FRIDAY’S WORDS OF WISDOM: POLITICS AND THE EMOTIONS

In their introduction to Politics and the Emotions (Continuum, 2012)  Simon Thompson and Paul Hoggett point out that models based on the unwavering rationality of the individual have dominated the social sciences for much of the last century. Like sociology and economics, political studies

“eschewed considerations of the emotions. It was assumed that political subjects were essentially rational actors busily maximising their strategic interests even while sometimes constrained by their limited information-processing abilities. This strange and lopsided account of the political subject split cognition from emotion, and reason from passion.” (1)

While economics has, over recent years, had an increasing number of voices arguing for a break from rigidly rational models – particularly in the field of behavioural economics – political theory has continued to be dominated by the work of authors like Habermas and Rawls who, in their concern with communicative rationality, have argued for the exclusion of emotional attachments from political debate.

This book contains a number of essays that attempt to bring emotion and passion back into formal considerations of political theory (they’ve never been absent from political practice). Hoggett & Thompson make an interesting distinction between “affect” and “emotion” – though they overlap and are not mutually exclusive:

“Affect concerns the more embodied, unformed and less conscious dimension of human feeling,, whereas emotion concerns the feelings which are more conscious since they are more anchored in language and meaning. An affect such as anxiety is experienced in a bodily way, while an emotion such as jealousy is directed towards objects (a lover, a rival) which give it meaning, focus and intentionality… Thus, whereas emotion is embedded in discourse, affect appears to be more detached from it.” (2-3)

Affect is more likely to spread through groups and develop in “affective networks”

“The affective dimension of feelings therefore helps us understand their unruliness and unpredictability. Nowhere is this more so than in public life where anxiety, rage, panic, paranoia and other feelings, once they gather momentum, become difficult forces to control. Political actors, such as populist politicians who seek to manipulate such feelings, are just as likely to be destroyed by the forces they try to control.” (3)

Such movements are very difficult for “methodological individualists” to grasp or explain – they cannot account for the way in which emotion and affect shape the “texture of society at its various levels, from the family group, through to organizations and beyond to the wider social movements in civil society.” (3)

The reintroduction of emotion into politics is at an early stage but Hoggett and Thompson identify seven broad themes

First, it rediscovers an argument that dates back to ancient Greece and the differences between Plato’s philosopher kings and Aristotle who saw “rhetoric” as essential to practical debate and attempts to change opinions.

Second, in conflict and post-conflict situations emotions are integral to the politics of the issue to be addressed and cannot be wished away. “Az Zizek has noted, since we enjoy our hatreds, they are not easily given up.” (5)

Third, the importance of “…feelings such as love, shame,  anger and humour in the mobilization of political and social movements.” Many such movements reflect the a trajectory of gay community’s around the world in their response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s – born out of loss and stigmatisation and transformed into anger and pride “enabling the community to move from being positioned as an object of fear, anxiety and contempt to the position of an active political subject.” (6)

Fourth, the contribution of emotions to political campaigning and communication. It has long been understood by practitioners that effective political mobilisation does not proceed from the tenets of a purely rational subject. “The typical voter makes decisions on small amounts of information which have been selectively filtered. They make little use of categories such as ‘egalitarianism’. There may be little consistency in the opinions that they have, and they can be powerfully influenced by how they imagine ‘people like us’ think and feel about the same issues.” (6) Campaigns that do not recognise these facts, fail.

Fifth, emotions also play an central role in the processes of governance and policy-making. “In late modernity, the state becomes the focus of social anxieties which manifest themselves in recurrent moral and risk panics… If governments cannot contain such anxieties, then thy will project, enact or embody these feelings.” (6) Projection is the process by which governments respond to anxiety by focusing them on target groups. Enaction occurs when government succumbs to the pressure to be seen to be “doing something”  – putting more police on the streets, for example. Embodiment is the way in which the anxieties shape the rules, systems and institutions of government: “The idea that policies and institutions may embody unreflexively organized defences or coping responses provides a valuable contribution towards our understanding of the propensity of the state towards bureaucracy.” (7)

Sixth, emotions are a major driver towards the “humanitarian impulse” in politics, “for some writers compassion captures this idea of a sentiment or impulse which is both democratic and cosmopolitan.” (7)

Seventh, and finally, Hoggett & Thompson note the growing interest in emotions’ role in international relations, paralleling the “growing interest in the role of fear, humiliation and ‘group love’ in what might be called ‘the politics of violence’, particularly with reference to the Middle East.” (7)

There are a number of  thought-provoking essays in Politics and the Emotions but (perhaps not surprisingly, since I had my own limited poke at the same ideas in my PhD thesis) the two that most grabbed my interest were those that dealt with emotion in models of democracy constructed around the idea of creating policy through greater public engagement in the decision-making process – so-called deliberative models of democracy.

