There is a trope among some people I know that suggests that individuals are solely responsible for how they react to something.  This is not a trope I subscribe to.  Let me explain with an example:

Person A and Person B are in a relationship (could be intimate, could just be friends – they’re close).  Person A says something hurtful/cruel to Person B.  Person B becomes upset at what Person A just said.

Now the trope suggests that Person B has the option to choose not to be upset, and if Person B becomes upset, then that is their choice.  So if a partner of yours has broken up with you and you’re sad and angry about that, then that is a conscious decision you’ve made to be sad and angry.  You could choose to be happy, or even neutral about it.  Clearly there are some people who would be happy when a relationship ends, but could they also choose to be sad and angry?

This trope pushes all the responsibility for someone’s offence, someone’s hurt, someone’s anger, someone’s fear, someone’s happiness, someone’s joy, someone’s contentment at the feet (well heart) of the person experiencing emotions, regardless of the interaction that took place before those emotions were prevalent.  Clearly this is more complicated than all this – because people are delightfully complex beings, and this is a simplistic overview, but that doesn’t make my point less valid.

But back to my point, if Person A says or does something that hurts Person B, then Person A is responsible for that hurt.  Intentions do not matter, Person B is hurt, and Person A should take some responsibility for that.  When I fell down some stairs and badly twisted my ankle, I did not choose to bruise, did not choose to experience the sudden nova-brightness of pain at the time, and the dull ache now if I walk further than 10 metres at a time.  These are not choices, they are my current experiences.

Emotions are not choices, if they were then people who suffer from depression would just stop being depressed and constantly be happy.  We’d all be happy, because that’s a whole lot more fun than being sad, worried, or angry.  Emotions are complex experiences which can be difficult to understand, and sometimes not fully de-tangled until after the event.  Emotions are visceral and real, and should not be excused away by someone who doesn’t want to take responsibility for their actions or words.

Suggesting that emotional reactions are a choice is a privileged position as well.  Sometimes emotional reactions can be a choice, but it all depends on how emotional resilient you are.  If some random stranger yells abuse at me from a car as they drive past, I have the choice to ignore the abuse or to be upset about it.  I have that choice because I (today at least) have some emotional resilience, and sufficient self confidence to know that the abusers are likely to be wrong.  Sometimes randomly shouted abuse is so hilariously odd that I can only laugh, like when someone yelled at my husband that he had “noodly hair”, which both of us found funny.  But other times, it strikes close to home, a particular chink in my armour, or perhaps I am at low resilience on that day.  Does that mean that I chose to be upset?  Isn’t the correct answer here that those shouting abuse from cars (expecting their target to be upset) should be held responsible for the harm caused?

So I do not accept that someone “chooses” to be offended, that they “choose” to be upset, that emotional reactions are a choice when someone sporks you in the eye.

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  1. The National Library aims to build a comprehensive collection of Australian on-line publications by identifying and archiving online publications that meet our collecting scope and priorities. Information about PANDORA, Australia’s web archive and access to archived titles can be found on the Library’s web site.
    If you could provide an e-mail address and a contact name to discuss archiving your web site that would be greatly appreciated.

    Yours sincerely,
    Caitlin Prescott

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