Values, emotions and mutual recognition

How is it that we can get locked into feeling criticised when we are offered an evaluation of our teaching methods, and how is it that we can become heated in the subsequent exchanges? What can we learn from what is going on here as a way of thinking about how we might offer evaluations to others when we are in a position of judgement on them? It is tempting for us to talk about emotions as though they are somehow separated out from rationality: first there is our ‘objective’ self, which behaves rationally, then there is our emotional self, which encourages us to behave ‘irrationally’.

Rational and irrational

A lot of contemporary researchers would disagree with this. Antonio Damasio is a neurosurgeon who has written a series of books, the last one entitled ‘The Feeling of What Happens’ where he explores the necessity of our emotions in helping us to act rationally in our social dealings with others. Because we are social animals we are attuned to others who are attuning to us; our feelings, and the emotions that arise from these, offer us good data about how we are experiencing each other. He undermines our usual understanding of how we act, that we think first and then act on this rational thought, by suggesting that what actually happens is we feel first and make cognitive sense of this feeling. He also goes onto describe some of his patients who have had brain injuries who have damaged parts of their brains which allow them to feel emotion. When these patients act hyper-rationally, with no ability to feel, or experience emotion towards others, they then begin to behave sociopathically, what we would consider to be ‘irrational’ social behaviour. If Damasio is right, then we would do well to pay attention to our feelings as they arise in our daily interactions with others since they would give us a lot clues as to what is going on for us and the people we are dealing with; they too will be experiencing their own emotions as they are dealing with us and probably picking up and responding to some of ours. If we think of communication as a gesture and response, which draws out another gesture and a further response from parties engaged in communication, then our own emotional response would be informed and perhaps amplified by the emotional response of the person we are dealing with. This is why it is easy to get caught up in other people’s anxiety or anger.

Upheavals of thought

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum refers to emotions as ‘upheavals of thought’: they give us a clue about the things that we have cause to value. They constantly punctuate our daily dealings with others, which, in the hurly-burly world of a school where we are dealing with young adults who are not always in control of what they are feeling and do not always convey what they are feeling skilfully, we are left feeling exhausted. Although they may offer good data for us to reflect upon in terms of what we and others are experiencing, we also live in a society where it is considered ‘unprofessional’ to exhibit affect in public. Somehow, then, we still need to ‘play the game’ of behaving like a professional at the same time as paying attention to our own very valuable sense data which could give us much greater ability to escape from our habitual behaviour, which may well arise from being driven by our emotions or denying them. Whenever we feel ourselves getting heated about an exchange with others it is worthwhile subsequently to ask oneself, what was really going on for me there? Values are another area of human experience where we are likely to feel strong emotions. We value our values! A contemporary German philosopher, Hans Joas, offered us the insight that values are distinct from norms although they are both manifestations of the same domain of human experience: how we articulate the right and the good. Values are what he calls, paradoxically, ‘voluntary compulsions’. We choose to feel obliged to follow our values, which are idealisations and give us a sense of wholeness that we do not normally experience. We believe in, and try and act upon, our values which, as idealisations, give us an expanded sense of self. Norms, meanwhile, are constraining and are agreed by society as rules by which we can try to lead moral lives. They are both generalisations which will need to be agreed between us what they actually mean in a particular circumstance and at a particular time.


Take respect, for example. Respect for each other is a value which we sometimes try to take up as an institution like a school, for example, or as a society. In order to take up the value of respect we would then try and make sense of that value in norms, or rules. ‘No swearing at each other or at teachers’ would be a rule that would be an attempt at enacting this value as a norm. In any situation we are likely to experience competing values: our own values may be in conflict, and in addition, we may find ourselves in conflict with other people’s values. This is not a thing to be decried, butis part and parcel of being human and living with others. Both values and norms are generalisations, and as such need interpreting. Conflicting values arise directly in our consideration of how we respond to, or express dissent in a managerial relationship: how is it possible to recognise difference but adhere to what we value at the same time? If we accept the Joas’ insight that values and norms are distinct but related, and that values are always likely to be a source of conflict both for ourselves and for others, then the contemporary management idea that we all need to do is to ‘share values’, somehow align our values so that we are all pointing in the same direction, looks as though it would be impossible to achieve. If they were voluntary compulsions, then it would be impossible to oblige someone else to share my values, as I understood them, without an enormous amount of coercion. Values are, rather, areas for discussion and negotiation. It is very unlikely if we set out a set of broad idealisations which are value statements, that we would all understand them in the same way and that they would help us decide what to do except in very generalised ways. But it is also right to say that leaders in an institution must go on articulating institutional values as they understand them as a way of inviting others in to the discussion. We have no choice but to articulate values, if we are to act responsibly and if we are to encourage students as active citizens to consider their values and the values of the community of which they find themselves a part, and we should try and derive norms from them: but in doing so we should expect debate, discussion and disagreement which will in the end be mediated by power relationships. (If students disrespect a supply teacher, even usually respectful students, this does not necessarily mean that they do not value education, however. It may simply mean that in that particular class at that particular time, the temptation of being able to tilt the power relationship in their favour, when usually they experience the power relationship running very much in the opposite direction, was too much to resist. In that moment they valued feeling more powerful more than they valued education. And this is another thing about values – they are not always ‘positive’. We can come to value the domination of white people over black people, for example, as was the case in apartheid S Africa. That was certainly a society that acted on its values.)


Another thread that underpins thinking about values is the theme of recognition. Is it that we become irritated with interns when they are so needy because we feel that they do not recognise how much we are dealing with in our jobs? As teachers and managers we are experiencing needy people all day. But who recognises our own neediness? Just as we need to recognise that other people have different values, or understand the same values in different ways, so we need to be aware that human interaction depends on an ongoing process of mutual recognition. Students are unlikely to be respectful if they themselves experience disrespect on a daily basis. We have all experienced the effectiveness of the response: ‘I can see that you are upset’ with a distressed student. How, in our dealings with others, do we encourage mutual recognition to arise? This is particularly tricky if we ourselves have very strong valuations. If we are convinced that our way is the best way, or that our lived experience must be really useful for others, how do we work with this at the same time as recognising the experience of others? One way of understanding this would be to look for what are called ‘win/win’ outcomes. I understand what this is pointing to but my own difficulties with this way of understanding social interaction is that it suggests that there is always a possibility for equivalence, that we can always turn things to the positive, that power can always be shared equally. My own understanding is based on the assumption that we are always in a power relationship with others, and that this power is often unequal. The example of neediness also comes within my definition of a power relationship. If I need you more than you need me, then power is tilted in your favour.


And finally, how do we recognise ourselves, and consequently get recognised by others, in what we are doing? How can we be sure that we are good at what we do, or conversely, are poor at what we do? What arises in our daily interactions with others that gives us the data from which we conclude that we are, or are not doing a good job? If we start from a position of understanding human relating as being co-created, what is our own responsibility for creating the situations we find ourselves in (although this does not imply that we are equally responsible for creating the situation – see thoughts on power above).


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