Emotions

In the early 1960s, psychologist Paul Ekman got a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study nonverbal behavior. Ekman set out to resolve a long-running dispute within psychology. The famous biologist Charles Darwin had argued in his book The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals that human facial expressions are universal: all human beings produce the same facial expression in response to a particular emotion, such as happiness or anger. In contrast, the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead had argued that such expressions of emotion are culture-specific. Ekman found out that Darwin was right.

To show whether facial expressions are innate or learned, Ekman studied people who lived in the Highlands of New Guinea. These were people who had not previously been exposed to photography or television or movies. As a result, they would not have been influenced by Western culture. Ekman found that there are seven basic emotions that predictably cause human beings to produce a characteristic facial expression. These facial expressions are involuntary. People produce them without thinking about them. Even if people try to keep a straight face, these emotions can flicker across the face for a fraction of a second. Ekman referred to these fleeting expressions as microexpressions.

The seven basic expressions are:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Contempt
  • Disgust
  • Surprise
  • Fear

In this interview, Ekman explains his research:

Later in the course of his work, Ekman started comparing his theories with the teachings of Buddhist philosophers. He found that Buddhist philosophers had been dealing with some of the same basic questions that interested him and other modern psychologists. Modern psychologists clearly have some advantages. They have advanced technology, such as cameras and brain scans and computers. However, the Buddhists have the advantage of a long literary tradition, as well as institutional traditions. Thus, Buddhist thinkers have been able to develop theories and practices that may be of great value. In particular, Ekman has had some fascinating dialogues with the Dalai Lama:

We can learn a lot from ancient philosophy, but we must also learn from history. I wrote Not Trivial to explain how some of the lessons taught by the ancient Greek philosophers are essential for anyone who wants to run a democratic society. Yet I would not want to live in a society like the ancient Greek city-states. Women had few rights. Many modern people think of the harem and the veil as aspects of Islam; but they are not required by the Koran, but they were practiced by the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks and Romans also had slaves. The Romans even turned human sacrifice into a sporting event. This documentary about Roman gladiators gave me nightmares:

Likewise, I would not have wanted to live in Tibet under the Buddhist theocracy. I would not want to live under any kind of theocracy anywhere. Theocracies do not have the kind of political checks and balances that protect human rights. As Michael Parenti warns us, we should avoid giving noncritical adulation to any religious figure:

Eric Blair (who wrote under the pseudonym George Orwell) taught us the same lesson in his essay Reflections on Gandhi, which Blair wrote shortly after Gandhi was shot to death by a Hindu nationalist. Gandhi was killed only a few months after India gained its independence from Britain. Blair knew a great deal about British perspectives on Gandhi because Blair’s father had been an official in Britain’s Indian Civil Service, and Blair himself had served in the Britain’s Indian Imperial Police in Burma. The essay begins, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” Blair went on to explain,

At about the time when the autobiography first appeared I remember reading its opening chapters in the ill-printed pages of some Indian newspaper. They made a good impression on me, which Gandhi himself at that time did not. The things that one associated with him — home-spun cloth, “soul forces” and vegetarianism — were unappealing, and his medievalist program was obviously not viable in a backward, starving, over-populated country. It was also apparent that the British were making use of him, or thought they were making use of him. Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he was an enemy, but since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence — which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever — he could be regarded as “our man”. In private this was sometimes cynically admitted. The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away. How reliable such calculations are in the long run is doubtful; as Gandhi himself says, “in the end deceivers deceive only themselves”; but at any rate the gentleness with which he was nearly always handled was due partly to the feeling that he was useful. The British Conservatives only became really angry with him when, as in 1942, he was in effect turning his non-violence against a different conqueror.

In the essay, Blair argued that Gandhi’s teachings and political actions raise important questions:

These and kindred questions need discussion, and need it urgently, in the few years left to us before somebody presses the button and the rockets begin to fly.

The essay concludes:

And if, as may happen, India and Britain finally settle down into a decent and friendly relationship, will this be partly because Gandhi, by keeping up his struggle obstinately and without hatred, disinfected the political air? That one even thinks of asking such questions indicates his stature. One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!

As Blair pointed out, Gandhi’s political agenda posed no threat to the wealthy upper-caste Indians. In this video, Arundhati Roy explains how complicated Gandhi’s legacy really is.

Nevertheless, if you need to find some way to struggle obstinately and without hatred, you may find Michael Nagler’s course on Gandhi’s theory and practice of nonviolence to be useful: