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Homo politicus, Homo passionis

This piece originally appeared in Issue 2/2017 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

May 12, 2017 - Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska - Articles and Commentary

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“Reason herself, to whom the reins of power have been entrusted, remains mistress only so long as she is kept apart from the passions.”

–  Seneca

“When a man is prey to his emotions, he is not his own master.” 

– Baruch Spinoza

When I begin writing, my Facebook newsfeed becomes swamped with commentaries, memes and videos of Donald Trump’s inaugural address. Something few would have believed six months ago. If we look further back, few would have thought that America, which elected an African American president just eight years earlier sending a message of hope to the rest of the world, is now being carried away by fear, hatred, self-destructive nostalgia and a sense of lost power. One can argue that it is a different America that won this time. While this might be partially true, a more pertinent question to ask may be: what did the two elections have in common? The answer is emotions.

An appeal to emotion (argumentum ad passiones) is a logical fallacy, first recognised in the ancient world, where affect is used often in the absence of strong evidence and reason in order to win an argument. It has been practiced for centuries, across the political spectrum. As is often the case, an appeal to emotion is the best way to get a message decoded by one’s audience. According to Ty Solomon, a lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow, affect works like glue between the messenger and the receiver, and people get emotionally tied to narratives that resonate with them.

When reason and emotion collide

That was the case with Obama’s “Yes we can!” slogan, as well as with Trump’s “Take our country back” and “Make America great again”. However, the emotions served on the plate by both men are quite different: Obama offered hope and compassion, while Trump – fear and anger (though arguably Trump also sent a message of hope in his promise of remaking America).

The vagueness of these slogans is probably their strongest point – the receivers can interpret it as they wish, depending on what touches their emotional strings the most. In relation to Trump, there is no coherent ideology and his rhetoric and actions are driven by emotions (e.g. striving for greatness, a sense of lost power, a perceived injustice, or simple racism). With simplistic solutions and pointing to traditional scapegoats – Hispanics, African-Americans and the national media – Trump managed to appeal to a lot of disenfranchised voters. Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and behavioural science at Emory University and advisor to the Democratic campaign, said that “when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins.”

That was the case with Trump’s victory, but also with Brexit, where the evidence suggesting potentially disastrous economic effects of leaving the European Union and the data showing that overall migrants positively contribute to the United Kingdom’s economy, was dismissed in return for “Taking back control”. As Michael Gove, the former British Secretary of State for Justice, said before the Brexit vote: “People in this country have had enough of experts”.

Indeed, the Remain campaign focused on the facts and numbers, whereas people needed stories and emotions that only the Leave politicians had in their discursive repertoire. Remainers failed to mobilise people to fight for European values, multiculturalism, diversity and protest against xenophobia and fear. In a similar way, in a referendum last April, the Dutch rejected Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement.   

Strong emotions can easily elicit reactions with regards to policy decisions, for example in the area of migration. In her studies, Rose McDermott, a professor of international relations at Brown University, found that people with a higher degree of social fear are more likely to express anti-immigration and pro-segregation views. Moreover, using fear can be an effective tool in generating support for an idea or conclusion, especially in the absence of compelling evidence. From there, anger is only one step away. Aristotle believed that anger develops in response to a perceived, wrongfully inflicted harm to something we find important, and often involves a desire for payback. It activates when people feel they have not been treated fairly. If they fail to convince others that this indeed has been the case, they may resort to force.

Loss of control

According to Simon Thomson, the author of Emotion, Politics and Society (2006), anger is a crucial emotion, as it responds to perceived injustices. It can mobilise someone to act and fight for his/her rights. However, anger may also replace reason and simply turn into hate. Hateful groups often exaggerate the feeling of being wronged, humiliated, devalued or having their status lowered by an offender. While inflicting harm in order to regulate their relationship with the perceived enemy and after “getting revenge”, they still perceive themselves as victims. This is related to something Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai have called “virtuous violence”.

In a 2007 Foreign Affairs article – which was later developed into a book, The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope Are Reshaping the World – the political scientist Dominique Moïsi wrote: “In the case of Europe, there are layers of fear. There is the fear of being invaded by the poor, primarily from the South – a fear driven by demography and geography. Europeans also fear being blown up by radical Islamists or being demographically conquered by them as their continent becomes a ‘Eurabia’”.

Moreover, Moïsi claimed “What unites all these fears is a sense of loss of control over one’s territory, security, and identity – in short, one’s destiny. They also explain the return of strong nationalist sentiments in many European countries”. Looking at Europe in 2017, where fear and anger have become everyday elements of the political discourse, Moïsi’s words seem as relevant as ever, in a disturbingly apocalyptic sense.

Indeed, in Central and Eastern Europe, nationalist tendencies and an appeal to the emotions of fear and anger has been a powerful weapon in recent years. The reactions to the rapid and mass inflow of migrants during the summer months of 2015 are a case in point. In Poland, after the announcement in July of the then deputy minister of the interior, Piotr Stachańczyk, that the state was going to accept 2,000 refugees as part of the relocation plan, there was an immediate rush to oppose it.

As reported by Newsweek Polska in the first two weeks after the announcement, one of the most widely shared Facebook posts was a petition calling for a national referendum on the matter. “People brought up in hatred towards Europeans and Christians do not have the right to come to our land, while we know nothing about them”, the petition stated. Fear of migrants quickly transformed into anger in response to a supposedly upcoming invasion of the Other, their norms and values, and was often accompanied by denials of the newcomers’ humanity.

