The Postemotional Bully

A social theorist's new book considers the darker impulses beneath phony smiles and social media "like" messages. Scott McLemee checks it out.

May 27, 2015

You don’t often come across references to “the moral sciences” these days, unless you read a lot of biographies of well-educated Victorians, and maybe not even then. The term covers economics, psychology, anthropology and other fields in what are now usually called the social sciences. I’m not sure when the one gave way to the other. If the older expression sounds odd to the modern ear, that’s probably because anything called a science now implicitly rests on a fundamental distinction between fact and value.

A science sticks to “is” rather than “ought” -- or it ought to, anyway. (Whether or not the fact/value dichotomy is valid or coherent is a long discussion in itself.) Stjepan Mestrovic, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, does not overtly challenge the principle of value-free social science in The Postemotional Bully (SAGE). He uses concepts and distinctions from the canon of classical social theory to interpret contemporary cultural and behavioral trends.

But the ideas he draws on carry a certain amount of residue from the era of the moral sciences, while the phenomena he analyzes (the happy-face sadism at Abu Ghraib, for example) are too disturbing for studied neutrality to seem like anything but complicity.

George Orwell provides the book with its point of departure. “What,” Orwell asked in an article from 1946 that Mestrovic quotes, “is the special quality in modern life that makes a major human motive out of the impulse to bully others? If we could answer that question -- seldom asked, never followed up -- there might occasionally be a bit of good news on the front page of your morning paper.”

Sociology’s founding fathers never tackled the question, as such. But they did create a whole array of fundamental concepts about how the social system emerging over the past two hundred-odd years (often called modernity, a.k.a. capitalism, industrial society, mass society and related aliases) differed from the smaller-scale, slower-moving patterns of life that had gone before. And so Mestrovic can draw on Ferdinand Tonnies’s contrast between Gemeinschaft (community: organic, strong bonds, face-to-face relationships prevail) and Gesellschaft (society: change and dislocation common, regular contact with strangers, many interactions involve an exchange of money). Or on David Riesman’s interpretation of American society as moving from an inner-directed era (during which the sense of personal identity was shaped by values absorbed from parents and authorities) to one that is other-directed (the individual “is group oriented, conformist and changes values constantly to fit into norms and values that are in constant flux,” in Mestrovic’s words).

Other theorists and concepts also enter the discussion, but here it might be best to look in the general direction that the author steers them. An overarching schema of recent decades posits a sort of three-stage movement from a traditional order -- the Gemeinschaft, more or less -- to modern society, where the inner-directed people, at least, functioned with a sense of individual identity and established obligations, despite the alienation and other distractions of the Gesellschaft, including the antics of the other-directed. And beyond that? The postmodern condition, of course, which is endlessly defined and disputed without even reaching a plurality (much less a consensus) as to its meaning.

As an alternative, Mestrovic proposed his concept of “postemotional society” in the 1990s. An awkward expression, it has the sole virtue of allowing its creator to avoid sinking into the postmodernist quicksand without a trace. Perhaps the clearest way to explain postemotionality is to treat it as an extension and updating of Riesman’s characterization of other-directedness. The other-directed person relies on a peer group, rather than a deeply rooted and stringent superego, in determining what’s important and how to behave. Those accepted standards, in turn, often reflect current trends in film, advertising and mass media. By contrast Mestrovic’s postemotional type takes his or her cues from a culture more volatile and ephemeral than anything Riesman, writing in the early 1950s, could have imagined.

Postemotionality is -- for want of a more elegant way of putting it -- hyper-other-directed. It involves relationships that are “not intimate but also not alien.” The individual is “plugged and hooked into his or her electronic screen devices… pretend[ing] to be ‘in touch’ with others and the world” yet in reality “trapped in an electronic solitary confinement.”

But the condition is more than a symptom of the new digital order. In an insight combining Emil Durkheim’s thoughts on the division of labor with Donald Rumsfeld’s doctrine of manpower deployment (“People are fungible. You can have them here or there”), Mestrovic stresses that workplaces and institutions are increasingly prone to “the reduction of the human being as a fungible asset” that is “replaceable and interchangeable.” This aspect of the argument remains underdeveloped, but seems to echo recent discussions of precarity in employment. At the same time, society “aims much of its mechanical, intellectual, artificial and productive powers at the task of systematically faking community and its traits: the managed heart, fake sincerity, false kindness,” and so on, creating “new hybrid forms of emotional life that are neither entirely fake nor sincere.”

And beneath the forced smile -- that emblem of a “social life based upon dead emotions from the best” -- there lurks a considerable potential for cruelty. The author quotes Veblen’s remark that in modern society “simple aggression and unrestrained violence in great measure give place to shrewd practices and chicanery, as the best-approved method of accumulating wealth.”

But the process is not irreversible. The book takes up three cases of contemporary brutalization, postemotional style -- Abu Ghraib, the prolonged and ultimately fatal beating of an unresisting prisoner in an American jail, and a soldier driven to suicide by racial slurs and physical torture. I’ll forgo any discussion of them beyond noting that in each case, nobody within the chain of command was held accountable, the perpetrators’ rationalizations were more or less accepted by the court, and little or no punishment followed.

Add to that the prevailing tone of “screen culture” -- indignation, rage, contempt, malice and a certain cheerful callousness -- and the case can be made that Mestrovic has identified a real tendency, at least in American culture. I doubt the expression “postemotional” will ever catch on, though. It’s just the new normal.


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