Personal is Political: Crying While Arguing

Last night at our panel, Roxie bravely talked about a moment when she got into a big argument with her uncle about whether a woman had the capacity to be president. He was arguing that women were too emotional. She was arguing, of course, that emotion could be a fundamental tool in leadership positions. In the midst of this whole thing, of course, Roxie felt like she was going to burst into tears (she held it in until later).
Her brave admission reminded me of my own struggle within intellectual arguments, especially in my early 20s at Barnard and Columbia Colleges, to manage my own emotions. I remember one class, in particular, in which a classmate and I got into a fiery argument about the politics of language, ebonics, poverty, and education. I teared up in spite of myself and felt frustrated for the rest of the day that I’d let my emotions show.
Today I have more empathy for that 19-year-old version of me. I think that emotions, as Roxie argued, are a critical part of how I process the world, understand ideas and issues, and formulate my own arguments. In this still male-dominated realm of intellectual debate (just look at the op-ed pages of any major newspaper), the standard is still clear: emotions, and most certainly crying, don’t have a place.
But the older I get, the more comfortable I am in my own skin and with my own ideas, the more I think that’s a bullshit sexist paradigm. Of course it’s important to be self-aware and manage one’s emotions during an argument, but I think pretending as if the issue you’re arguing about has no personal significance or emotional resonance is actually a disempowering and, of course, inauthentic place to come from. My power these days comes from combining both intellectual rigor with emotional authenticity.

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139 Comments

  1. Athenia
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    If men were allowed to cry in general, men would consider tears as equal to muscle.
    Plus, tears are supposed to relieve stress/toxins so it really has nothing to do about whether you’re strong or not.

  2. DeafBrownTrash
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    “Of course it’s important to be self-aware and manage one’s emotions during an argument, but I think pretending as if the issue you’re arguing about has no personal significance or emotional resonance is actually a disempowering and, of course, inauthentic place to come from.”
    yeah, but you can’t let your emotions get in the way of rational thinking.
    For instance, what about a woman who have had an abortion and years later, she regrets it? Does that give her the right to be anti-choice and demand that other females be prevented from having the right to get an abortion? Because of HER own emotions based on her experience from years ago.
    Just saying.

  3. Hara
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    If you need evidence that men lack control of their emotions just as much if not more than other, look at the stats on violent crimes. i am so tired of people dismissing the fact that anger is an emotion. It’s not just the emotion of anger that men lose control of, but, that is certainly one that they tend to lose control of more often and more disastrously than women.
    Of course this is all generalizing.
    The truth is some people control their emotions better than others and sometimes that is good, sometimes, it results in a stifled, boring person.
    Joy is an emotion as well. I hope we all learn to express it more freely.

  4. jellyleelips
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    “Of course it’s important to be self-aware and manage one’s emotions during an argument, but I think pretending as if the issue you’re arguing about has no personal significance or emotional resonance is actually a disempowering and, of course, inauthentic place to come from.”
    This. The critique of women’s uncontrollable emotions comes from the bullshit tenets of rationality and objectivity. That anyone debating a topic should be emotionally detached from it and an objective observer. This is a carryover from the times when women were only debated ABOUT instead of participants IN the debates. I wonder how “unemotional” men would be about a debate over reinstating the draft (not that we should reinstate the draft or make men upset for no reason, but I hope y’all see my point).

  5. cattrack2
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I agree with DBT, emotion doesn’t play a role in debate. Emotion might play a role in rhetoric and in selling a point of view –supporters & critics of Obama alike frequently chide him for being so dispassionate–but when emotion displaces logic it just leads irrational decisions. We already have too many of these on both sides of the political spectrum.

  6. Ariel
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Is it sexist to feel manipulated with repeated interactions with a woman in which she cries while she’s arguing?

