Does Emotion Dominate Politics?

By Peter Lindfield, published in the Telegraph-Journal 28th September 2012

Are political discussions more dominated by emotions today than in the past? Several issues have polarized the public in recent years. Globally, nationally and locally, an increasing number of issues can be characterized as unmanaged even though leaders present confidence.

Emotions are not easily regulated and made submissive. Emotional arguments are far more difficult to control than discussions that are driven by facts and data.

It is not surprising then that elites prefer intellectual rigour and rational evidence-based public discourse over language infused with emotion and passion.

But public mistrust of leaders has cascaded to a general mistrust of the lexicon of facts and data. And rather than get ahead of the emotion and outrage generated by hot-button issues, the reaction of elites has tended to be defensiveness.

The conventional media has not been helpful. The journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of established truths on one side, has succeeded only in elevating the currency of dubious facts.

This false balance is intended to minimize the impact of emotions and passions in favour of evidence. But the consequence of this distortion of objectivity has been the discrediting of some media accounts of important stories.

The lack of credibility of fact- and evidence-based discourse is partly the consequence of rampant and complex change. While social and political instability creates the conditions for new organizational arrangements, change also tends to reinforce institutional defensiveness.

At a time when building an open architecture for crisis management or avoidance is critical, the perception is that institutions are circling the wagons for self-preservation. The consequence of this perception is even more mistrust of these institutions, whether public or private sector.

In the case of health care, Canadians are most interested in information that provides them with a better understanding of their illness and their personal relationship with their health-care providers. Recent research supports the view that more Canadians will be supportive of an innovation agenda if governments and health-care-provider organizations can demonstrate that technology, or other health-care innovations will empty into the service of personalized medicine.

In the case of health care, the facts may be so distanced from personal health issues as to render them meaningless.

The public mistrust of leaders has implications that span the global level. Many countries now possess enough political and economic power to prevent the international community from taking action, but none has the influence to reshape the status quo.

Though this global alignment presents opportunities for some nations, it also presents a multi-polar order with fewer means to address serious transnational crises.

On issues such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity and the scarcity of food and water, there is an increasing perception that no one is driving the bus and that the language of leaders is empty rhetoric.

The ultimate expression of emotion and passion is outrage. The distinction between risk – which implies a threat to life, health and safety and the environment – and outrage – which implies anger, fear and concern – is neither a distinction between data and emotions nor between data and values. Outrage and its elements are measurable, tangible and very real. In many instances, we have significantly better data on outrage than we have on risk.

Is it realistic to talk about taking the emotion and outrage out of the political equation? Politicians continually encounter emotional reactions to their fact- and evidence-based statements. There is an emerging recognition that we need to engage the public in constructive consensus-building, in part because conversations currently are polarized and mistrustful. The first step in that process is addressing the issue of trust.

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2 Comments

Filed under Social unrest

2 responses to “Does Emotion Dominate Politics?

  1. As for facts vs emotion – look at the US election and the Romney camp pollster’s comment, when Paul Ryan was called on misinformation in his convention speech – “We are not going to let the fact checkers dictate our campaign”. In other words – we aren’t going to let the facts get in the way of a good quote. And a good quote is one that solicits the appropriate emotion.

    In communications, many issues boil down to mainly fact on one side vs mainly emotion on the other. I looked at this very thing in a recent blog http://bissettmatheson.com/en/blog/catastrophic_drugs_when_its_fact_vs_emotion_fact_will_lose/ The point being, that when fact and emotion goes head to head, emotional inevitably wins.

    I agree with Peter that trust is a major issue, but anyone (or any political party) that abandons emotion to argue facts will most likely fail.

    • Peter Lindfield

      Duncan, I believe the challenge for many organizations is to recognize that emotions and facts don’t occupy a mutually exclusive space. We have become accustomed to assigning the term “irrational” to those viewpoints that exhibit emotion characteristics and “rational” to those that are fact-based. Consider the shale gas scene in NB. Those opposed are mistrustful of industry, in the main because of past performance, and government, for what are seen as weak regulations, poor enforcement history and political expediency. They fear the risk of water contamination, the noise and pollution associated with drilling, and a potential decline in property values. Those in favor of fracking point to the positive attributes of increased employment, revenues from taxes and royalties and potential spin-off economic growth.

      But both are perfectly rational in their expression of self-interest, even though one side is characterized as “emotional” while the other side is characterized as “rational”. And you’re right that arguing facts when emotion — especially outrage — dominates the landscape is bound to be a losing proposition, at least from a communications standpoint.

      Corporations and governments have been aware of this for years but are reluctant to address the challenges for numerous reasons. Consider BP CEO Tony Hayward’s seeming defiance in the face of the Gulf spill disaster and contrast with Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke’s management of the Tylenol poisoning tragedy in 1982, which killed 7 people. Which became the gold standard in corporate crisis management?

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