It’s been fashionable for a long time now to deny all evidence for human uniqueness, for the singular greatness of members of our species.
So it’s refreshing to read Michael Trimble’s claim that “The notion that animals can weep—apologies to Dumbo, Bambi, and Wlibur—has no scientific foundation.”
Other animals can tear up, but they can’t cry from being moved emotionally, from empathy or misery or joy.
The title of Trimble’s excellent article—”I Cry Therefore I Am”—suggests that crying might even be a more reliable evidence of my personal identity than thinking.
Crying, for us, serves “interpersonal purposes.” It becomes “a tool of our social repertory: grief and joy, shame and pride, fear and manipulation.” It serves our passions shaped and inflamed by our self-consciousness and our singularly relational lives.
Women all over the world and in all points in time seem to cry more frequently and more intensely than men. Is the cause of that gender-based difference hormonal? Or is it caused by “gender stereotypes”—we expect real women to cry in response to emotional events? Or is it true that oppressed and repressed women have simply had more to cry about? If that last explanation is right, then women can be expected to cry less and less as they achieve equality and are freed from discrimination and violence.
Let me guess that all those explanations are less than compelling. If crying serves interpersonal purposes—and women are more attentive to personal nuances, then women might be better in using tears as a tool. When a woman cries, it’s said later in the article, “she’s on the way to getting what she wants.”
I’ve noticed with my own eyes and read studies that suggest that women are better than men at controlling their smiles. So why not their tears? That’s what Shakespeare meant when he wrote that, when it comes to commanding tears, “the boy have not the woman’s gift.”
Women not only cry more frequently and longer than men, they are much more likely to explain their tears, to understand and use their tears as part of a complex process of communication. Tears, for men, are much less likely to be a way of relating to others, and more likely to be both caused by and a source of shame.
To be fair to women, of course, tearful communication is not mainly manipulation. It’s also true that they’re just more readily and deeply moved by personal joys, tragedies, and betrayals, and they use tears to share their deeply personal knowledge—what psychologists might call their deep empathy—with others. Being a mother, for one thing, is more intensely and naturally relational than being a father.
Men only readily cry when their “core identity”—their basic sources of pride—as fathers and fighters, providers and protectors is undermined. Big-time loss of status brings men to tears. That might mean that today’s increasingly superfluous men are crying more than ever.
So when women wonder why “real men”—confident men secure in their personal identity—have trouble tearing up, they don’t understand they don’t really have anything to cry about.
Trimble just plain contradicts himself on his speculations on the relationship between equality and weeping. The march toward justice, as I said, might give women less to cry about. But it’s also true as hierarchy declines the more the tears flow. That’s allegedly because “autonomy” means, among other things, “acceptance of emotional displays.”
Trimble adds, on even weaker grounds, that the democratization of “exposure to the arts” gives ordinary people more to cry about. It is true that we’re surrounded by various forms of emo art—mainly music—designed to produce real tears without real tragedy or real love.
That might explain why the sentimental romanticism of the philosopher Rousseau becomes so fashionable in sophisticated democratic circles. Rousseau’s “frivolous form of self-indulgence” was to “cry over nothing,” to cry for the love of crying. We’re not so judgmental these days as to call anyone’s crying frivolous, and we’re less likely than ever to say man up, get over yourself, stop crying, and get back to work.
That nonjudgmentalism extends in another direction: We’re more accepting of both crying and not crying. We no longer demand that a wife cry at the funeral of her husband, or citizens at the death of their president. Public weeping or not, it’s up to you.
One final point: The big trouble with Prozac and other mood-enhancing chemical remedies is that they keep us from crying when we should. The tears more than drug, in most cases, would make us feel better. The chemical inhibition of crying deprives us of the emotional response that, to some extent, washes away our misery.
I could go on (and on).
These speculations are meant to be somewhat lighthearted and not strictly scientific. The joy comes from thinking about the differences between human beings and the other animals and between men and women. The turn to natural differences in very politically incorrect ways is facilitated by the license we’ve been given by evolutionary psychology.