  7. delwalk
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I once worked with someone who would try to use her emotions as a trump card. My response would often be, “I see you feel strongly about this, but let me explain why I think this other way would be better…” She would respond that I wasn’t “validating” her emotions and I quickly came to understand that for her “validation” meant nothing short of abandoning my position and agreeing with hers even though she could not, by her own admission, marshall any evidence or put forth an argument to support her case. And this, I think, is the dividing line we need to be aware of. We all have emotions and I don’t believe we need to suppress or hide them. However I think what should be clear is that emotions in and of themselves do not make an argument any stronger or weaker. Whether we “feel strongly” about something or not, we still need to put forth an argument to make our case if we are to be effective and persuasive communicators. If we use our emotional state as a trump card or veto then we lose all credibility and only reinforce the negative stereotypes that are so prevalent today.
    Personally I don’t trust my emotions alone to guide me. I have learned through experience that I can be dispassionate and wrong or I can be emotionally invested and wrong. The correctness of my argument or belief has little bearing on how strongly I feel about my argument or the subject in general. Instead I use my emotional investment as a barometer of how much time and effort I should expend to actually learn about the issue and test my own thinking on the matter. It is precisely because I feel so strongly about a subject that I feel I have an extra burden to be critical of and validate my own arguments. It is too easy to let my emotions cause me to go deaf to other perspectives and for that reason I work extra hard to hear and critically evaluate opposing viewpoints as well as my own.

  8. Ariel
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Is it sexist to feel manipulated with repeated interactions with a woman in which she cries while she’s arguing?

  9. Nina
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Not taking emotions into account when living life/doing a job leads to things like voting against anti-rape legislation. Is that really where we want to go?!

  10. Nina
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Not taking emotions into account when living life/doing a job leads to things like voting against anti-rape legislation. Is that really where we want to go?!

  11. Nina
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Not taking emotions into account when living life/doing a job leads to things like voting against anti-rape legislation. Is that really where we want to go?!

  12. InterestedReader2020
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I have never commented before on any blog, but I had to contribute something I learned recently.
    I was speaking to my therapist about this exact issue, and she said that some people tear up when they are angry/pissed/mad. She said in her practice women often do this. I don’t want to make any gender generalizations, but just share this insight.
    Since learning this I have felt much more in control of my emotions. What I had interpreted as weakness or emotional vulnerability in the past is really my own anger manifesting in a physical way. Since learning this I feel much more able to argue through the tears.
    Anyways, just wanted to share in the hopes someone else may feel more in control and empowered through this tidbit.

  13. jellyleelips
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Depends on the topic and the person, probably. If people want to argue about abortion rights or rape laws with me, if they go far enough they’re probably going to see tears every time, because reproductive rights and sexual violence are very touchy and near to my heart. For someone else, equal pay legislation might elicit the same response. Crying isn’t manipulation, it’s an honest response. But people who cry to get their way in an argument are indeed just as bad as people who claim emotion has no place. It can’t be EITHER rationality OR emotion. It’s both/and.

  14. argolis
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    There is a personality typing system I am obsessed with and it has really helped me pick up on when certain people (usually men, but sometimes women) will present their arguments in a scholarly or impartial way when they are, in fact, entirely fueled by their emotions.
    For example, take Glenn Beck’s attack on Baltimore schools for having “Meatless Mondays” on their school cafeterias. He might frame it as an issue of indoctrination and freedom or choice, but it really comes down to his gut desire to have a hamburger how he wants it when he wants it.

  15. The Flash
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Part of what’s in play here, though, is that tears are coercive– the argument isn’t about what you’re saying anymore. We do live at a time and in a place, mostly, when it’s really, totally out of bounds to continue to fight with someone once they’re crying.
    I once dated a woman who was in a very difficult personal position that left me feeling like I couldn’t break up with her even when the relationship was totally screwed up. And once or twice, late at night in the middle of stupid fights where I felt completely trapped, I, you know, let a tear or two go. And she said, the second time, that crying is coercive: that her anger was invalidated by my distress. And that’s right. And that’s why a lot of people discourage crying and disrespect cryers, male and female: you can’t have your fight with someone who cries, even if you’re right.
    Also, people who can’t control their anger are disrespected just as much as people who can’t stop themselves from crying. people who get too angry are “psychos” who you “break up with” and are regarded as “dangerous,” even if they’ve never gotten physically violent.

  16. cattrack2
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure why this would be sexist. I think crying is the flip side of yelling & cussing belligerently, they are as equally unfair as they are equally unproductive.

  17. maggeimerc
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Absolute rationalism is just as dangerous as allowing your emotions to color your argument too strongly. One is outright dishonest and the other takes the debate to very personal places that will bring discomfort to everyone involved.
    Unfortunately I find the latter to be the more common occurrence (from both sexes).

