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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #61, 1/5/2007

Expressive Dissonance

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Imagine that it is Christmas morning, and everyone in the family has received a remote controlled toy car. Soon, these things are racing around the living room floor, crashing into things and scaring the daylights out of the cat.

One obvious characteristic of these vehicles is their awkwardness. Each person has a controller in their hands and is trying to make their car do what they want it to, but having the intention to do something and actually getting it done are two different things. You want the car to turn right and head for the cat, but when you push the levers on the controller, you end up going left and getting bogged down under the Christmas tree.

Our own bodies are not much different. Sometimes what we say and do in the outside world isn't exactly what we intended, because our hand on the controller is awkward and inexperienced. It is like we are operating this robot—our body—from some distant control room. Sometimes it says and does what we want, but not always. No matter how skilled we are at operating the machine, there is always going to be a dichotomy between what we intend and what gets expressed, and we have to learn to live with this discrepancy.

Our actions may also be disrupted by our own emotional vulnerabilities. We intend to say one thing, like "I love you," but because we get scared or nervous, something different might come out of our mouth. Although we intend to draw someone close, if we haven't mastered the controller, then what we do or say might end up sending the opposite message and driving them away.

This is an important principle of human behavior: People's inner intentions and outer actions are two separate things. Ideally, our words and actions should match our intentions, but making this happen is a complicated skill that does not always come naturally. Just because you have the controller in your hand doesn't mean that you can make the machine do what you want it to. Likewise, the outward actions of the machine do not necessarily reflect the intentions of the operator.

This is different from how we usually perceive people, especially those who we don't know. If, on our first meeting with someone, they do or say something good or bad, we automatically assume that it reflects their long-term personality. We often misjudge people because of this, taking some detail of their actions and assuming that it reflects their whole personality. In fact, their current actions may reflect a momentary misjudgment, a deliberate charade or a transient emotional state, not their true intentions.

We are much more lenient with people who we know. We can accept that a family member is "in a bad mood" and "didn't mean what he said," while we are less likely to say this about a stranger. With people we are close to, we recognize the controller issues. We know that they are good people inside; they just pressed the wrong buttons and something uncharacteristic came out. They did something rude only because they were feeling vulnerable or misjudged the effect of their actions.

The theory that people's outer actions are different from their inner intentions deserves a name. For now, we can call it "expressive dissonance." In fact, we can say that people's actions ALWAYS differ from their intentions to some degree. There is always some problem of translation between the inner and outer worlds. Words and actions are inherently crude and are never going to be adequate to convey your inner intent. The more skilled, disciplined and experienced you are in your chosen media, the more accurately you can express yourself, but you are never going to do it perfectly.

The alternative theory could be called "expressive unity." This is the dumb theory that the law, daily journalism and society at large usually follow: Your actions are always the same as your inner state. If you did something bad, then you are a bad person. If you said certain embarrassing words, then these words can be repeated over and over as an reflection of your inner intentions. It doesn't matter if these words were an isolated misjudgment or were taken out of context. If you said them, then they must reflect who you are.

Expressive unity can also extend to appearances. According to this theory, if a man is big, has a scar on his cheek and a patch over his eye, then he must be mean and dangerous. In fact, he could turn out to be gentle and generous. The outer expression, which obviously he has little control over, may not be an accurate reflection of the inner self.

Expressive unity is a simplistic theory, but it has its immediate value. If someone you don't know is coming at you with a knife, it is wise to take immediate evasive action without trying to analyse their inner motives. However, once you have more time and don't seem in immediate danger, you would be wise to look deeper. Apparently aggressive acts may not be what you think they are and may be more a reflection of your own paranoia rather than the other person's intent.

Expressive dissonance is usually the more enlightened theory, but even it has its drawbacks. If you keep looking beyond a person's behavior to their theoretically innocent inner self, then you may be excusing their bad behavior and even encouraging it. Maybe everyone is good inside, but if they keep behaving badly, then eventually you have to respond to the behavior as it is presented, not as it might be intended. A theory of expressive dissonance encourages forgiveness and tolerance, but it may also lead you to tolerate more abuse than you should.

Some people are very dissonant. What they say and do rarely reflects what they are feeling inside. Teenagers are often like that, as are emotionally volatile adults. There is a heavy element of acting in their behavior, because they aren't confident enough in their own inner identity to be able to express it directly. Unfortunately, they can also be very abusive in the outer world. They may not have "intended" to hurt other people, but they do, and boundaries have to be placed on this behavior.

It is much better to be unified, where what you express in the outside world closely reflects what you are feeling inside. This is the best kind of communication between people, but it isn't easy, because as soon as you expose your inner self, you start making yourself vulnerable. What if people don't like your inner self? What if it makes you seem small and worthless?

Indeed, in paranoid environments there is often good reason to hide your inner intent, because it may be misinterpreted and lead to a visit from the Secret Police. You always have to be careful about how you express yourself in any social environment, but you still want to find a way to do it, because some element of honesty is essential to all human communication.

Young children express themselves quite freely and openly. In adolescence, we lose this capability in our own self-consciousness, and in adulthood we have to learn to get it back. True maturity is being able to express your true self to others within the means available to you and without losing yourself. It is also learning to see beyond the crude expressions of others to what might be hidden inside.

If you believe in expressive dissonance, then what people say and do is only a starting point. The words spoken and the actions taken are only the ripples on the surface of a much larger ocean. You may have to use some triangulation and detective work to figure out what is really going on beneath the surface.


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