Crocodile Tears

paula deen today show crying 660 videograb1Food Channel viewers in the U.S. will know the popular celebrity cook Paula Deen and the controversy, that hit the media about a month ago, over past racially-charged statements that she confirmed making in a court deposition. One of the things that interests me about this episode is the media response, especially speculations on whether the tears she shed in a morning talk show interview were real or fake — i.e., were sincere (making her apology legitimate and heart-felt) or staged (and thus a manipulative attempt to, I don’t know, save some of her business contracts by resuscitating her public image).

Such commentaries on the authenticity of crying are reminiscent of the many news stories about the public reaction in North Korea to the death of Kim Jong-Il, almost a couple years ago — such as this BBC News article:

Picture 9It’s interesting how such speculations reveal a commonsense Cartesian dualism that, in daily life, we still seem to apply to our understanding of the self: presuming not just a gap between mind and body but also assuming that the rational ghost can’t quite control all of the unruly, non-rational machine. For crying “on purpose” — presumably the result of rational control and thus intentionality, such as an actor shedding “real” tears on cue — is judged insincere and inauthentic in interpersonal relations while tears that are thought by others to bypass our intentions are judged to be real and honest (and thus acceptable).

This reveals an ironic Catch-22 that seems to govern social life: if you want to apologize then the apology’s a fake.

The folk psychology that drives these speculations and judgements — which, I’d say, pretty much all of us draw upon routinely in navigating our way around our everyday social worlds — therefore assumes that the true, sincere, and thus authentic self somehow lurks beneath our rationality, residing somewhere deep in our so-called reptilian brain. Sincerity is thus pre-rational — making that old phrase, “crocodile tears” 180 degrees off the mark (since reptilian tears are, apparently, the only sincere ones in us!). Though we can’t overlook that while there are times when we’re eager to meet this deeper self (e.g., in someone’s apology), there are times when appealing to a supposedly non-rational, true self won’t get you very far (e.g., as an excuse for behaviors carried out while in a so-called “blind rage”).

Despite how passé many of us today think Freud’s theories are, this widespread view of the self is curiously close to his own — making our folk psychology a testament either to his accuracy or influence.

4 Replies to “Crocodile Tears”

  1. Wow. Nice one. I’ll be curious to see where this line of thought takes you. I’ve been thinking about writing something on the tensions between psychiatric medication and spiritual work that’s taking me to a vaguely similar place: which feelings do we attribute to our true selves and which do we attribute to the effects of medication or neurobiological disturbance? My model of identity is not too clearly defined, mostly influenced, I believe by pragmatist philosophy, so, I think the distinction between “my true feelings” and feelings engendered by self-seeking or neurobiological interference plays out in the differing treatment we afford them: “true feelings” deserve empathy, they need to be expressed, they call for an honest response from others, and generally merit continued exploration and multiple explanations (a la Freud, overdetermination). Feelings ascribed some other source can be dismissed more easily; a cynical or instrumental explanation strips them of their mystery and releases the self and others from the need to treat them with empathy, engaged response, or kindly curiosity.

  2. Well, I’m not all that interested in what is or is not the true self–that’s a rhetorical construct for me. I’m interested here in the commonsense view of personal identity that we walk around with and how we use it to manage social life–i.e., at times the so-called true (and thus acceptable) self is pre-rational but at times it is not–the blind rage example or “it was the alcohol talking”, cases in which we “ought” to have controlled that outburst and thus the accountable self is our so-called rational side… Now, I don’t particularly subscribe to this rational/non-rational distinction as being based on nature, but it’s the commonsense view that many of us walk around with, draw upon to judge how well other people grieve or apologize, etc.

  3. I’m not suggesting that the distinction between true and not-true self is anything more than a rhetorical construct. I think you’re on to something interesting in looking at how that construct shapes our conception of the source of feelings, and thereby determines the range of responses we offer to those feelings.

    Once you mix up true-self/not-true-self and rational/non-rational, though, it gets too complicated for me to follow.

  4. It strikes me that rhetorics of authenticity are among the most important things to study when examining how social life works.

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