  18. Gnatalby
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I think she has the right to her own experience. I don’t think she has the right to legislate it.
    But as much as I disagree, I think she can emotionally advocate to other women that they might regret having an abortion, as that’s what happened to her.

  19. JLu
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I do not understand what you are saying here. Is there ever a moment when a decision is made without any bit of emotion? I would say that it would be impossible to find and impossible to prove. Even those decisions that look rational or lead to some sort of rational conclusion are full of some sort of emotion, even if that is tempered with logic. [and I would also argue that calling something "rational" is completely and totally subjective, probably something you base on your own emotion about the issue at hand]
    And I do think that, even if we don’t agree with that woman’s logic or rationale, she does have the right to make decisions based on experience and emotion, as much as anyone does.

  20. Igiveup
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I’m a crier. I get choked up when I feel stressed, am nervous, am angry, feel like I’m being attacked… the list goes on and on.
    Some people see this as manipulative, but fuck it, I’ve seen other behavior, like angry behavior, that’s manipulative too. That doesn’t get called out nearly as much as crying does.
    I usually say something like, “Don’t mind my tears, it’s just something I do when I feel strongly about a subject.” But it still annoys me because I feel like I undermine myself when doing it.
    This is one of the reasons that I prepare for meetings or discussions by writing things out. I prefer to write down my thoughts or arguments or expectations/demands and offer it in writing prior to any verbal discussion because I’m afraid I’ll cry. Can’t always do this, though.
    That’s just one way I’ve learned to deal with it, but I eagerly look forward to a time when crying is much more accepted and not dismissed or diminished as “manipulative.”

  21. lyndorr
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    “However I think what should be clear is that emotions in and of themselves do not make an argument any stronger or weaker.”
    Hmm. Perhaps OUR emotions don’t affect the strength of an argument but I think when arguing about social issues emotions certainly could be used to make an argument stronger. For example, if it was somehow found out that a certain group we are trying to help are perfectly happy the way they are, wouldn’t that affect decision making? I guess that might still sound logical but so many decisions are made without actually considering the feelings of the people who will be affected by these decisions. Instead decisions are made by “logic”.
    And I would say the emotions of the person arguing can have a place as long as he or she can keep in mind that he or she is one person with one story and not everyone feels guilty after getting getting an abortion for example. Ideally in that situation it would be acknowledged that abortion has affected at least one person negatively while the woman who had the abortion would acknowledge the fact that she is in the minority.

  22. nestra
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, when you allow emotion to enter your discussions or arguments, you leave yourself open for someone to call you down on your “tone” in an attempt to bring you down a few notches and assert their superiority. With some people, only they are allowed to care enough about an issue to bring emotion into it.

  23. Wonderwall
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this! I tear up relatively easily – whether from being sad, happy, angry, whatever. In arguments it is usually from being angry or frustrated that I cry and then, yes, I feel as if my points are moot simply because of my tears.
    For myself, I am learning that sexism is an extremely emotional topic. I didn’t become a feminist because I rationally understood patriarchy…I became a feminist because I was pissed off, I was sad, I was sick of the world, and I FELT that the way things were/are is wrong and that there is a better option.
    So at its beginnings, my feminism was solely based on feelings. As I grow into it, I am learning the rational arguments of feminism. Now I can more often than not hold an argument without tears and with lots of rationality.

  24. allisonjayne
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of the time when a woman I know was written up and told that she should not be made a manager because she was ‘too emotional’. This was based on the fact that she started crying when she was yelled at by her boss (who admitted he hated women) while she was 8 months pregnant. She went on maternity leave, and did not return until 5 years later, and never pursued management positions again. This was in the 80s, but this shit still happens today.

  25. JLu
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    That’s a false dichotomy. Emotion and logic are not opposites and one does not cancel out the other. I don’t know what is gained from claiming that logical decisions aren’t also emotional ones. And can’t emotional decisions be logical? If not, why not?
    Courtney is right on this. Why are we so quick to dismiss the emotional side of making decisions?

