What a wrought up year. First, Brexit taught us that resentment can weigh strongly in a campaign as polarised as a magnet, and in a Europe that finds itself caught up between Frontex and #RefugeesWelcome. Second, the Colombian referendum on the president Santos‘ peace deal has illustrated once more that rumour literally has it; and that ultimately, those unaffected don’t abstain, but happily go against. And now third: Trump, yet another triumph of rage over reason, temper over tune. Things look rather gloomy. What do we make of this?
First, the current anti-intellectual climate is governed by a strategic use of emotion. An anti-immigrant sentiment has mobilised votes against EU-membership in the UK, where self-assertion and disgruntlement suddenly became pivotal themes. A hard-line mano dura yearning has invited Colombians to express pride and tenacity in a new form. An anti-establishment steadfastness has, in the most recent example, intelligently converted the (sometimes more, sometimes less) subliminal racism of a large-enough number of US citizens into electoral outcomes.
Second, historical precedence teaches us a lesson about the profoundly emotional nature of reason. Rational decision-making is never merely rational; instead it entails a certain emotional (or passionate, if you will) appeal that can exacerbate or mitigate the tendency to option A or option B. This interference can take place at a variety of temporal-spatial intersections: A given event or development can elicit a response that cognitively reactivates an affective configuration from a long time ago. Concepts such as „existential threat“ or, more simply, „enemy“ have such historically grounded qualities, the war on terrorism perhaps being the most illustrative example.
Third, I suggest that the more abstract the decision, the more strongly weighs a set of emotions such as self-assertion, anger, pride, excitement, rage (the abstract-offensive interaction), whereas the more immediate, real, and experienced the context of the decision, the more strongly weighs a set of emotions such as compassion, empathy, content, relaxation (the concrete-defensive interaction). Consider Colombia, where support of the peace accord was highest in regions most heavily affected by the conflict in recent years, while Uribe’s campaign against it found its adherents mostly in the urban core of the country. While such a dichotomous juxtaposition most certainly is not an accurate nor complete picture, it can help in conceptualising two extremes of the impact of emotion on reason.
Finally, thinking about emotionally embedded reasoning can enlighten our understanding of the appeal of figures like Trump, Santos, Farage – but it can also nourish the way we think of our own politically structured behaviour, both locally and globally. What do we take into account when we take a decision? How much do we trust our gut feeling, and how much of an impact does that have on clarity or blur of the picture we think we have? Those questions need to be discussed with care in the post-9/11, but also post-Brexit, and post-Obama world we find ourselves in right now.