Polish internet, a powerful weapon with no accountability, produced a wave of hateful commentaries and fake stories aimed at proving the incompatibility of refugees’ customs and values with their own. A fake story written by an “eye-witness”, Kamil Bulonis, who supposedly saw migrants throwing excrements and bottles at a bus with Polish pilgrims at the Italian-Austrian border, led to mass outrage online. An outbreak of messages about an inevitable human catastrophe followed, predicting a soon-to-come invasion of barbarians. Poles, who traditionally like to see themselves as victims, had their martyrs to defend. A few days later, however, the police department of the South Tyrol province and their Austrian counterpart stated they did not hear about such an event.

But facts are the least important part of the story, unlike emotions which carried the wave. These, together with growing nationalist attitudes, generated by Law and Justice rhetoric and a general permissiveness for intolerance and xenophobia, have further empowered those fighting against migrants and refugees, who previously felt oppressed by liberal discourse and political correctness. Similarly, in Hungary, an appeal to fear and anger has borne fruit. In a referendum on the EU’s migrant relocation quota, over 98 per cent of voters were against it. While the referendum was found to be invalid, due to a low turnout (44 per cent cast their vote, while 50 per cent was needed to make the referendum valid), the overwhelming support for the government-backed “No” campaign is telling. Particularly in light of the fact that the fear experienced by the Hungarian public has been partially manufactured.

Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has referred to asylum seekers as “poison” and according to Atlatszo (an online newspaper) the government spent 59 million US dollars on the “No” campaign. Unsurprisingly, some of the slogans used in the campaign included: “The Paris attacks have been committed by immigrants” and “Since the migrant crisis, abuse of women has suddenly increased.” Additionally, over the summer months, state TV broadcasted short news bulletins every hour, focusing on problems caused by immigrants.


According to Aaron T. Beck, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania – and author of Prisoners of hate: The cognitive basis of anger, hostility, and violence (1999)– in times of national crises individuals strongly identify with their country and self-esteem is strongly dependent on the situation of their homeland. While a state’s defeat may lead to depressive feelings, its achievements and power status in the world boost individuals’ self-esteem. Vladimir Putin had probably realised that back in 2000 when he came to power.

Dominique Moïsi recalls Putin’s first visit to Paris, where the two men met at a dinner organised by the French Institute for International Relations. That evening Moïsi asked the new Russian president what portraits of leaders he had in his office. Putin replied that there were three: Peter the Great, Pushkin and Charles de Gaulle. Moïsi believes that the choice was no accident, and illustrated the new leader’s aspirations. “The first of course was the father of the modern Russian empire and state, the second was the incarnation of Russian culture, and the third was responsible for the reconstruction of France after the Second World War and the country’s renewed sense of importance on the world stage,” he wrote in The Geopolitics of Emotion.

“De Gaulle too had felt humiliated by the American assumption, during and immediately after World War II, that leadership of the West should automatically fall into the hands of the young, powerful and wealthy United States,” he continued. According to Moïsi, at the time of writing, there were three prevailing emotions in Russia: hope – related to the improved quality of life and rising international influence; fear of immigration and confrontation with the West; and humiliation, which Russia experienced during the 1990s when it lost its global political power and became the sick man of Europe.

In 2017 we know that what Moïsi was referring to, eventually resulted in the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s forceful rebuilding of its status. As Vedomosti noted in March 2014 shortly after the referendum, while it may have seemed surprising that 90 per cent of Russians supported the move (according to VTsIOM’s data) “such a reaction reflects the urge to overcome the post-traumatic syndrome and win back the respect of the outside world, even if it’s through fear.”

The annexation has helped Russians regain a sense of pride, boost self-esteem and increased trust in Vladimir Putin. While for the outside world, the move might have seemed irrational, if considered in the context of Russia’s emotional trauma following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and its search for national identity and new symbols, it begins to make sense. In addition, propaganda wos best when it draws on existing beliefs of society and so did the message encoded to Russians by the state prior to and following the annexation. The fears of fascism, historically embedded in painful memories of the Second World War, were skilfully utilised to portray Ukrainians as Banderites, supposedly radical militant right-wingers, and the Kyiv government as a US-sponsored fascist junta involved in the persecution of Russians.

At the same time, the storyline included positive emotions, such as striving for justice and patriotism, to elicit the feeling of national unity. In the new narrative, Russia appeared as a defender of the weak, as a strong power, capable of creating its own rules in the international arena, and at the same time, fighting against the hypocritical West. Regaining land, which has allegedly always been part of Russia, was crucial part of the story.

Needless to say, the emotional regime developed in response to the events has centred around national pride and unity, which have proven to be long-lasting. As pride is usually important part of historical memory, following the annexation Russia introduced a law which forbade disrespect for Victory Day and its symbols as well as rehabilitation of Nazism. Those who spread false information about the role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War can be fined with up to 6,000 US dollars or face up to three years in prison.

Along the same vein, a new exhibition which opened outside of the Kremlin, War and Myths, has taken on rehabilitating the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, portrayed as a tactical alliance with Germany following the refusal of Great Britain and France to join forces against Hitler. As reported by The Moscow Times, a banner with Stalin hanging from the ceiling is facing names of historians and journalists who dared to challenge the official narrative.

“We made sure to put their names on the floor, so people would wipe their feet on them,” one volunteer explained. But the exhibition is more than just a summary of new state propaganda. It is an act of public exposure of enemies, of shaming and humiliating those who had wronged the nation. A bouquet of emotion.

What the above examples suggest is that politics and international relations are often more than just a game of different interests. Taking emotions into account is as important as dry policy analyses, because what may seem as irrational at first glance, might appear reasonable if considered through a prism of passion and affect.

Agnieszka Pikulica-Wilczewska is an editor with New Eastern Europe. She is also an editor-at-large and a board member with E-International Relations.

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