America was discovered,  to the 1960s and 

accelerating steadily to the present day, has been well documented and has eroded confidence in all three branches of government, the media, and in the scientific establishment.

The conflict  of national character studies that emerged in the final decades of the 20th century generally agreed in finding that there have been fundamental changes to the nature of American individualism, which was turning increasingly into a (use another word) ? for self-expression and self-presentation—or, as Christopher Lasch put it, a shallow narcissism. (As one interviewee rather grandly put it, “I am my own work of art.”) Individualism, furthermore, was less often moderated by membership inactive associations or neighborhood groups. 

What had once been a nation of joiners was becoming more isolated, potentially making individualism of any stripe a more destructive force because it was increasingly less socially contained. These findings have more recently been enhanced by additional data on the decline of memberships. A recent follow-up study showing that the relative balance between “I” and “we” in national discourse has been shifting steadily toward the former over the past three decades confirms this important shift in how many Americans perceive their world.

Younger people are more educated and have experienced greater social mobility than older adults and are less interested in participating politically. On the level of values, age is revealed as a discriminating variable: young people, compared to adults, experience greater libertarian, egalitarian, gender equality, permissive values on the moral level, and progressive values in the political plane.

Faced with the events of the past, the reactions on the country are a mixture of positive and negative feelings and emotions. On the one hand, pride, hope, and confidence express the desire for the country to transcend the difficult moment and the various problems it is experiencing, but it also reveals a discontent: the concern, disappointment, and anger that are present in the vision of the country have the youngest and the most educated.

Most of the feelings expressed are full of negativity: anger, resentment, disappointment, mistrust, dissatisfaction; fear, uncertainty, and worry. It also appears, although to a lesser extent, positive feelings such as hope, the illusion of change, joy, happiness, love, encouragement, trust, and pride. Contrary to the feelings aroused by America as a nation, as a community (loyalty, union, hope, and pride ), people’s feelings regarding the social and political situation that the country is going through are highly negative. Emotions such as anger, fear, and mistrust appear, particularly among young people, in response to government actions and public policies that are evaluated negatively. This led not only to mobilizations from different sectors but also contributed to polarizing positions in the country.

America is a country in constant change The emotions and values are contradictory but not unintelligible. They reflect the overwhelming, complex, and contradictory reality of an unequal country in everything: income and education, opportunities and achievements, the social place that one occupies, and the region where one lives.

We already know a good bit about our current dilemma. For example, the decline of trust in American society, beginning as far back when America was discovered,  to the 1960s and

accelerating steadily to the present day, has been well documented and has eroded confidence in all three branches of government, the media, and in the scientific establishment. 

Digging a bit deeper, the conflict  of national character studies that emerged in the final decades of the 20th century generally agreed in finding that there have been fundamental changes to the nature of American individualism, which was turning increasingly into a (use another word) ? for self-expression and self-presentation—or, as Christopher Lasch put it, a shallow narcissism. (As one interviewee rather grandly put it, “I am my own work of art.”) Individualism, furthermore, was less often moderated by membership inactive associations or neighborhood groups. 

What had once been a nation of joiners was becoming more isolated, potentially making individualism of any stripe a more destructive force because it was increasingly less socially contained. These findings have more recently been enhanced by additional data on the decline of memberships. A recent follow-up study showing that the relative balance between “I” and “we” in national discourse has been shifting steadily toward the former over the past three decades confirms this important shift in how many Americans perceive their world.

Younger people are more educated and have experienced greater social mobility than older adults and are less interested in participating politically. On the level of values, age is revealed as a discriminating variable: young people, compared to adults, experience greater libertarian, egalitarian, gender equality, permissive values on the moral level, and progressive values in the political plane.

Faced with the events of the past, the reactions on the country are a mixture of positive and negative feelings and emotions. On the one hand, pride, hope, and confidence express the desire for the country to transcend the difficult moment and the various problems it is experiencing, but it also reveals a discontent: the concern, disappointment, and anger that are present in the vision of the country have the youngest and the most educated.

Most of the feelings expressed are full of negativity: anger, resentment, disappointment, mistrust, dissatisfaction; fear, uncertainty, and worry. It also appears, although to a lesser extent, positive feelings such as hope, the illusion of change, joy, happiness, love, encouragement, trust, and pride. Contrary to the feelings aroused by America as a nation, as a community (loyalty, union, hope, and pride ), people’s feelings regarding the social and political situation that the country is going through are highly negative. Emotions such as anger, fear, and mistrust appear, particularly among young people, in response to government actions and public policies that are evaluated negatively. This led not only to mobilizations from different sectors but also contributed to polarizing political positions in the country.

Emotions, of course, are an inescapable part of real-life—no historian of emotions is going to urge some sterile rationality, which is unachievable in any event. And a number of recent developments—like the rise of public grief—surely have constructive aspects in terms of individual release as well as social communion. 

But some elements of the expansion of emotionality are clearly questionable, like the demonstrable surge of unnecessary fear and anxiety, and others—like the intriguing rise of disgust—at the least beg further interpretation. And again: The main point is not the individual patterns, but the larger trend of increased authorization for emotional expressions and the growing confusion of emotional impressions with a larger reality.

Obviously, each of the specific changes offers a particular profile, depending on the emotion involved. The rise of the need to express or discuss key basic emotions, like anger, surely reflects a more assertive sense of self. Heightened reference to social emotions like embarrassment is intriguing, calling attention to individual sensitivity in confronting a wider audience. Again, however, the overall trend is particularly noteworthy. 

The same trends also jeopardize tolerance. One of the virtues of the redefinition of American individualism, according to many late 20th-century studies, was greater support for tolerance: I as an individual will indulge my impulses, but I will also respect the indulgences of others. 

And this has clearly played out in a number of important if incomplete values changes in areas of Americans lives. But more fervent emotionality now threatens this trend, as it further underwrites partisanship: My group’s emotions are just fine, but your group’s need to be brought under control, for I reject their validity.

At the same time, the realization that collective emotional levels change over time offers hope, in principle, for possible remediation: What has gone up, in recent decades, might also be brought under greater control in decades to come. There are a few promising signs that warrant encouragement. 

The wellbeing movement, which began explicitly in 1999, though focused on the individual, has come to promote greater altruism, for example in urging more regular expressions of gratitude: The specific goal is greater personal contentment, but there are potential social effects as well.

Growing emotionality is an unexpected but significant contributor to the national climate, but, recognized and addressed, it is open to modification—whenever we really feel like it.

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