I'm familiar with some of Alec Baldwin's cruel outbursts and some of his dopey public statements, but I don't know the man and don't really care about him. So, to be clear, I'm not posting to defend Alec Baldwin, nor do I claim to know whether or not he's a bigot. In this post, he's just a device for discussion.
At my most clearheaded, I would hesitate to make sweeping judgments about a person based on what they might say during an angry meltdown, other than that they may be subject to fits of rage. It isn't that the words are meaningless, but words uttered in such moments don't necessarily define the so-called true character of a person.
Consider emotionally volatile couples. Are the worst words said in the heat of anger the essential truth about their attitudes and feelings toward one another? What about the positive and loving things they might otherwise say? Are the latter false, an act, a pretense?
If words spoken during emotionally intense moments are somehow truer than the words spoken during more calm, self-reflective moments, what about words spoken in the heat of sexual passion? Are they the essential truth about a person's feelings or are the nasty things said during an argument the truth?
Answer: there is no general principle that applies to all cases. People harbor mixed feelings, conflicted attitudes and implicit attitudes that they don't consciously embrace. Ever have a thought, a wish, a desire or inclination that you reject as morally wrong? Of course you have.
All of the above is prelude to a post by Wes Alwin, who takes up the problem of character essentialism in judging Alec Baldwin's most recent round of anti-gay slurs:
These condemnations are grounded in a number of highly implausible theses that amount to a very flimsy moral psychology. The first is the extremely inhumane idea that we ought to make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves: that what people do or say when they’re most angry or incited reveals a kind of essential truth about them. The second is that we are to condemn human beings merely for having certain impulses, regardless of their behaviors and beliefs. The third is that people’s darkest and most irrational thoughts and feelings trump their considered beliefs: Baldwin can’t possibly really believe in gay rights, according to Coates, if he has any negative feelings about homosexuality whatsoever. The fourth, implied premise here – one that comes out in the comical comments section following Coates’ post – is that we are to take no account whatsoever of the possibility of psychological conflict.
We refuse to allow ourselves to imagine that a single human being might have a whole host of conflicted thoughts and feelings about homosexuality: that they might be both attracted to it and repelled by it. That they might associate it with weakness and submission on the one hand, and on the other with the strength and courage required to face discrimination and disapproval. That they might be personally repelled by homosexuality yet be ashamed of that feeling, and meanwhile an ardent supporter of gay rights. They might have all of these feelings, incidentally, while themselves being gay. These sorts of mixed emotions – not merely about homosexuality, but about everything – are in fact the psychological norm. Our impulses are often at war with each other and with our considered beliefs: we do not have shiny, neatly-structured spirits in which our rational and irrational natures happily collaborate.
And here's another interesting angle to ponder. When swearing in anger occurs, it appears to arise in the same parts of the brain associated with the uncontrollable swearing and crude utterances sometimes associated with Tourette's syndrome. If a Tourette's sufferer shouts the n-word, do we believe that it reflects an essential truth about that person's attitude? Is there a comparable problem in the interpretation of crude utterances when a person is enraged?
Don't get me wrong here: self control is essential to successful, adaptive functioning. But among those who have difficulty with self-control, how should we judge the significance of their words in light of neurobiology?
Interestingly, in regards to the neurobiology of swearing, although in the great majority of Western people the speech areas are located in the left hemisphere of the brain, several case studies demonstrate that brain areas associated with swearing are primarily located in the right hemisphere (Van Lancker & Cummings, 1999). However, if swearing is used purposefully in the context of a person’s speech, the left hemisphere will also be actively engaged (Jay, 2000). More automatic or impulsive forms of swearing result from activity in the limbic system and basal ganglia of the brain. When these structures are damaged, this can lead to coprolalia, a condition in which a person frequently and uncontrollably utters swear words. This condition is also a symptom in some patients with Tourette’s disease, in which swearing manifests as an uncontrollable tic, along with other sudden, repetitive, non-rhythmic movements or utterances.
As a clinician, I would typically find the content of the yelling during a meltdown far less meaningful than the fact that a meltdown occurred. The most vile words spoken probably won't reveal as much truth about a person as an analysis of the 'why' behind the meltdown. Of course the content can also be explored, but with an understanding that meaning and psychic truth are far more complex than the worst things said during a person's worst moments.