“Passionate Participation” by Marion Barnes looks at what have been called the “invited spaces, contested spaces, deliberative spaces and spaces for change” that have been created by the practical application of deliberative theories to policy-making and argues that these are “emotional spaces: spaces in which identities are negotiated, constructed and possibly transformed, righteous anger, pain and frustration are expressed, and hopes and aspirations are pursued.” (23)

Barnes begins by setting out what, I think, will be a familiar problem for anyone who has been involved in public processes of consultation and decision-making – the conflict between the expectations and language of emotionally involved service users and expectations and language of officials tasked with delivering those services.

“the presence and expression of emotion is considered to rule much of what is being said ‘outside the remit’ of the committee and as evidence of bad manners on the part of the participants. This suggests emotionality is linked to ways of assessing the authenticity  of both the motivations and style of participants…” (25)

Barnes considers the motivations of those that become involved in social movements from a “sociocultural perspective” emphasising the importance of “value systems, the way in which acctors make sense of their own situations and their responses to dissatisfactions with institutional or broader social norms, rather than from a position deriving from rational choice theory.” (25)  And she argues:

“…that action within social movements requires an understanding of the emotionality that both motivates and is generated by action. The emotional dynamics will be different in differnt contexts and emotionality is linked both to values and to the nature of the identity experiences that motivate participation. But in both contexts emotions are central to the purpose and the processes of organizing. We should not then be surprised if social movement activists bring emotionally charged perspectives into deliberative arenas when they move into those spaces.” (29)

Barnes notes that the “deliberative ideal” of writers like Habermas has now been widely accepted to be unachievable and that many actual participatory practices tend not to even attempt to follow its pattern. But the ideal has had a considerable impact in shaping how participative policymaking has been imagined.  Habermas’s “ideal speech situation” required anyone competent to speak to be allowed to have their say but its privileging of reasoned argument can lead to the exclusion of those most affected and to self-censorship. Rhetoric – the passionate attempt to persuade others – is, for example frequently dismissed as an attempt to manipulate rather than accepted as a genuine expression of a personal response to the issue under debate. Citing the work of Iris Young, Barnes argues that

“…assuming that deliberation has to be based solely on reason – which is usually defined as neutral and dispassionate, and conducted solely through rational argument – will exclude many people… situating deliberation, rhetoric , narrative and greeting in relation to one and other provides a more sophisticated understanding of the elements that may be necessary to enable dialogue between citizens and public officials to take place in a way that is capable of generating alternative discourses and transforming policymaking.” (31)

Barnes considers the experiences of those with mental health problems and abuse survivors in their attempts to negotiate service provision with health service providers. Those speaking on behalf of the “social movements” representing such groups are forced to face the challenge of “emotional management” – the emotions that drive their movements (anger, pain, loss) are often considered out of place in such negotiations. The burden of emotional management is placed on the service users not the managers, politicians or institutions. Barnes notes that excluding those who are emotionally invested in a decision raises the question of

“…the morality of excluding those most directly affected by the decisions to be reached through deliberation. Indeed one of the principles articulated for deliberation is that all those actually or potentially affected by the decisions that flow from such practices should have the opportunity to be involved in the deliberative process.” (33)

Unless deliberation can encompass emotional responses, what purpose does it serve? If it can only deal fairly with those issues that no one cares deeply about, what is it for?

“Deliberation must be capable of engaging with the emotional content of experiences that are brought into the deliberative sphere. Deliberation cannot be restricted to the purely rational or cognitive because to do so is to exclude many of those directly affected by the policy decisions that may flow from deliberation. This does not mean that ‘rational argument’ should be replaced with a slanging match, but it does mean that the tendency to avoid engaging in issues because they are too emotionally charged, or to rule out the emotional content of experience  as outside the remit of public deliberation, cannot be acceptable. Participants need to learn how to engage with the consequences of this.” (34)

In “Deliberative Rituals” Bas Vas Stokken also criticises theorists of deliberative democracy who demand rationality from participants in the political process. They

“idealize communications settings free of power and domination, and divert the attention away from ‘real settings’, which often have rowdy and turbulent forms of political communication” (41-2)

His essay plays particular attention to the importance of stories and the ability of actors to shape narrative direction in the process of decision-making.

“Stories embody a narrative rationality that appeals to concrete experience and the imagination; stories can be moving, suggestive and seductive. By stirring the emotions we are in a better position to recognize, identify and create self-consciousness. Stories bring something because of their specification: it is ‘us’ who are involved. Events are voiced in intimate concepts…. The openness and indefiniteness of narrative forms guarantee personal attachments and reconstructions of everyday realities.” (46)

This entry was posted in Blog reviews, Friday Words of Wisdom, Journalism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.