‘Post-Truth Politics’ and Emotion

‘Post-Truth’ has been declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, and lavishly applied to the world of politics in the forms of ‘post-truth politics’ and ‘post-truth politicians’. The dictionary defines the adjective as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, and wikipedia describes it as “a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.” It’s not hard to see why the phrase has become so fashionable given the shambles of the last couples of years, including but not limited to the general election which voted in the Conservatives, the EU referendum vote to leave the EU, and the American Election in which an incompetent man-child was elected.

My small simple offering to this development is this; emotion has had a bad, bad rap for a long, long time. In philosophy, in psychology, in chit chat. These definitions of post-truth politics implicate that emotion is at fault for and constitutive of the poor quality of politics at the moment. But I stand up for the role of emotion; in our minds, in our politics, and in our philosophies. Emotion is the water turning the cognitive mills of our minds. Logic and reason are fancy magicians who wow us, and their trade is a valid one, but they too not only rely on but are a manifestation of, emotion. And here’s the most important bit; this a good thing. This is the real magic.

Philosophers and psychologists are starting to cotton on to that grainy dated vibe around the concept of reason and emotion being opposing forces (see two papers called “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail”, one by a psychologist, Haidt, and the other by a philosopher, Railton). In reality they are so intertwined that in many ways they are one and the same thing. There is no reasoning about an issue without being emotionally roused by an issue. Like in physicality, you can’t approach anything without coming at it from an angle. Complete political neutrality is an impossibility, and the most boring impossibility to have gained a status of being noble. We’re all always on the spectrum ranging from emotionally roused to dulled, whether we like it or not.

It’s quite clear that a lot of us have been intensely emotionally roused by political happenings recently, and many have claimed that this is how we’ve ended up with such racist and sexist politicians and political outcomes. But removing our emotions from politics is not going to solve the problem, it’s going to stop us being capable of any reasoned debate at all, and pretty much anything else. Our emotions direct our attention and memory in the most fundamental sense. Completely ‘unsupervised’ by our conscious inner monologues we love and know so well, our emotions sort out what information is relevant to us and what is not. They frame all incoming information in context, they compile statistical likelihoods of the outcomes of certain actions and circumstances by drawing on all the similar previous ones you’ve encountered, and they criss-cross previously unconnected pieces of information to create ‘a-ha!’ moments. Mice who run the same ornate path through a maze to a treat over the course of days, are then capable of scuttling straight to the treat when they’re placed on top of the maze. How did they do that? Like a dad compiling a trampoline during a freezing cold december night ready for the sweet lights of our consciousness in the morning, it’s an impressive short-cut manifestation of our oldest wisest friend, an instinct for what’s right, underlined by what we are discovering to be an extremely competent capacity of our emotional systems to review information laying dormant in our minds. It means that when we read a new headline, we don’t need to open a heavy dusty politics textbook to figure out what we think. Instead, we experience instinctive responses and an immediate understanding of the repercussions of what we’re facing. To live off the truth and flex your reasoning muscles, you need your emotions.

So, to git gud at politics is not to escape your emotions. It’s for your emotions to git gud too. There is sophisticated emotional competency, and there are emotions which have been manipulated. We need to watch what pieces of information we feed our emotional selves, what kind of chaff our quiet prehistoric judges chew on. If we are constantly exposed to narratives with immigrants as the bad guys, the dirty people who come to our country to take from our hands, then when we are first introduced to the concept of Brexit we have immediate emotional arousal buzzing like a metal detector on the treasures of a white Britain, of the nobleness of being an “independent” country, of the prospect never losing out a job position to someone who doesn’t look anything like you. But, this is a bloody poor emotional diet.

For a start, it’s based on falsehoods. It’s not immigrants holding the majority of job positions across the country, or the majority of taxpayers money in the form of benefits, or wanting to take from you. These are lies that have been peddled again and again by politicians and which have given the term ‘post-truth’ politics a very valid modern applicability. The same debunked figures have been coughed up again and again and again. Reasoned argument and logic does debunk these racist claims. But you need your emotions to come up with these answers. Experiencing directly the pain and fear of immigrants will help you instinctively think of their plights, their needs and their rights when you read new legislation. Learning about the cyclical history of dehumanising vulnerable demographics makes you feel angry and frustrated and notice when a poster of the brexit campaign mimics one the nazis used about the jews. Limiting your exposure to images of sexually objectified women and pornographic material – even softcore,  means you’re more likely to keep that disgust at rape culture and attacks on women, and in turn less likely to vote for an abuser like Trump and put American women into the situation they’re now in. My personal emotional investment in concepts and ideologies being heralded when they’re perceived as masculine, and mocked and undermined when they’re perceived as feminine (which emotion expression arguably is), has led me to write a reasoned blog post attempting to improve the processes of politics we currently see.

You can arm yourself with sophisticated instincts, and that’s the greatest magic trick of human beings. Emotionally competent citizens are hard to trick and hard to control.

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