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The rise of the politics of emotion leaves Frank Furedi cold

Wear your heart on your sleeve and a ribbon on your lapel

Emotion is no longer a private matter. According to fashionable notions of 'emotional literacy' and 'emotional intelligence', you have to show your feelings in public if you want to be considered a mature adult. The public confession of pain and grandiose exhibitions of suffering are no longer confined to American chat shows. Throughout Europe too, emotionalism has come to define the political style of the nineties. The art of emotional politics has been perfected by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Their speeches are littered with the language of therapy, emphasising how much they 'feel' and 'care' and promising to 'share' and 'reach out' to the people. A misty eye is now a highly prized political asset.

The idiom of psychology now clearly dominates British politics. 'More open and tolerant, less macho and miserable' was how a major feature in the Guardian described the new psychopolitics. One little-noticed but significant event on the fringe of the 1997 Labour Party Conference was the launch of a campaign called Antidote, set up by 'psychotherapists and other members of the caring professions' to promote the cause of 'emotional literacy' among British politicians. Antidote hopes to encourage public figures to become more 'comfortable' with their emotions. But with so many politicians already signing up for a public session on the therapist's couch, Antidote may well turn out to be a redundant campaign.

The cultivation of an emotional style has been much in evidence of late in British public life. Since Princess Diana's funeral, politicians have been sensitive to any suggestion that they might be uncaring and unemotional. Party leaders say little about policy and even less about political principles, instead using their platforms to display emotion. So prime minister Tony Blair gave his usual 'caring, sharing, giving and reaching out' speech to New Labour's 1997 party conference. A few days later, at his party conference, new Tory leader William Hague mimicked Blair, announcing that Conservatives were also 'caring' and 'tolerant'. The Tory Party's adoption of politically correct psychobabble was greeted with enthusiasm in the British media.

Even the Queen has joined in. In the run-up to Diana's funeral, the Queen was widely criticised for not showing enough emotion in public. Within a few weeks the palace had let it be known that the Queen's Christmas message would 'reach out to the nation' and show her as a warm human being. This gesture was appreciated by the media, as was the subsequent sight of the Queen crying at the decommissioning of the Royal yacht Britannia, and kissing her eldest son in public for the first time during the celebration of her fiftieth wedding anniversary.

The politics of emotion is by no means confined to Britain or the USA. During last year's Irish presidential election, all five candidates vied to demonstrate the depth of their emotion, rejecting political principles in favour of a celebration of frailty and a worship of the victim. The winner, Mary McAleese, stated that she would create 'a presidency of embrace' and of 'caring outreach' that 'holds out a hand' to victims.

Indeed, the politics of emotion is now evident throughout Europe, influencing many of the big movements of the past two years. I was in Spain last July, during the mass demonstrations to mourn the murder of a local politician by the Basque separatists of ETA. The protests made manifest a strange emotional dynamic, part tragedy, part pop-festival. Demonstrators seemed not entirely sure why they were there, and many suggested that they too felt like victims. This reaction was self-consciously cultivated by the crowd, with the gesture of placing their hands at the back of their heads in the posture of surrendering prisoners.

But probably the most important manifestation of the politics of emotion in Europe was the Belgian White March of 1996. This, the largest public demonstration in the history of Belgium, and the subsequent growth of the White Movement, underlined the strength of the politics of emotion. What began as an act of solidarity with the child victims of a depraved serial killer, soon turned into a condemnation of the entire Belgian political system. While politicians were losing their authority, King Albert gained in strength. Why? Because unlike the politicians, Albert was quick to display his emotions on television. And if opinion polls are anything to go by, the public now positively reveres such displays of human frailty.

Red, white and green

The most easily recognised symbol of the politics of emotion is the wearing of a ribbon. It is difficult to say when it all started. The fashion for wearing yellow ribbons was first visible during the imprisonment of the American diplomatic hostages in Tehran in 1980. People wore their ribbons so that they too could be part of the experience. In more recent times, red ribbons have been worn by people who identify with the victims of Aids. Yellow ribbons were again worn by well-wishers of soldiers going off to fight in the Gulf War. Black ribbons were worn by anti-ETA campaigners in Spain, and pink ribbons have been distributed by breast cancer charities in the USA. Sympathisers with Irish republican prisoners wear green ribbons. When the Oklahoma bomb killed 164 in 1995, Americans were reportedly offered the choice of various coloured ribbons according to which victims they wished to sympathise with most. Bill Clinton chose a white ribbon, 'for the children'. Yellow ribbons were distributed again by supporters of Louise Woodward. It is surely only a matter of time before campaigns begin to fight over who has the right to what colour in the ribbon spectrum.

What is this all about? It is hard to find a simple explanation. However, there is a clear correlation between the rise of the politics of emotion, and the experience of popular disengagement from traditional politics. For instance, public apathy and the politics of emotion existed side by side during the Irish presidential election: the turnout was the lowest ever as less than half the electorate bothered to vote. An authoritative study of the 1997 British elections, published by Nuffield College Oxford, notes that the turnout was the lowest since 1945, and that Labour was backed by only 31 per cent of those qualified to vote. It is worth contrasting the indifference of the British public to the May 1997 general elections with its display of collective emotion for Diana and later in support of Louise Woodward.

