Take a Holiday from a Political Emotion


My recommendation for how to begin your new year is to take a holiday from a political emotion.

I’m not suggesting that emotion is bad for politics or that it is necessarily counter to reason. A lot of my scholarly work has been about how emotion and cognition can work hand in hand. But the left and the right have particularly tempting emotions, and if these become dominant – if they become part of your everyday stance toward the world – then they can hijack your political attitudes. (One thing I’ve learned in my scholarship is that emotions have inertia. They tend to self-perpetuate; if you are feeling down, you tend to seek out parts of your environment that confirm that emotional stance over and over. That’s part of the power of emotions.)

If you’re on the right, I suggest taking a break from anger. If you’re a liberal, may I suggest a holiday from sanctimony.

I recall watching Jon Stewart soon after George W. Bush had taken the White House along with a majority in both the House and Senate.  The Daily Show showed a speech on the floor of Congress in which a Republican was spewing vitriol, which caused Stewart to ask, “What is he so angry about? They control the government. Who is he mad at?” Anger had become such a common stance among the Republicans that it continued even when the opposition had been politically defeated.

Anger is a terrific motivation to marshal the troops. Beginning with abortion and the Moral Majority in the 70s and continuing through focus on immigration in the most recent election, the Republican party has gotten very good at finding trigger issues that anger and mobilize their base to go to the polls. It’s easy to get hooked on the righteous rush of political anger.

But anger is not so helpful when you’re trying to work together to run a government.  The difficulty is being able to pack that oh-so-useful anger away when getting down to the ordinary business of building coalitions and crafting legislation. When anger becomes a habitual stance, it feeds itself in ways that are counterproductive to basic governance. I suggest that conservatives take a holiday from anger so that they can recognize how much of a habit that emotion has become.

For liberals, I recommend taking a break from sanctimony (yes, I realize that sanctimoniousness is more of an attitude than an emotion, but I’m sticking to it). My experience has been that conservatives find a liberal’s holier-than-thou attitude to be infuriating.

As sins go, I think that sanctimony is not such a bad one. After all, being holier-than-thou at least means that you’re aspiring to some moral high ground. But it really seems to rankle many Americans, perhaps particularly conservatives who feel they’ve been painted as immoral, racist, unfeeling. Even if liberals do believe that conservative policies are immoral, a sanctimonious tone is hardly the way to convince conservatives of their error. Self-righteousness feels great, but it’s a cheap sensation, and the person on the receiving end recognizes how unearned that superior air can be. It tends to provoke a defensive reaction, the exact opposite of a productive dialogue.

This doesn’t mean that I believe we should give conservative policies a moral pass. Far from it. But I think that if we on the left want to do more than make ourselves feel superior, if we want to establish bridges and move forward, if we want our moral charges to be heard, then we need to find a way to talk slowly, compassionately, and without condescension about moral issues. Take a break from sanctimony, and see if that has become a too-easy prop for your own ego.

So historically speaking, sanctimony and anger are long-term temptations for the left and the right. And yet I wonder if we liberals haven’t been learning the wrong lessons from conservatives lately, if we haven’t been adopting a bit of the anger they’ve displayed for years.

Anger no longer feels like quite the same distinguishing characteristic that it did a decade ago. Lately many of us liberals seem to have adopted it almost as much as conservatives have. The temptation to anger is considerable, and, as I said, so is the political payoff. But unbridled anger makes civil discourse almost impossible. I believe that we on the left cannot abandon the great hope of the Enlightenment, the idea that we can reason with each other and convince each other through argument. I am not ready to throw that intellectual and political heritage away, to sacrifice it on an altar of anger, in spite of contemporary evidence to the contrary.

In such matters, I look to Martin Luther King as one of my patron saints, and I encourage both liberals and conservatives to do so (MLK belongs to all of us; he’s history, not just black history). If anyone deserved to speak in anger, if anyone felt disenfranchised, it’s a black person in the 60s. But how did MLK publically express that anger? Through moral language that was forceful without being dismissive, through action that was peaceful and public.

Certainly very few of us today have the same claim to anger as King did; how then do we rationalize namecalling and insults as justifiable expressions of anger? Maybe we need to take regular holidays from our default political emotions. I recommend New Year’s Day; maybe the next scheduled one should be Martin’s birthday.

As I mentioned, one of my academic research fields deals with film and emotion, and recently I had the privilege of hearing one of the most famous emotion researchers (Joseph LeDoux) speak at my university. For somewhat technical reasons, LeDoux said that he will no longer talk about “fear responses;” instead he will talk about “threat responses.” Anger and fear are both responses to perceived threats; the latter is an avoidance response (fleeing the threat), the former an approach response (encouraging us to attack the threat).

One might say that this is just an academic rearranging of words, but it started me thinking about how perception of a threat is crucial for fear and for its cousin, anger. If we focus on political opposition as threat, that leads to fear and anger responses. It leads to a siege mentality that encourages us to think only of eliminating the opposition, not working with them. Perhaps the key to taking a break from our habitual political emotions is to recognize the danger posed by thinking of political opposition as threat. I encourage us all to take such a holiday.

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