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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Feelings and reason

Another amalgamation of ideas.

In Simon Critchley’s Tragedy, the Greeks and Us, he explains that tragedy is banned from Socrates’ ideal city, as described in Plato’s Republic, because the force of the emotions it induces leads the public to value feeling over reason, and thus slip into a pursuit of pleasure and effectively become licentious. This state of ‘too much freedom’, where men cry like women and fail to exhibit rational self-control, where drama is valued above poetry, makes the state ripe to be taken over by a tyrant. Further, the moral ambiguities of tragedy appear irrational and unreasonable, further weakening faith in the moral rectitude of the wise state. The populist leader promises the public pleasure and gain, but via that means, takes control and an authoritarian regime is the inevitable outcome. This is how democracy slides into tyranny.

What interests me is the way this aligns with two works of far more modern history that seem to support a similar thesis – though neither author would blame tragedy.

Let’s start with Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom. He’s charting the rise of Putin and makes the claim that a similar process was being enacted in the Trump election and Brexit Referendum. Putin was influenced by various Russian thinkers who espoused the idea of a mythic Russian state that was innocent, perfect and threatened always by external forces. The Putin administration used emotional and completely fabricated stories to encourage the populace to buy in to this ideology. The bombings of apartment blocks allegedly by Chechen terrorists; the fascist uprising in Ukraine (which was in fact the demand of the people for their sovereign state to become part of the EU); the murder and torture of a child by Ukrainian fighters. They used the same kind of fictional narratives in the attempt to destabilise other nations. They created the fiction of ‘Donald Trump, successful businessman’ to influence the citizens of the USA. Their social media infiltration during Brexit and the US election of 2016 uses the same kind of policy: get people’s emotions - resentment, fear and hatred – ramped up and they will be ripe to be manipulated. They will lose trust in rational, legalistic, technocratic institutions and go with a story of a mythic future: Take Back Control, for Brexit and Make America Great Again, for Trump.

The other book is Nervous States by Will Davies. He dives deeply into European history, showing how the status of reason gained pre-eminence during the Enlightenment. Hobbes believed that the only way to create peace within a society was to assert the strong rule of civil institutions. This view Davies contrasts with the role played by Napoleon in mobilising an empire. He suggests, to reduce his complex and compelling argument down perhaps excessively, that the communication systems of wartime – through spying and information gathering – function like the ‘nervous system’ of the body. We get our primary evidence from our senses – the role of reason is to adjudicate between the different information streams, to find what is valid, to make rational decisions. But in wartime, speed of communication and reaction is privileged over deliberation. To draw the books together, the need to maintain the sense of ‘threat from outsiders’ consolidates power for the tyrant. And within individuals, the state is mirrored in microcosm: the sense of perpetual threat and the privileging of feelings over reasons.

It does not help that the institutions of a democratic state – with their focus on statistics, science, objectivity, cold facts – seems so completely divorced from the reality lived by many of the citizens. They cannot feel a connection with GDP. A decline in the number of the employed and the claim that average incomes have increased by such-and-such a per cent mean little to the long-term unemployed and those who have seen their weekly income go down – while the super-rich don’t even pay their taxes. There’s no intuitive connection between the individual and a scientific or statistical description. What ‘feels real’ is the body, the emotional reactions. Consequently, a deep scepticism can divide people from institutions – and the claims that those institutions are there to offer protection, support and comfort seem weak if not fraudulent.

Feelings are rapid – like Whatsapp messages and Facebook posts. Conspiracies spread like wildfire and the social media platforms, by their very structure, are fuelled by outrage and anger rather than quiet deliberation. On a basic level, you get more likes for a funny cat video than a sober consideration of the philosophical underpinnings of utilitarianism. The pleasurable, the amusing, the horrific, the outrageous, the incredible and, yes, the tragic (to take the modern use of the word) have much more traction online than the serious and deliberative. Sentiment and fear – the very feelings that bind small groups and set them against opposing forces – are what powers the system. In wartime, those who stop and question can be seen as unpatriotic; in nervous states, those who stop and deliberate seem like the elites, the technocrats, the enemy.

Davies says that the medical profession seems to be a crossover point, a link between institutions and individuals. Health practitioners can be felt to tap into both the visceral understanding and reality of the citizen while also being part of the scientific community. For this reason, he saw the medical profession as offering a kind of soft-sell of science and rationalism. But now he has some concerns that instead of leading people back to an appreciation of the scientific and the institutional, it might be used as propaganda by the populists.

I had been worrying about this – how in the UK a new era of austerity might be justified by the need to ‘fund our heroic NHS’. In addition, there has been the turn of attention away from rising mortality rates toward the emotional narrative of the ‘brave doctors and nurses’.

Socrates’ fear that watching Sophocles or Euripides could lead to the break-down of civil society seems, in the twenty-first century, absurd; but the point he was making clearly bears consideration. We have to find a way of drawing ‘feeling’ back into the institutional and political domain, because not to do so further disenfranchises the already disenfranchised. At the same time, we also have to find a way of making reasoned argument and civil values communicable and relevant.

It’s yet another Goldilocks state that somehow we have to imagine and seek to create.

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