Lack of patriotism

A profound sentiment of mistrust towards political institutions is evident throughout Europe. Some of the most significant public manifestations of collective emotion have coincided with a deepening suspicion of the political process. Belgium is paradigmatic in this respect. According to the Belgian sociologist Marc Hooghe, there is a 'total lack of patriotism' among his country's population. He believes that a 'severe loss of confidence in the political system' explains why the White Movement was so suspicious of Belgium's political institutions. Surveys of the participants of the White March carried out by Benoit Rihoux and Stefaan Walgrave, indicated an intense level of popular mistrust for political parties. Clearly many Belgians regarded themselves as the victims rather than as participants of their political system.

Popular mistrust of authority is most strikingly confirmed in the widespread circulation of rumours which indict the authorities. In Belgium it was widely believed that the child murderers were protected by leading officials and politicians. During Spain's infamous Alcacer case - the sexual violation and murder of three teenage girls - opinion polls indicated widespread support for the view that the guardia civil was implicated in killing the girls for the purpose of making snuff videos. In the same vein, it has been widely rumoured in Britain, and around the world, that Diana was killed by an officially sanctioned assassin in order to prevent her marrying a Muslim.

The corollary of the suspicion of the authorities is an intense sense of alienation and powerlessness. The icon of the politics of emotion is the victim. Public grief for Diana was partly inspired by her high profile as Britain's best known sufferer. People identify with the cult of vulnerability because they sense a shared experience of victimhood. The common bond is that of suffering, and everybody who wears a ribbon becomes part of the same drama of victimisation. Through a collective display of emotion, an otherwise fragmented society achieves a temporary moment of unity.

But the politics of emotion is not only a symptom of public alienation. It also expresses the problem of legitimacy experienced by modern political systems. At a time when collective reactions are rare, these expressions of 'suffering solidarity' are just about the only manifestation of national unity on offer, and the politicians, priests and the media have milked them for all they are worth.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, with British people feeling so isolated, the ritual of grieving over the Dunblane massacre or Diana has provided one of the few experiences that creates a sense of belonging. Tony Blair seized upon the display of national mourning which followed Diana's death as a symbol of his New Britain, declaring that the world had seen 'Britain at its best'. In the divided state of Belgium, King Albert told his people that the White March had 'impressed the whole world by its strength and dignity', and prompted 'every one of us to take responsibility for finding solutions to Belgium's numerous problems'. The huge anti-ETA mobilisation last year was probably the most important all-Spanish event of recent years. For a moment, regional differences between Catalonia, Euskadi, Andalusia etc were put aside for a brief act of collective solidarity.

Since public displays of solidarity are so rare, everybody is reluctant to look too closely at the community being built around victimhood. But there is something sad about a society that can only experience solidarity through common mourning. The spirit of social solidarity must be very weak if extraordinary tragedies are needed to bring to the surface a common response. One point that is often overlooked is the intolerance of the politics of emotion. Anybody who does not care to display the required emotion in public is denounced for being inhuman. Even the Queen was dragged over the coals for failing to grieve for the cameras immediately after Diana's death. Those who were sceptical of the Louise Woodward campaign were viciously attacked for their lack of compassion. And to question the sentiments expressed by victim activists around the White Movement in Belgium and the Dunblane anti-gun campaign in Scotland was to court the charge of blasphemy.


Although the politics of emotion often takes a populist anti-establishment turn, directing bitter criticism against the authorities, it does not necessarily challenge the political classes. Unlike traditional politics, the politics of emotion claims to have no doctrine or dogma. In fact it styles itself as explicitly anti-political. That is why the organisers of the White March demanded that there should be no politics on their demonstration. Politics has also been eschewed by campaigns against corruption in Italy and against the possession of handguns in Britain. As a consequence, politicians can often respond to such demands and then claim to be acting on behalf of 'The People'.

The politics of emotion can thrive because it does not really threaten vested interests; even a blue-blooded aristocrat like Earl Spencer can momentarily become the voice of The People by wearing his heart on his sleeve. It also prospers because, in a complicated world where conventional political institutions appear ineffective, the sharing of emotions becomes an important form of communication. Activities like the wearing of ribbons help reconnect individuals to a wider community. It is paradoxical that, through its new rituals such as ribbon-wearing and public displays of grief, the politics of emotion may well serve to reintegrate a fragmented public into an otherwise discredited political system.

The elevation of emotion over intellect has potentially grave consequences for democracy. One myth about the politics of emotion is that the sanctity of feeling is above politics and political manipulation. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely when people cast aside their critical faculties and give themselves over to the free flow of emotions that they can be enslaved by forces beyond their control. The collective display of emotion is highly susceptible to the influence of the media. This is not the fault of the media as such. But when political parties and other institutions have lost so much of their influence, the media will naturally have a disproportionate impact on public life. Television and the press played a major role in the organisation of the White March in Belgium. In Britain, the media helped to shift the focus from the death of Diana to the public reaction to it. In a matter of days the news became the story of an outpouring of public emotion, and the media was central to shaping that public response.

The tendency to judge public figures by their ability to display emotion rather than by the quality of their ideas or indeed by their actions is very disturbing. Societies that ascribe intrinsic virtues to the public display of emotion indicate that they have lost belief in the ability of humanity to act rationally. And once our private emotion becomes a suitable subject for public consideration, it is a short step for those in authority to dictate to us how we ought to feel.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist at the University of Kent at Canterbury and the author of The Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectations published by Cassell

Emotions on show after the death of Princess Diana

Reproduced from LM issue 109, April 1998



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