On (in)validation

Confession time: I’m not quite sure what people mean when they call emotions, preferences, choices or identities valid.

I know what it means for conclusions: a conclusion is valid if it follows logically from the premises. “Socrates is mortal” is a valid conclusion to draw from the premises “all men are mortal” and “Socrates is a man”: it correctly combines the premises and makes no assumptions not given in the premises.

It’s worth noting that valid does not mean true in this context, it means justified. “Socrates has a penis”, regardless of whether true, would not be a valid conclusion, since it would necessitate the additional premise “all men have penisses”. Such an invalid conclusion is not necessarily false – Socrates may very well have a penis, it just does not follow from these precise premises.
Conversely, a valid conclusion is not necessarily true, either. The conclusion “all swans are blue” is valid if given the premises “all birds are blue” and “all swans are birds”, even though swans are not actually blue – the flaw lies not with the conclusion, but with the first premise.

When people talk (or write) about validating emotions, they seem to mean something similar: acknowledging that someone’s emotions are understandable and make sense given their particular context. Sometimes, though, it just refers to acknowledging the existence of the emotions (e.g. “I can see that you’re upset”).
Invalidating someone’s emotions would be the opposite: accusing someone of overreacting, for example, or denying that they feel what they claim to feel.

However, invalidating someone’s emotions does not change whether they actually make sense or exist. If person A professes fear of going down into the basement, and person B tells them they don’t look scared and/or that doesn’t make sense, they’re not changing whether A actually feels fear, or eliminating the reasons. It’s more likely they’re just misreading A’s emotional state and/or missing some vital piece of information – for example, A might be afraid of the dark and the lights in the basement might be broken. (Both of these premises together would allow the valid conclusion that A is afraid of going into the basement.)

And sometimes, people talk of invalidating emotions when it’s actually the premises behind them being attacked. For example, B might say that A’s fear doesn’t make sense because the light in the basement has been fixed. In this particular example, the misunderstanding should be cleared up quickly and easily – if A responds by reminding B of their fear of the dark, for example, or if B already suspects A doesn’t know about the lights and includes that piece of information.

Other real-life situations are often messier, and the fact that being accused of being unreasonable doesn’t feel too good is not helpful either. Take-home message: when suspecting an emotion of being invalid due to false premises, clarify this up front, and/or make sure the premises in question are actually involved in forming the emotion (if A’s fear of the basement is due to their fear of spiders rather than the dark, fixed lights might only help a little).

Preferences and choices might be valid the same way; after all, preferences are mostly feelings of like/dislike, and choices are made based on one’s preferences (for the chosen option itself or its expected outcomes).

Problems arise with the distinction between primary (or terminal) and secondary emotions or preferences. It’s possible that someone is afraid of the dark because they are afraid of hurting themselves (premise: “it’s very likely to hurt myself in the dark”), in which case the premise’s veracity could be examined more closely and the premise itself modified or amended (“actually, it’s unlikely if I am careful” or “actually, it’s unlikely to hurt myself in our basement, which is largely empty except for some old mattresses”), but it’s also possible that someone just is – and the distinction is often unclear: children might be afraid of the dark because they imagine unseen monsters surrounding them, but the images might just as well have been conjured by their brain because of their fear. (People are very prone to finding seemingly rational explanations for their or other people’s feelings regardless of whether said explanations are actually the true reason for their emotions.)

Most emotions and preferences are subject to feedback loops that make it impossible to separate primary and secondary emotions: if someone eats chocolate and it makes them feel great, they’ll associate chocolate with feeling great and develop a preference for chocolate, and the next time they’ll eat chocolate, they’ll feel great both because the chocolate made them feel great and because they got to satisfy their preference, and so the cycle spins on.

Whereas if they eat carrots, dislike them, don’t want to eat carrots anymore, but are forced by adults to eat them anyway, their original (primary) dislike of carrots will be strengthened by the association with being forced to do something they didn’t want to do. (This is why good parenting books advise not to force children to eat vegetables.)

Curiously, primary desires often seem to be considered more valid rather than less so in real life: “you only think carrots suck because you’ve never had them prepared in this particular way” is understood as an invalidation of one’s dislike of carrots, and “no, I really don’t like them” is understood to support the dislike’s validity (even though it doesn’t even address the objection).

As with the example of fear of the dark, it’s possible that the invalidation is an attack on the premises rather than the conclusion, though. From the premises “I dislike carrots prepared in way x” and “I dislike carrots prepared in way y”, one could infer a general dislike of carrots – trying them prepared in way z could introduce a new premise (“I like carrots prepared in way z”) and thereby actually render the inference invalid.

The dangerous pitfall here, and also the reason why invalidation matters, is that attacking a premise often necessitates ignoring the inferred preference and pressuring or even forcing someone to make choices running counter to their preferences. If you ignore someone’s stated dislike of carrots, give them carrots anyway and tell them to just try them, even just out of scientific curiosity, you might open up a whole new worldview for them, or you might cause them to have a very unpleasant experience, remain hungry, and like you a lot less. (You might even end up doing both, if they end up liking the carrots but strongly dislike you pressuring them.) Therefore, proceed with caution and be aware of the risks.

Regarding identities, this might also be a matter of potentially false premises. If person A believes the premise “bisexuality means being attracted to men and women in exactly the same way and similar numbers”, and then meets self-identified bisexual person B whose description of their experiences does not match the premise, A might very well object to B calling themselves bisexual on this basis.

With terms that don’t have clear, agreed-upon definitions, this is often quite frustrating and ends in A asserting that bisexual means exactly what they think it means and B asserting that it doesn’t. Sometimes, though, the inclusion of additional premises can help: B could make the argument that while they’re not attracted to men and women equally, and to various non-binary people in addition, all other available terms (e.g. homo- or heterosexual or -flexible or queer) would be inadequate or misleading for various reasons and might make them as well as others miss out on pleasurable experiences and relationships.

If what I’ve written so far is true, people posting one-liners about identities etc. being valid don’t make a whole lot of sense. They obviously don’t know the premises everyone reading the post believes, or what evidence they have to support each premise (which is also a potential failure mode: if you’ve only had carrots prepared in way x a single time, maybe there was some flaw in the preparation that had nothing to do with carrots and/or way x at all).

So what’s actually going on here?

The same thing as always, Pinky: I’m taking things literally that were not meant literally. People posting one-liners about validity are not trying to communicate “your premises are correct and your conclusion is valid” but something else.

Most of those posts are about preferences etc. that are unusual and culturally devalued, i.e., lots of people believe that (some of) their premises and/or conclusions are wrong. This means people with those preferences etc. experience a lot of invalidation, which can be simply annoying or cause them to doubt and question their own premises and conclusions a lot (after all, if so many people think they’re wrong, maybe there’s something they’ve overlooked the last hundred times they questioned themselves, and maybe they just need to eat even more carrots to find the one way they like them).

Since feelings of doubt and uncertainty are uncomfortable and can be unhealthy, well-meaning people who want to give them a break might do so via imprecise one-liners, causing confusion in people with the unusual habit of taking things literally.
There. Problem solved. (I think. Some of my premises or conclusions might be flawed.)


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