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Let us Not Underestimate the Value of Feelings in Politics

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We all have our feelings and emotions. The way we regard ourselves, other people and the world will, to some extent, invariably be shaped by those abstract, intangible moods that are near-universal. To deny feeling and emotion would be to deny what it means to be human.

When a moment of great success occurs, we are ecstatic with an ecstasy-like disposition. However, upon learning of the death of a loved one, grief – the price which we pay for love – dominates. Even psychopaths, who only look out for themselves, express emotions of anger. 

Throughout history, particularly in the pre-Enlightenment period, feelings guided how individuals shaped their lives, especially in relation to faith. In the UK especially, faith was all-consuming from the monarchy, whether it was the Catholic Church or the creation of the Church of England with Henry VIII. This feeling of faith and belief in the divine afterlife determined how people should progress with a stable guiding force. 

The Enlightenment was seen as a triumph of facts against feelings. Promising rationality, the scientific method and reason, it sought to move away from faith as the defining lens through which the freedom of individuals was determined. Instead, with the industrial revolution, governments and social structures would be based on objective, rational evidence. 

‘Facts don’t care about your feelings’ has become a buzzword phrase centred throughout all of politics. The pursuit of facts through the idea of objective truth was seen as an ideal way of viewing politics and the development of society. After all, it led to numerous scientific and social advances allowing us to leave far more prosperous lives than our predecessors 200 years ago. 

Yet a big part of the populist surge, especially in the wake of the financial crisis, has been built around emotion. Leaders who have attempted to offer simple solutions to difficult problems have based their arguments around feelings of injustice among the electorate. One only needs to look at Donald Trump’s electoral appeal to see a large part of this was built on feelings. 

Naturally, this drive to emotion has caused many who would call themselves liberals to reject the idea of giving emotions and feelings any legitimate weight within public policy. Any sense of emotion is to be subordinated to a scientific, evidence-based analysis of what is seen to work. 

I find this perspective and generally discontent towards feelings disconcerting. It can just as easily flow from populist figures, who deride an apparently taking offence dominated culture, which can negate proper discussion. In reality, emotion and feelings will always frame a part of what politics is. 

Why? Because it is humans who are in the political arena. When recognising political structures and institutions that perform outcomes for voters, humans have shaped and moulded them over time, each of whom will have their own biases towards how the world should operate. 

To then ignore emotion and dismiss it as irrational would be to forget the many political struggles that have taken place to advance the rights of the disadvantaged. These were undoubtedly both based on a rational argument of what was right and a present feeling of injustice, which created such a loss of potential. Feelings and brutal, hard facts can thereby go hand in hand. 

Indeed, my concern with prioritising facts and evidence above all else is how it could frame a technocratic vision without any ideology. Basing a decision purely off the facts usually seeks to mask which facts have been researched and whose voices are a part of the policy discussion. As evidenced during the pandemic, data and statistics are vital and immensely important. But they cannot and should not be the only determinants of public policy. 

The backlash against feeling and emotion comes just as society recognises the huge and real impact of mental health problems, which the pandemic will have undoubtedly exacerbated. Both physical health and mental health form who we are as individuals. To say you feel something in your bones may be to target yourself for derision, but feelings must never be eradicated from the cut and thrust that is making political decisions and deciding how individuals should live their lives. 


Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

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