It often seems like general American society is lobotomized. Emotional outbursts of really any sort are largely looked down upon and discouraged. Ethnic groups known for their strong emotions are stereotyped and ridiculed. Stoicism and lack of emotion are considered prerequisites for masculinity; the perceived absence of stoicism and broader displays of emotion as signs of lower intellect are roots of misogynistic attitudes. We’re expected to be always comfortable, never too happy, or too sad, or too angry, or too frustrated.
A lot of what we’re dealing with in this lobotomized climate comes from classical philosophers. Stoicism appeared in philosophical writings and teachings around 300 BCE, and advocates for a “repression of emotion, indifference to pleasure and pain, and living by logic.” If that sounds vaguely familiar, Gene Roddenberry used the Stoics as a template for the Vulcan race in Star Trek.
How stoicism came to be attached more definitely to men probably has something to do with the fact that the vast majority of classical philosophers were themselves men. Now, over two millennia on, men are still expected to live up to the same so-called “enlightenment” that stoicism brings by living without the “hysterical” nature of emotions. Menses-induced ‘hysteria’ in some way gave women a pass from stoicism, but expressing emotion was—and largely remains—seen as being a less developed, less intellectual type of human.
Stoicism sounds like it makes some sense. Humans do tend to make more irrational—and perhaps regrettable—decisions when dealing with large amounts of emotional distress. On its face, it sounds like an efficient idea to remove emotions and make calculated, effective decisions regarding every aspect of life. There’s only one catch: emotions are an integral part of the human experience.
Even in the 1960s, when gender roles were at their strongest, Gene Roddenberry could see this, and attempted to show the world. In the original series of Star Trek, the two most easily recognized characters are those of Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Spock. Kirk is rash, reckless, and makes decisions based on intuition and heat-of-the-moment emotions. Spock, the shining example of the logical endpoint of stoicism, is cold, calculating, and makes decisions based purely on intellect and objectivity. The two are effective in different ways on their own, but never more so than when they are together. This pairing, this unlikely friendship between emotion and logic, is one of the most important—and largely underappreciated—social commentaries of the modern age. What Roddenberry was showing was the necessity of a balance between emotion and stoicism. That spontaneity and irrationality have an important role to play in what it means to be human.
As a man, I try as hard as I can to shake the mantle of stoicism. We should be allowed to show how we feel about the world around us. Being lulled into a superficial complacency is dangerous for the equality and fulfillment we all seek. When Tom Cruise is painted as crazy for jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch in an abundance of love for his then-wife, it is disheartening. When violent outbursts are automatically linked to mental illness in the eyes of society, it is disheartening. Humans still have emotions whether or not they learn to display them.
Stoicism has caused us to be a race of emotionally constipated wo/man-children. We repress our intense feelings of love, of joy, of pleasure, of grief, of anger to maintain this useless composure in the eyes of our peers. We, as queer people, often have a lot of very intense emotions stemming from hate we’ve experienced, love, self-acceptance, or pain we’ve endured. However, we’re still not allowed to show it, especially if we want to be taken seriously—a task already much too hard. So, instead, we look for alternate releases of these feelings—through drugs, through alcohol, through anonymous sex, through violence, and we end up more emotionally stunted than we were before.
I assert that it is time for a new world order. We must all slough off the social conditioning of stoicism and express our feelings. Our feelings are what make us human and not robots or Vulcans. Should we act irrationally always in the name of satiating our emotions, no, absolutely not. Like Kirk and Spock there must be a balance. Think of how many of our brothers, sisters, and siblings in queerdom may be alive today if feeling was an acceptable norm. That we weren’t made to feel crazy or worthless for being exuberant, or high-energy, or depressed. Would we have to choose between the stigma of mental health therapy or drugs? Would we be able to live fuller, happier lives? I believe we would.