Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why Does Evasion Cause Pain?

When I speak of evasion I am speaking of an epistemological-psychological phenomenon in which one chooses to either ignore or pretend certain facts of reality don't exist, such as pretending (to oneself) that one doesn't know something that actually is known, or taking a certain course of action even though the available and known facts demonstrate that a different course is proper. Evasion is wide-spread in our culture, and exists everywhere in everything from politicians to significant others.

One thing I haven't thought to ask up until now is why the act of evasion causes pain. Have you ever exposed an evasion to someone in a certain issue and witnessed them become emotionally unhinged, doing everything from becoming hostile, panicking, and running away from the discussion? It's happened to me countless time.

For instance, once I was having a political discussion with someone -- and they left themselves open to the possibility since they expressed political opinions -- and the topic that sparked it was the practicality of unemployment benefits. When the other person expressed relief that a certain family member had received an extension of their benefits, I noted that unemployment benefits actually create unemployment. When they asked me why, I noted that it was funded by the government, and they know where government gets its funding, don't they? Here's where the evasion comes in: The person then said in a very meek tone that they didn't know. Given their old age I thought it was absurd, but I humored them nonetheless and began to explain coercive taxation, how it involves the confiscation of money from one person and giving it to another. A few sentences into my explanation the other person then flared into anger and then snapped that I should be grateful for all the things the government does, and when I continued to explain the impracticality of those measures the person panicked, got up, said they couldn't do anything about it, and left the room.

This kind of thing surely happens frequently, and I'm certain you've come across it. It could be just a key word or sentence, and the next thing you know your conversational partner is falling apart.

Why does evasion cause such intense discomfort?

So far I only have a hypothesis. I think it has to do with how painful it can be to pass negative moral judgments on oneself. It's easy to judge someone else as evil and to feel intense anger towards them, but directed towards oneself the same evaluation can be devastating. It can generate emotions so intense that it may sap one's motivation to pursue values, to remain active, or to even continue living. If you judge yourself to be evil, then you won't believe yourself worthy of values or living.

With knowledge comes the responsibility to act on it, and to act contrary to it is to be guilty of acting in ways you know you shouldn't have. By knowing something is wrong, one is impelled to take responsibility for those actions, or to at least feel terrible about such behavior. However, when someone wants to indulge in an emotion or whim that encourages contradiction to one's knowledge of proper living, one must evade that knowledge in those contexts in order to be able to "comfortably" engage the whim, and the whim can only be emotionalistically indulged so long as the evasion stands. When other people expose those evasions, such as I have in the above conversation, then the person will feel impelled to acknowledge the true nature of their stances and judge themselves accordingly. But again, to judge oneself as evil is very psychologically destructive, so any human foul enough to be evil is going to be motivated to evade the issues so as to avoid making that evaluation. In an attempt to avoid judging oneself or feeling guilty, the evader then acts like the problem resides outside of their being, they externalize it, and instead does such things as get angry at the people who exposed the evasion(s) to begin with, thus piling evasions on top of each other. That means that in my above conversation the person was trying to avoid feeling guilt about their unthinking endorsement of employment benefits, and instead resorted to another evasion by pretending the problem was with me, a person who questions those premises.

The solution to all these problems, of course, is not to evade to begin with. Evasion is probably the cause of uncivil debate. People in those circumstances haven't thoroughly thought out their beliefs, so they're trying to cover up their evasions and construct new ones by becoming hostile in those conversations. Shouting, for example, could be an instance of a person trying to shout down their inner voice and silence it, rather than direct it at the people in the conversation.

As for me, I've found that becoming an Objectivist has done wonders for installing a resistance to evasion. Nowadays I can only tolerate evasion almost just momentarily. The problem is not that I struggle with evasion, but that it takes me a short time to recognize that I'm doing it, and my philosophical premises, that evasion is evil, is what keeps me on track by making me uncomfortable whenever I should carelessly fall victim to it.


  1. Well you got in one, except to talk about why the evasive response seems to come out of the blue (sometimes), or why a really GOOD evasion is defended so hard. For my money, it's because a lot of the mental action is less-than-conscious (I'm not sure what "subconscious" or "unconscious", in this context, mean). So the evader couldn't even complete the causal chain, as you've done.

  2. I think you're making it more complicated than it needs to be. Evaders are trying to ignore some facet of reality. This is much easier if everyone else ignores it along with you. Once you call them out, however, they are forced to acknowledge the thing they are trying to hide from and that makes them uncomfortable. It's like not feeling bad about your shopping spree until the credit card bill arrives.


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