China, England, and the profusion of human emotions

Given his recent meteoric rise to international celebrity, I felt compelled to read something by Mo Yan. As I’m reading from translation, I don’t think I am at all qualified to comment on the literary merit of his work, but his characters capture China as I remember it. Contrary to stereotypes, his characters exhibit a massive profusion of emotions—they scream, break down crying, and are overcome with lust as their libido drives them to distraction. The characters are sometimes admonished that they really should try to keep it together as it is unbecoming to be so overwrought.

Before I went to spend a semester in China, I tried to get advice from books, people from China, and people who had worked in China. I was told that losing control of my emotions would be a terrible thing, as I would lose face. Many who talk about China stress the importance of losing face as if having a mental and emotional breakdown in the rest of the world will be met with complete acceptance or even admiration. So, I was quite surprised to arrive in Beijing and see frequent and extreme departures from the assumed equanimity of Chinese people. Perhaps the emotional nature of the people is why their society has emerged to keep emotions under strict control—or at least save it for private moments.

I had similar experiences confronting British culture. The more British people I meet, the more baffled I am by the stereotype of “British reserve.” Really, if you just look at a crowd shot at any English football game or walk through any pub after hours, you are likely to understand the phrase “spontaneous overflow of emotion” better than the stuff about having a “stiff upper lip.” People in Britain, as far as I can tell, celebrate with gusto, compete with passion, and love with intensity, despite constant reminders to stay calm. When I posed this question, my wife, who is English, postulated that the emotional nature of the English is why they needed all those signs reminding them to “keep calm.” And they did keep calm, when they needed to in order to survive, and the Chinese keep calm if necessary, but humans need full emotional lives to be fully human.

And this is what separates us from machines. Descartes postulated that machines could not ever think. If machines do think, he said, they will be able to express thoughts using language. Much later, Alan Turing developed the Turing Test of artificial intelligence, which claimed that we can test for human intelligence by seeing how well the machine can use language. If it uses language in the manner of a human, it will have human consciousness. Now, many of us walk around with electronic devices that are personal assistants that carry on conversations with us. I am not sure whether Turing would give them the stamp of human consciousness, but Siri is at least approaching conversational levels of language, with limitations, of course.

But Siri doesn’t seem to become exasperated, lovelorn, ecstatic, or depressed. Even if she appears to, we aren’t likely to believe it, at least as first. Robot designers are making impressive improvements in the facial and bodily expressions of emotions in machines.  If machines are able to convincingly display a wide range of human expression, we may not be convinced machines actually feel these things, but we may start to wonder whether our fellow humans actually feel what they are expressing. And in that state of confusion (as some of us already are), we will be truly alone.

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