In Defense of Negative Emotion

What states of consciousness do we want to foster, cultivate and integrate into our societies?

According to the latest curricula in social and emotional learning – in the English-speaking world at least – the answer can be summed up in two words: emotional harmony. Achieving this state of consciousness is a matter of self-control, which can be boosted through practices such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga. In fact, meditation and mindfulness practices are now blossoming in schools.

The greatest testament to the popularity of emotional harmony is that it can be used synonymously with terms such as wellbeing, mental health and emotional intelligence. In other words, voicing negative emotion is showing a lack of control, lack of harmony, even lack of intelligence. Should this come as any surprise to a culture where reason has been privileged over emotion for centuries? The psychologist Daniel Goldman, who wrote the popular book ‘Emotional Intelligence’, sums it up in his treatment of anger, which he wrote as needing to be ‘defused’, ‘deflated’, ‘de-escalated’ and ‘cooled down’.

The fact is that it’s natural to have negative emotions. Anger and sadness are vital to the human experience. Under the ‘emotional harmony’ curriculum, if someone insults you or your loved ones, the right response is to cool your anger. To ‘un-attach’ yourself from your rage so as to respond reasonably and emotion-free. To count to 10. What utter bullshit. Modern neuroscience research shows that the emotion/reason dichotomy which the Enlightenment era got its thrills on was false: that is, that emotion is permeated by reason (and vice versa). As philosopher Michalinos Zembylas put it: anger and sadness – a negatively evaluating emotion – can in itself be the emotionally intelligent reaction to a certain state of affairs.

So what could possibly be the preferred state of consciousness if it isn’t emotional harmony, tranquillity, harmony and wholeness? Aristotle believed it to be emotional vigour, unencumbered by the self-imposed policing of reason. Religion believes it to be self-renunciation. Education and wellbeing policy states it to be harmony and happiness. And I guess that’s the point – if you’re not careful, the preferred state of consciousness will be decided for you, and imposed on you.

This is not to say that all SEL programmes subscribe to this idea- the Center of Emotional Intelligence, for instance, highlights that high-energy negative emotion can be used within school curricula for activities that require heightened awareness: debating or passionate expression promoting a cause. These are skills that are fundamental to a healthy democracy after all. The way in which Anglo governments are fervently promoting social and emotional learning as a means of achieving emotional harmony are extremely alarming for this reason alone – self-policing citizenry refusing to become angry? What a dream come true for the entrenched political elite!

The goal of social and emotional learning should not be about teaching us how to feel, but how to take care of ourselves. As Foucault concluded, the essence of education is to teach ‘care of the self’, “taking up the challenge of creatively and courageously authoring one’s ethical self.” Education is – and should always be – the freedom by which you become your own authority. Nothing more, nothing less.

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