One of the single most important facts that people in the developed world to appreciate is that we live in an age of emotion. In this age – created largely by social media – it has become increasingly hard – if not impossible – to publicly hold on to abstract notions. That is why the word ‘public’ matters. There are things that people may know to be true but in the age of emotion they become hard if not impossible to defend before a crowd.
For instance you may believe in a form of fiscal prudence and believe that it should apply – along with every other area – to something like welfare reform. It may be utterly sensible on abstract fiscal lines to say that there is no budget for an extension in welfare spending. In private a majority of people might be able to come to agreement on this. But in public the defender of the abstract notion of fiscal prudence need only be put up against someone armed with a story of an elderly person freezing to death in their own home or a person committing suicide after their benefits have been cut, for the abstract notion to be overridden and indeed debunked.
The point here is not that we should be deaf to emotion but that we must not be ruled by it. Today we are increasingly dictated by it, to the extent that facts are becoming unnecessary. Anybody with a serious interest in mending the political divides which now run through the western democracies ought therefore to consider at least some ways in which to change this. And it should probably start with a realisation that we probably overestimated the significance of facts even before this era.
Consider for instance the way in which the same facts may appear in an utterly different light depending on the spin that is put on them. We like to think that we are aware of manipulation of this kind but we are still in fact deeply vulnerable to it. The American mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein has described the ‘Russell Conjugation’ (or ‘emotive conjugation’) as the most important idea with which almost nobody is familiar, and I would tend to agree. For while we tend to think that words and phrases are defined by dictionary definitions, in fact they are constantly defined not only by their factual content but by the emotional content of their construction.
‘Whistleblower’ is a famous example. A ‘whistleblower’ is someone who has identified something they believe is wrong and which deserves to be brought to wider public notice. A ‘snitch’ or ‘grass’ is also someone who has identified something they believe is wrong which is deserving of wider public notice. But the attitude that the listener is expected to adopt towards them can be recognised by whether the speaker refers to a ‘whistleblower’ or a ‘grass’.
There are more elaborate versions of this. Weinstein suggests ‘I am firm’ [positive empathy]; You are obstinate [Neutral to mildly negative empathy]; He/She is pigheaded [Very negative empathy]. Most people can recognise versions of this in their own vocabulary. ‘I am great fun at parties; she is gregarious; he’s an alcoholic.’
The Russell Conjugation has been in my head for the last week because it is increasingly clear that although there are certain facts that can be agreed upon across the many political divides that exist at the moment, the loading of directing emotional content onto almost every aspect of political life is making any mending of these divides nearly impossible. It may be the case that we agree on certain facts. But even when we do the desire to present them in completely different ways throws us apart again.
A type of nadir was reached in the last week in British politics with the latest use of ‘death threats’ as a way to win an argument. The news – reported in headlines on the BBC and major venues everywhere – that some of the Conservative MPs who rebelled against the government in last week’s Brexit vote (including Anna Soubry pictured above) had got unpleasant messages was deemed to be news in itself. The fact that some of these included oblique or direct threats to kill the MPs in question was presented in a very emotional light indeed.
Perhaps understandably given the murder of Jo Cox MP last year, threats – even social media threats to MPs – are being taken more than usually seriously. Nonetheless, in the coverage of this story a very clear set of emotional signals are being sent. The people who receive threats are the people who suffer and the people who suffer are likely to be the people in the right. Therefore we should listen more to the people who get death threats.
As it happens, I would be surprised if Nigel Farage’s email inbox was much less violent in its contents than the inbox of Anna Soubry MP. Indeed I would have thought that in a death-threat count-off Farage would be able to defeat Soubry hands-down. Farage has reportedly found it hard to leave his house in the year since the Brexit vote. Yet – in an exceptionally bad sign for our societal hygiene levels – politics enters even this. To return to the Russell Conjugation. ‘She is suffering bravely for the stands she has made; They are subject to death threats; He stirs up trouble (basically deserves it).’ Bad though Farage’s security situation has been, there have been few headline stories lamenting the sadness of this state of affairs. Few people have suggested that because he has been seriously threatened he should be listened to more. That is because specific facts are being emotionally relayed to us, with a specific ideological agenda in order to lead us to specific ideological conclusions.
All this seems a very bad omen for the period to come. On this occasion the abstract principle should be remarkably easy to hold to: viz that it is always and everywhere wrong to send people death threats, even if the sender does not intend to act upon them. The identity of the recipient and our own emotional or political alignment with them should neither diminish nor increase our condemnation of the action. Along with that should come the important recognition that receiving death threats does not make their recipient right.
Yet emotion enters even this, and the situation of right and wrong, shocking or acceptable is conjugated around the political preferences of the speaker. And so I have my pantheon of heroes, victims and villains and you have yours. Of course this is no way to mend or resolve a set of deep political differences. It is only a way to embed them and dig them deeper. With the result that every last piece of common decency as well as fixed principles slips swiftly away. If we are to mend these things we have to be aware of the games people are playing and identify and explain them rather than giving in to the undoubtedly strong temptation to play them back in kind.