  26. Hara
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Was that like working for a man that YELLS?
    Yelling is a show of EMOTION!!!!!
    lol
    ; )

  27. Kate
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for saying this. I hate that women are thought to be the “emotional” ones just because we may cry more so than men. Men show emotion in their own way too. I once dated a guy who would punch a door frame until his knuckles bled or throw beer bottles across a room until they shattered to show his frustration during an argument. In that case, I think my crying was at least a less harmful way to show emotion. Even screaming at someone is a way to show emotion, and I’ve certainly met lots of men who do that.

  28. ekpe
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    the point wasnt that men are less emotional than women, but that emotions, when making a decision, is not a good thing. i think your argument only bolsters that point with anger is coupled with decision making. i don’t know anyone that denies anger is an emotion

  29. Hara
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    if tears are coercive so is yelling, stomping, sniffing, etc.
    again, remember, anger is an emotion.
    Men use it all the time, women too, but, not as often and not with the same stigma. Stigma, maybe, if it goes far enough to fall into the category of abuse, but, will they be accused of lacking control of their emotions the way a woman who tears up ?

  30. Wonderwall
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    That’s a really good point. I think a lot of arguments are presented as rational when they really are fueled by emotions.

  31. delwalk
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I worked for a deli where the owner blew his top all the time. One time the cooler repair guy wasn’t finished in time for the lunch rush so he lost it and threw the guy out and told him to take the beverage cooler with him. For weeks our customers had no drinks to purchase with their lunches (and we lost a lot of revenue).
    Another time the girl who delivered lunches to a local business got a better job and quit on short notice so instead of sending someone else or canceling that one day as he tried to adjust schedules or hire someone, he simply discontinued the delivery service. It was good revenue and he just threw it away because he was pissed that this girl quit.
    The thing that guy taught me was to ignore whatever he said when he lost it because he couldn’t both express his emotions and make sensible decisions at the same time.

  32. ekpe
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    sorry, this was in reply to Hara above

  33. Steveo
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    A few other people have said this as well, but emotion’s biggest role in debate should be causing one to do their research.
    As someone with strong opinions and emotional responses I have had to work very hard to control my emotions in debates. And also learned not to rely on people having the same emotional reactions as me. Because frankly, it didn’t work.
    Now, I can feel just as strongly about a subject, and I don’t need to hide that I feel strongly, but I can maintain my self control, which keeps my thoughts clear, and has made debating much more productive, in both being able to persuade others better when I they are incorrect, or changing my mind when I am incorrect.

  34. Honeybee
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see what this proves since murder and assault are looked at even more negatively then someone breaking down into tears.
    I don’t think anyone would ever argue that a man getting mad and murdering or assaulting someone is ok.

  35. Lilith Luffles
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    When arguing, we must separate what makes us human, that is logic and emotion. We must shut emotions off completely and this is totally possible if you aren’t an over emotional pussy.
    For example, if you have a co-worker that is great for the company and they are sexually harassing you, you should abandon emotions and think for a second “well, they are definitely really good for the company and they could get fired if I tell on them, so it is in the company’s best interest to not report them and for me to just suck it up and stop having negative feelings.”
    Or if you are in the U.S. and want to have a baby of your own. It is illogical to have a baby of your own because there are plenty of babies and children and teens that need to be adopted, plus if anymore children in the U.S. are born it will only add another carbon footprint to the earth.
    Or when arguing whether men should care about the rape epidemic against women. You should not bring the fact that their sister or girlfriend or mother could be affected because that is appealing to emotions. We should care about the fact that women are raped only for logical reasons, such as the fact that women who experience trauma may not be as effective a worker if they keep having flashbacks and crying about it. Instead of “it could happen to your daughter” we should say “it could happen to your employee and then she might have to skip work due to trauma and that is bad for the company.”

  36. Honeybee
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Logic and emotion ARE mutually exclusive. Logic by definition means a decision is made based purely on facts with no regard whatsoever for emotions. That’s the very root of it’s meaning.

  37. delwalk
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    cattrack2 didn’t set up a false dichotomy. The argument was that when emotion displaces logic it leads to irrational decisions. That’s not the same thing as saying emotion and logic are mutually exclusive.

  38. Fairbetty
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    “My power these days comes from combining both intellectual rigor with emotional authenticity.”
    Love this… and find encouragement in it not to be ashamed if my eyes fill with tears while debating something I am passionate about.

