Political Emotions

I.

usa-today-9018863_0When kids are playing pick-up basketball, occasionally one kid will shout “Don’t miss!” to another just as he takes a shot.  Why?  To make him miss, of course.

When psychology comes up in political discussions, it’s usually the same thing.  After all, it’s not as though there are many people who don’t realize that human beings have brains, that brains are essential to healthy cognitive function, that damage to the brain causes deranged thoughts and feelings.  Pundits who invoke psychology to explain political behavior (almost always, their opponents’ political behavior!) could hardly imagine that they’re bringing the ignorant up to speed on this whole “psychology” business.  Even someone who doesn’t know exactly which cortex handles which kinds of processing, or which nerve needs to be triggered to flex the fingers which pull lever on a voting machine, wouldn’t be surprised to read a description of his own behavior from a psychological point of view.  Yet for some reason, leftists feel the need to punctuate their rhetoric with assertions that some emotion (fear, anger, hatred, anxiety, or whatever else) animates their opponents. “But that isn’t the emotion I was feeling at all!” – “I’m not afraid of X myself, I’m voting for all the people who do need to be afraid of X!” – “So what if I’m afraid of X?  Why does that matter?”  Such reactions completely miss what the leftist is trying to do. The emotion he names is irrelevant, so don’t argue with him about it!  He is neither making a descriptive claim, nor taking such a claim as a premise for any further argument.  He’s just heckling you.

Why heckling is an effective propaganda tool is an interesting topic which I will pass over today.  (Obviously there’s no single moment of focus and coordination which self-consciousness can disturb, as there is when shooting a basketball.  It’s not like he’s hoping your marker will slip as you’re filling out the ballot.)  But you can minimize the effect of heckling on you and your political allies by having a lucid grasp of subject of the heckling, so that you don’t mistake “Don’t miss!” for an attempt to start a conversation about whether or not you should miss.  React to typical leftist heckling the same way you react to typical leftist fallacies.  Don’t try to understand the leftist in order to refute him, or to try to show him the error of his ways.  Understand him so you can identify him (as someone operating in bad faith) and ignore him.  That way he will waste as little of your time as possible.

II.

eyeEmotions have an important function: to prime, motivate, and facilitate our actions.  We are creatures of bone and sinew, not abstract “agents”.  Even the eyeball does not “observe” its surroundings in some rational and dispassionate way.  Thinking the words “I want my pupil to dilate” will not cause your pupil to dilate.  Thinking “I want my pupil to contract” will not cause your pupil to contract.  Yet even a very faint interest in an object, even if the interest is no more than a passing moment of idle curiosity, will automatically bring about the necessary dilation/contraction.  (So far are we from needing or profiting from any conscious manipulation of our pupils that most human beings who have ever lived have gone through their entire lives with no understanding of the optics of sight.)

The eye is an extreme example of a physiological process we have no conscious control over but which works perfectly and spontaneously when primed by a desire.  The entire human body is designed on the same principle.  Hunger primes digestion by stimulating the secretion of gastric acids and saliva, both of which help us digest food.  Gastric acids also trigger the “rumbling” sensation that adds urgency to hunger, strengthening the emotion and helping us focus on it and ignore distractions.  (Thinking “I would like my stomach to secrete acid”, of course, does not cause the stomach to secrete acid.)

Hunger aims at a specific object (food), and there are a handful of other objects (sleep, sex, water) which inspire emotions (fatigue, lust, thirst) with unique physiological effects.  But most emotions are more generic, and facilitate action in pursuit of many different sorts of goals.  You like or love whatever attracts you, and dislike whatever repels you.  Here attract/repel have a quite literal sense, in that you move towards what you like (whether simply to enjoy its presence, or to enable some consummation/consumption of it) and away from what you dislike.  When you are attracted to a situation you are imagining, you do not merely like it, you feel hope; but if it repels you, you feel disgust or fear.  People who are hopeful or fearful do not necessarily try to get physically closer to or farther from what they have imagined; they do try to cause (or prevent) the event in question, bringing what they have imagined closer to actuality (or pushing it further away).  These emotions are not decorative.  Many people who know perfectly well that they are careless and therefore believe that they should “be more careful” realize that it is very hard to identify stimuli as threats unless you are actually afraid of them.  Not only is it hard to stay focused on potential threats, and to make good decisions about each, but it’s hard even to notice something and remember that it’s there — unless your emotions make the threats real.  Unless you are genuinely afraid of being robbed, it takes strenuous mental effort to notice and track strangers on a dark street.  Unless you are genuinely afraid of crashing, it’s difficult to stay aware of the position of every motorist on a busy highway.  Unless you are genuinely afraid of doing poorly in a course, it’s hard to read all the assignments on the syllabus.

Some emotions are more complex than simple attraction or aversion.  Hatred is an emotion we feel towards some harmful object that must not only be avoided but destroyed.  Hatred dampens one’s capacity for empathy so that the safeguards which normally steer us away from thoughtless havoc don’t impede deliberate havoc during emergencies.  Anger is an emotion inspired by resistance, particularly in situations where one hopes to interdict or deter an enemy whose harmful behavior one fears.  The rushing sensations of anger prepare us for a temporary period of exertion and pain.  They also remove many of our doubts and hesitations about the enemy’s intentions.  Terror is degree of fear which overpowers all possible confusion and anxiety about how best to escape what one fears, usually for the purpose of running away.

This is not an exhaustive list of emotions.  Hopefully it is sufficient to help you understand that your emotions have a function.  They are not ephemeral, they are not optional.  You need to experience emotions, in some form, to get stuff done.  There is no proper way to take account of any situation, in politics or elsewhere, other than to experience the appropriate emotion and react in an emotionally appropriate way.  If you attempt to rip the feeling of wanting to avert something out of your heart, then if you succeed you’ll discover that you are powerless to avert it.

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