541. The marrying maiden (IX)
Alasdair MacIntyre identified what he called “emotivism” as a phenomenon that dominates contemporary social discourse in his After Virtue (1981). Emotivism can be summed up in this statement: “What I feel about abortion is that, at the end of the day, it’s the woman’s right choose, isn’t it? I mean, it’s her body. That’s how I feel, but I wouldn’t want to impose my view on anyone else; if you don’t want an abortion, fair enough.” MacIntyre contrasts this outlook, the normative outlook even now, with a sterner Aristotelian virtue; although MacIntyre amends Aristotle so as to make him amenable to the left, and to achieve this he disconnects virtue from biology.
I think what MacIntyre identified as “emotivism”, a tendency to think with your feelings, can mostly be attributed to television’s influence—secondarily, it is due to the profound feminisation of Western societies. Marshall McLuhan observed that television is a subjective medium, whereas literature is objective—TV undermines literacy. The reader looks at a page studded with fixed words; and he can pause to mull a point—flick backwards and forwards as he wants. He can even take a break and return to the book later. The TV allows no moment to pause and consider; it offers a continual flow that plays on your emotions through music, fast cuts, and bright colours. Until the advent of streaming services, you could not easily pause and rewind a program; and it is not within the medium’s nature to pause and return to a program—you binge on Netflix.
Emotivism is basically “TV thought”. When MacIntyre coined the term, in the early 1980s, the Western world was firmly “TV world”. MacIntyre remembered a time before TV world, a literary world where people were more objective—and that included in moral and political issues. However, by the early 1980s, TV had achieved critical mass—two generations had grown up semi-literate—and so it had become normal to express highly subjective opinions as in accord with televisual sensibilities. Without pause to think and consider, the TV mind just flows—and becomes irascible when interrupted.
Another contribution came from the format used by TV journalism, perhaps best described as “on the one hand, on the other.” So a TV discussion show on abortion will have Mrs. Mary O’Flaherty from the League of Our Blessed Virgin of the Mothers versus Laura Rothstein, PhD from the National Association for Women’s Rights (NAWR!). The debate will be “fair and balanced”, with the presenter earnestly canvassing “on the one hand, on the other”. This results in a false dichotomy: the viewer thinks that either women need to have 13 kids like Mrs. Mary O’Flaherty (or, today, Mrs. Taseen Ali) or 13 sexual partners like Laura Rothstein, PhD. A third view—abortion should be legal, but only the man should make the decision—never appears.
The viewer unconsciously identifies with the presenter; and this explains why the emotivist never really comes down on one side or the other—they behave like the presenter whose role, as all journalists know, is not to find “the truth” but to “present both sides fairly”. So people will say, “Abortion should be legal, but it’s a bad thing it happens. I understand why people are against it.” This is because, unconsciously, they have become “both-siders”, telly-subjectivists who feel pain as regards the idea that there could be an objectively true answer that does not “canvass both sides for reasons of inclusion”.
With the advent of social media, emotivism has declined. Why? Because even narcissistic activities like photographing yourself in your bikini for an Instagram shot objectivise—just as feminists say. Participatory social media objectifies, just as literature objectifies. You have to get it right. Consequently, emotivism has somewhat dropped off; and this accounts for a renascent rightism in the West, people have been trained to think more objectively again. However, at the same time, TV’s influence continues through services such as Netflix that reproduce televisual subjectivity in a new form.