  39. Laura
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I tend to cry when I feel strongly about things, and I’m very bad at controlling tears once I start feeling that I’m going to cry. One of my best friends, who I often talk to when I’m upset, says that he’s jealous of how deeply I feel things. We’ve laughed about how I’m jealous of his self-control and equanimity and he’s jealous of my emotional freedom. I’m not sure I agree with his assessment of the situation, although I really appreciate the fact that he thinks my emotional responses to things are totally valid. I think what he may be jealous of is that I’m socially allowed to cry when I’m upset. It is so much more socially acceptable for women to cry than men.

  40. Honeybee
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree yelling, anger, stomping, sniffling IS coercive. I don’t think anyone is arguing that they aren’t.
    The point is that those emotional responses are equivalent to crying. They are just different ways to express the same thing. If we agree those emotional responses are coercive then we must also agree crying is coercive for the same reason.

  41. Teresa
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    “Of course it’s important to be self-aware and manage one’s emotions during an argument, but I think pretending as if the issue you’re arguing about has no personal significance or emotional resonance is actually a disempowering and, of course, inauthentic place to come from. My power these days comes from combining both intellectual rigor with emotional authenticity.”
    Right on! I have never seen this put better, and I agree 100%.

  42. Lilith Luffles
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Someone who is overly happy is manipulative. How many times in a movie or tv show has there been a scene where somebody was going to say or do something but the other person it would affect was really happy and so they couldn’t stand to say the bad news for fear of the person becoming UNhappy?

  43. Wonderwall
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    That’s a really good point. I think a lot of arguments are presented as rational when they really are fueled by emotions.

  44. Teresa
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    “Of course it’s important to be self-aware and manage one’s emotions during an argument, but I think pretending as if the issue you’re arguing about has no personal significance or emotional resonance is actually a disempowering and, of course, inauthentic place to come from. My power these days comes from combining both intellectual rigor with emotional authenticity.”
    Right on! I have never seen this put better, and I agree 100%.

  45. delwalk
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like you feel strongly about this. I fail to see, however, the connection between “objectivity” and “rationality” and the exclusion of female voices. Are you making the argument that objectivity and rationality were devised to keep women out of the conversation or that they were emphasized as further evidence as to why women should continue to be excluded from the debate? I could be persuaded as to the latter but I don’t see any evidence for the former.

  46. laura
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Generally, when some men are being hysterically selfish, they simply call it “rationality”. Or maybe even logic: “Woman, if you don’t do what I want, you’re being hysterical!”
    That’s how the trick is done.
    Also, it’s astonishingly easy to stay detached from someone elses pain. As in, “Gee, woman, you’re really overemotional about those women’t rights! As if they were really important.”

  47. jellyleelips
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Nobody would argue that men’s violence is okay. Well, unless that violence is against women, gays, transpeople, or people of color, and the person happens to be a victim-blamer, which is a lot of people. The commenters above are just saying that men’s violence is not seen to be “emotional,” when it is indeed based on emotions like anger and frustration.

  48. delwalk
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    In an argument an emotional reaction can cut both ways. That’s why I believe it is important to marshall as much supporting evidence as you can for the correctness of your position. Sure display of emotion can sway some to be more sympathetic to your position, but if all you have is emotion you can also be just as easily dismissed by your opponent. I’m fine with you drawing me in by your emotional investment but to convince me you’re going to have to sway me with facts.

  49. jellyleelips
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Don’t really feel like typing an explanation of Western Enlightenment thinking to you. Go look it up, and use a feminist analysis yourself.

  50. Sidewriter
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    There was a reading in a class I TAed for with a title like “Somatic Marker.” I can’t remember the writers first name, but his last was Damasio.
    The basic argument was that emotional responses, like gut reactions are shortcuts to the logical process of decision making. One might have a quick, visceral, and emotional response to a moral dilemma, but when you unpack it logically your decision would be the same. Logic takes a while to get there, but emotion is faster.
    Of course, we don’t always need our decisions to be fast. Unpacking the logic behind them is useful for lots of things, especially discussion. But the idea that emotion and logic exist on the same spectrum, not mutually exclusive ones, was so liberating to me.

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