Mad Makes Right

Mad Makes Right November 16, 2016

In a recent piece, I discussed how liberal expressions of rage and fear can be counterproductive because they are processed by Trump supporters as evidence that liberals are faint-hearted losers. I got a really useful response from one reader who describes himself as a “recently politically-orphaned Republican.” He points out that the centre-right (some of whom voted for Trump while holding their noses, others of whom voted third party) is more likely to be sympathetic to liberals’ fears about the Trump presidency – but that they may have other reasons to be hesitant about the role of fear and rage in political discourse generally:

For some traditionally-minded Americans (who are appalled with Trump), emotions are not really at home in political discourse. Even if it is rarely expressed, many still retain the Aristotelian notion according to which emotions play an epistemic function in helping us to grasp the morally salient features of the world, which we are then expected to articulate in less emotionally charged language. So expressions of rage and fear can seem underdeveloped for political discussion.

When it is demanded that expressions of rage and fear be admitted to political discourse, questions arise. Is this to be understood as an attempt to replace a more traditional norm for political discourse? Is this meant to be received as a non-ideal form of political discourse or some kind of pre-political form of discourse, which will play a role in some kind of restoration of political discourse either as it is traditionally understood or conceived anew?

If the answer to the first question is yes, then many conservatives hesitate.

I think this is a fantastic point – and one where moderate conservatives may be onto something. If we look at the rise of Trump, what we see is a phenomenon that is frankly terrifying to pretty much everyone on the left: a form of right-wing emotivism which is largely impervious to reason. Trump’s core supporters are motivated by fear of personal loss, fear of being excluded, fear of loss of freedom, rage against those who they perceive to be responsible for their problems, and a somewhat naive, heart-swelling belief that utopia lies just beyond the collapse of the current system.

The thing is, this is the same emotional stew-pot that constantly gets stirred by the left. The emotional appeals are, for the most part, pretty similar. What differs is each side’s appraisal of who should be privileged in our sphere of sympathy.

For example, let’s say a lesbian woman stands to lose her home when her partner dies because of inheritance taxes – a problem that can be fixed through gay marriage. The left tells this story expecting heart-strings to be pulled. The right receives it with indifference. Now take the same basic problem, only this time a rural American family is about to lose their home because their family farm can’t compete with corporate agriculture that relies on illegal-immigrant wage-slavery. This time, the right starts pulling out the hankies and the left rolls their eyes and mutters, “Boo hoo. Privileged white folks getting knocked down a peg.”

This is the essential problem with emotivist politics. Emotional appeals only have moral weight if you agree with the underlying structure of prejudices and preferences that animate them. It’s extremely rare for any fraught political issue to arise in society unless there is a genuine conflict between the real interests of different groups of people. It is almost never the case that one group is simply denying another group’s needs or desires just for the hell of it. So it’s impossible to make a moral decision on the basis of purely emotional factors unless you have more sympathy for one group than for the other.

When emotional appeals become the basis for political discourse, you necessarily end up with a tug-of-war between different special interests. More often than not, people will side with whatever group or groups they are most familiar with. If a person lives in the city, knows a lot of LGBTQ people, teaches at a school with a large population of poor black kids, and routinely reads media that portrays rural Americans as backwards gun-totin’, Bible-thumpin’ homophobes, probably their sympathies are going to lie with the gay rights movement and Black Lives Matter. If a person lives in the rust-belt, is constantly confronted with the depressing spectacle of white, rural poverty, has watched drug-addiction and suicide rates in their neighbourhood steadily climbing, and they consume media in which liberals are whiny, middle-class university students whose primary problems in life are “microaggressions,” that person will probably side with the Christian Right and they will be understandably attracted to leaders who promise to revitalize American industry.

Which is why emotional appeals are not enough.

Emotions, including fear and rage, are certainly a valid part of our political experience but I think my correspondent is right that we should be hesitant about placing them at the centre of political discourse. Simply to say that something makes a group of people angry or afraid is not, in itself, sufficient – anger can be disproportionate, fears can be irrational. More importantly, the political process cannot actually function properly if it is primarily guided by the passions of whichever group happens to be in ascendance at any particular moment.

A functioning polity requires that people recognize the need for compromise, reconciliation, mutuality, and negotiation. Conflicting interests need to be balanced against each other, and everyone needs to be ready and willing to accept that sometimes this will mean that they don’t get their way – even in cases where they feel like getting their way is really, really important. If everyone comes to the democratic table ready to engage in rational, adult-type give and take, then it becomes possible to find common ground and develop a healthy political culture.

If, on the other hand, both the left and the right abandon any attempt to build consensus, and instead rely on increasingly overwrought emotional appeals to their core supporters, then the divisions within society will continue to escalate. America has already hit the point where sporadic violence has become a part of the political process. If people do not come together to restore a more rational form of political intercourse and reverse the politics of mutual hatred and division, it can only be a matter of time before violence becomes a normal means of settling social conflict.

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