Negative emotions in dark times

Dan Degerman

We have much to be emotional about right now. In writing moment, a pandemic is upon us, with attendant political and economic crises. Among the emotions this has evoked, fear is indisputably the most palpable and discussed. But there is also frustration and anger, for example, at slow or insufficient government actions. And those who have already lost loved ones will of course feel sadness and grief. These are indeed dark times, casting a deep shadow over, or perhaps shadowed by, our inner lives.

Negative emotions are, thus, on the political centre stage of this pandemic. Some of their consequences have been destructive – fuelling, for instance, panic buying and xenophobia. Yet others have been constructive. Fear is among the reasons why people around the world are heeding government advice and orders to stay at home and avoid social contact. Ordinarily, such fearful obedience would be antithetical to democracy. At present, however, this fearful obedience forms a crucial part of the bulwark against the worst effects of COVID-19, perhaps saving countless lives – which is not to dismiss the importance of keeping this tendency in careful check. Moreover, in response to the fear and anxiety, we are seeing people across our society – in the health sector but far beyond as well – find courage and solidarity with others, as well as ways to support each other even when the kinds of physical togetherness that we associate with liberal-democratic politics are not possible. These examples of the very bivalence of negative emotions that this special issue of Global Discourse about ‘The politics of negative emotions’ [link to issue] sets out to explore. This issue was conceived long before ‘Corona’ became a household name for disease and death, and before we could have imagined the kinds of unprecedented political responses to the crisis that we are seeing presently. But while this issue does not deal directly with these phenomena, the politics of negative emotions is directly relevant to understanding them.

The turn against negative emotions

The last few years have of course hardly been an era of harmony, pervaded by love and compassion. It has been a period in which populism – primarily, or at least most successfully, of the right – has been surging, empowering strongmen across the world, but also giving rise to unexpected political changes, like Brexit and the US Democratic Party’s turn to the left. David Runciman, one of the most influential political theorists in Britain today, suggested in a recent book that our current political trajectory may portend the end of democracy. Negative emotions – especially anger and fear – are central to understanding how we have gotten to this point, according to many scholars and commentators in the media. They well may be right.

Still, we should take note of the shift in political scholarship on emotions. Not that long ago, the emphasis was on rehabilitating the emotions in politics. For many this was an explicitly normative pursuit, aimed at demonstrating the morally and politically constructive potential of emotions. While love, compassion, joy, and other positive emotions were among the objects of focus, so were negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and grief. Scholars have argued that such experiences and their expressions were critical resources for marginalized individuals in their struggles to address injustices, and that the political delegitimization of anger and other feelings has maintained their subordination.

Now, the rehabilitation of negative emotions has seemingly stalled. Notably, Martha Nussbaum, long one of the leading philosophical advocates of emotions in politics, has now become one of the staunchest critics of negative emotions. While Nussbaum’s defence of negative emotions was never unqualified, the force of her recent denunciations is nevertheless striking. In The Monarchy of Fear, for example, she tells a story in which fear is a leading villain – abetted by anger, disgust, and envy – in the decline of liberal democracy. Fear is, according to her, immature, narcissistic, and antisocial, qualities that render it poisonous to liberal-democratic citizenship and institutions. Nussbaum’s book is among the most sustained and extensive recent indictment of negative emotions in politics, but many other prominent political thinkers draw on similar types of reasoning. And we see the influence of these ideas in the news media, where blaming undesirable political events and movements on some negative emotion is a popular exercise. Some of these concerns are warranted. But the vilification of negative emotions also threatens to strike at the ability of disadvantaged and marginalized individuals to participate in politics, people whose words and actions are more likely than others to be considered emotional.

Understanding through epistemic humility

What makes this trend particularly worrying is that scientific knowledge of emotions appears to be built on shaky foundations. As the historian Ruth Leys has shown, among the key problems is quite simply that identifying what emotions people really have is much more difficult than most expert on emotions would admit. There are hence good reasons eschew the totalizing the critiques of negative emotions that have become so common in recent years, along with the epistemic arrogance involved in projecting particular emotions on millions of people, as such critiques often do.

In these dark times, a more suitable attitude to assume in trying to understand the role of negative emotions in politics is one of epistemic humility. With its help, we may find a way out of the political cul-de-sac of explanations, which reduce public life to one or a few destructive emotions, explanations that not only threaten to disempower marginalized groups but also to devalue people’s professed reasons, beliefs, and ideas, and, ultimately, seemingly promise little more than to exacerbate political divisions and animosity. The contributions of this issue, reflecting a variety of disciplines and experiences from across the world, all express this virtue of epistemic humility. Together, they explore a range of negative emotions, drawing out both constructive and destructive potentials of these experiences. The result is a dynamic toolset that can help us navigate our current, emotion-laced crises, as well as others that are unavoidably on the horizon.

Dan Degerman is the guest editor of the special issue of Global Discourse on the politics of negative emotions. He recently completed a PhD in philosophy at Lancaster University, investigating how the medialization of negative emotions impact political agency. His research has been published in journals such as the European Journal of Political Theory, Basic Income Studies, and History of Psychiatry.

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