Tear mocking is a mechanism of converting aggression into social-media praise and status. For people seeking praise, tear mocking rallies like-minded followers. For trolls who deal not in praise, tear mocking draws the ire of compassionate people. Either way, you get attention. Sometimes you don’t need to go all the way to the comments section to see it. A headline on Breitbart (formerly run by Bannon) reads “Trump Week One: Schumer Weeps.”
Though tear-mocking generates torrents of approval in certain circles, making fun of crying has no plausible basis as an innate human tendency. Among all but people deemed sociopaths, witnessing another human in anguish triggers a pained response. This is not liberalism or conservatism, but a simple fact of how a species evolved to thrive in groups.
According to psychologist and “tear researcher” Ad Vingerhoets, “Tears are of extreme relevance for human nature.” He has explained crying as an effective way to recover when experiencing strong emotions. The act is also a form of communication linked to social bonding, an element of humanity not exclusive to infants. As Vingerhoets put it, “We cry because we need other people.”
Though humans seem to have cried throughout history, the exact mechanism connecting emotions to lacrimal secretions is mysterious. A prevailing theory in the 1600s, according to the American Psychological Association, was that emotions like love “heated the heart, which generated water vapor in order to cool itself down. The heart vapor would then rise to the head, condense near the eyes and escape as tears.”
Today we know that it’s not simply that emotions make us cry, but the inverse as well: Seeing people cry can generate emotions. In Time last year, the neurologist Michael Trimble explained that the same areas of the brain are activated by seeing someone who is emotionally aroused as when we are emotionally aroused ourselves. “Being able to cry emotionally, and being able to respond to that, is a very important part of being human,” he said. Tears aid in the transmission of empathy and compassion from person to person. At University College London, Trimble is working on a study on whether people who never cry can lead rich emotional lives. He tells me the results aren’t in yet.
It’s simpler, though—instead of trying to understand this complex social phenomenon that can convey and result from a panoply of intense human experiences—to deride it. Tear mocking wins social capital. Schoolyard bullies have long known this, but the new feedback loop on social-media platforms is more quantifiable and insulated from consequences. Likes and hearts seep into the brain and become dopamine, and that feels good.
This neurochemical feedback trains people to see compassion and empathy as weakness. Strength, by contrast, seems to mean erecting a literal giant wall. When John McCain and Lindsey Graham spoke out in defiance of the travel ban, Trump wrote that the two “are sadly weak on immigration.” Last night he fired former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for her principled stand over the morality and legality of the order, and the White House issued a statement calling her “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”