A Conceptual Analysis of Swagger

Posted on 11 August 2014

 

 

Swagger, as they say, don’t come cheap.

  a swaggering douchebag

a swaggering douchebag

But what is swagger?  I contend that it’s a third-order reflexive emotion.

A what?

Start with a few distinctions.  Emotions are a particular category of attitude.  Like other attitudes, they have objects.  When you’re angry, you’re angry at someone or something.  When you’re proud, you’re proud of someone or something.  Next, as Adam Morton convincingly argues in Emotion and Imagination, emotions, like desires, can take other emotions as objects.  You can be relieved that I’m pleased with you.  I can be proud of your approval of me.

swagger2.jpg

Morton successfully analyzes various complex, moral emotions using this recursive embedding/nesting structure.  For instance, guilt is a complex emotion.  When I feel guilty, I emotionally identify with a point of view from which anger is directed at me (it might be the real point of view of someone I’ve offended, but it might equally be the idealized point of view of a ‘rational observer’).  When you feel shame, you emotionally identify with a point of view from which contempt is directed at you or your action (again, it might be the real point of view of someone who’s currently observing you, but it might equally be the idealized point of view of a ‘rational observer’).  When you feel moral indignation (rather than mere first-order anger), you approve of a point of view from which anger is directed at someone, someone’s behavior, an institution, or whatever.

There’s a general abstract structure to such moral emotions.  Let Ea(X) represent a’s having emotion E towards X.  A moral emotion, according to Morton, has the structure E1a(E2b(X)).  On this account, guilt = approvala(angerb(a)).  Similarly, shame = approvala(contemptb(a)).  And moral indignation = approvala(angerb(X)).

This general structure can be iterated.  For instance, a third-order emotion has the structure E1a(E2b(E3c(X))).  Using this model, I suggest that swagger = delighta(shockb(contempta(X))), where b is the point of view of conventional opinion, squares, or what have you, and X is an otherwise unoffensive social norm, person, or institution.

Why not just say that swagger = contempt?  I think there’s something special about swagger.  Contempt can be smugly held close one’s chest.  Someone who’s swaggering wants others to know that he (usually it is a he) is contemptuous.  Beyond that, someone who’s swaggering wants to shock and appall people with his contempt.  If actual people are shocked and appalled, terrific.  If not, he’ll at least imagine their point of view.  Swagger is contempt that’s flaunted.

Why not just say that swagger = knowledgea(shockb(contempta(X)))?  Because the swaggerer doesn’t just know that others are shocked by his arrogance.  The swaggerer is positively delighted by it.  Indeed, he almost certainly cares more about the reaction of third parties than he does about the reaction of the person towards whom he directs contempt.  They’re just a tool for generating the outrage he wants to bask in.

  Kanye West and Jay-Z delighting in your shock at their contempt for norms of modesty and humility

Kanye West and Jay-Z delighting in your shock at their contempt for norms of modesty and humility

Some instances of swagger might even be fifth-order.  Call these episodes of watch-the-throne.  The swaggerer not only expresses contempt for an otherwise unoffensive social norm, person, or institution.  The swaggerer not only delights in imagining the shock of popular opinion at his contempt.  He also knows that popular opinion will be outraged by his delight, and finds that hilarious.  Take your conventional mores and your conventional shock and shove it.  If this analysis is on the right track, watch-the-throne = hilaritya(outrageb(delighta(shockb(contempta(X))))).