The trouble with emotionalism


Emotion. I was thinking of this apropos of last week’s NIC-ICTU peace rally at City Hall. I was wondering how, since it was a silent protest, you would characterise it. It’s easier to gauge these things if there are speeches, and if the platform is getting applause or heckling. But in an atmosphere of silence… the only thing I could fall back on was that, whatever the agendas of some people who were there, the bulk of those in attendance were motivated by basic human sympathy.

And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Sympathy is a fundamental part of the human condition, and if you can’t feel it then you’ve lost something very important. Even in a time of war – and we’re not in a time of war – the taking of human life is a very very serious business, and should always be a matter of deep regret. It’s those who actually glory in the killing of the designated enemy – no matter that they may theoretically be on your side – who you have to watch out for.

The question arises, though, of whether you can stop at sympathy, whether it’s sufficient. You know, I feel a basic human sympathy for Jade Goody. That doesn’t mean I’m going to commit intellectual suicide by saying I believe Jade is the greatest human being on earth, and her death will mean a huge amount to me. There is the question of going beyond the immediate emotional response and towards the rational, despite the danger that that may leave you looking a little cold-blooded. But that’s no worse, and in my opinion a lot better, than having emotionally driven politics.

Take as a case in point the killings in the north over the past week. These are dramatic events, and you’d be surprised if they didn’t evoke some sort of emotional response – which, despite all the axe-grinding, was entirely sincere on the part of many thousands of ordinary people. But one difficulty is that, if you’re relying on moods, the mood can change in an instant. Let’s say that there’s a riot in Craigavon and the police shoot three teenagers. That would change the mood massively in that community. We’ve seen this before. After Bloody Sunday, you couldn’t get a hearing if you weren’t in favour of armed struggle. After Omagh, you couldn’t get a hearing if you were opposed to the peace process.

There’s also the use of emotion in an oppressive way, in the sort of post-Diana, why-aren’t-you-griefstricken way. Again, look at the pressure that was put on republicans last week, republicans who had nothing to do with the killings in Antrim and Craigavon. You may assume there was bad faith involved, and you’d be right, but look at the form. Adams came under attack because his statement was too cold, impersonal, emotionless. That’s what I would expect from Adams, it’s his style. Martin McGuinness, although I think he was ill-advised to deploy the T-word, was always going to make a stronger statement in that he’s always been more of a heart-on-his-sleeve character. (Apart from his anger, I also suspect there’s something of a guilty conscience involved. You don’t have to be a mad unionist to realise that the Provisionals did plenty of completely unjustifiable things.)

So, in the emotionally charged atmosphere, McGuinness’s statement seemed to be what the punters wanted. It certainly mollified Jackie McDonald, although the Belfast Telegraph’s posse of unionist columnists may prove a harder sell than the UDA emperor. Then the spotlight was turned on éirígí, who are one of the few republican groups without an armed wing, but who nonetheless were put under intense pressure to dissociate themselves from something that other people had done. And so it was found that Breandán Mac Cionnaith’s statement, identical in form to what any Sinn Féin spokesperson would have said a few years back, did not contain the requisite amount of outrage. Saying that the conditions did not exist to justify armed struggle was not enough – you needed denunciation and obloquy.

This sort of hectoring really doesn’t serve much purpose in clarifying matters, but it can be a great tool for rhetorical bullying. That’s why I object so strongly to the Decent Left and their condemnathons. If you want to have a rational discussion, it really doesn’t help to have some loudmouth demanding that you prove you don’t support the Khmer Rouge.

And a Mr Angry act doesn’t really convince. I’ve been working my way up to a review of Richard Seymour’s book. (Not the American football player, of course, but the nice wee man who runs Lenin’s Tomb.) If I compare it to, say Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?, it’s not just a matter of me agreeing more with Richard than Nick – although I do. It’s also a matter of Richard, notwithstanding that he feels strongly on many issues, adopting a cool and rational style, while Nick’s book is just brimming over with rage and bile, which does nothing for his accuracy but does serve to devalue whatever valid points he may have to make.

And here’s another example, in the al-Muhajiroun demo against the army parade in Luton last week. You have to ask why these parades are being held in the first place, and the answer is that it’s part of Gordon Brown’s campaign to make the Afghanistan adventure a popular patriotic war, by giving the punters flags to wave. But I’m interested in what Anjem Chaudary was playing at. On Radio Galloway this weekend, George was very good on this point, arguing that al-Muhaj had made their case in a way that would alienate the maximum number and win over the minimum. But I’m afraid that George misses the point.

Why do Anjem Chaudary and his dozen or so mates go around behaving like assholes. The answer is precisely to provoke a response. It gets Anjem on the telly, where he can justify behaving like an asshole, outrage white suburbanites and maybe spark the interest of one or two young and impressionable Muslims. So after the Luton demo, Anjem got not one but two appearances on GMTV the next morning, introduced as a “Muslim leader” despite his lack of followers. And so good an outraged response did he provoke that they had him on again the next morning.

At this point Muslim leaders who are infinitely more representative and have more rational things to say will bury their head in their hands and wonder who they have to bribe to get on Newsnight. It’s partly lazy journalism, which likes to set up easy oppositions instead of complex discussions. It’s partly because an unrepresentative rentaquote will be permanently available for interview. (One notices Haris Rafique of the bogus “Sufi Muslim Council” playing the same game, except he’s telling the kufaar what they want to hear. Indeed, Haris and Anjem were sitting side by side on a discussion show the other week.) But it’s mainly because the easy thing to do is provoke an emotional response – Look at the scary mad mullah! Fear him! Hate him!

And, with all this overwrought emotionalism, it becomes harder and harder to have an actual rational discussion.


  1. Martin Wisse said,

    March 16, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    Dear old lenny also works from a more or less coherent ideological outlook, which helps a lot in grounding his book. You needn’t be leftwing to have this of course, but apostates like Cohen who work from ressentment more than anything else miss this entirely.

  2. Phil said,

    March 16, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    At this point Muslim leaders who are infinitely more representative and have more rational things to say will bury their head in their hands and wonder who they have to bribe to get on Newsnight.

    Nick Cohen said something similar the other day. Um, superficially similar, obviously.

  3. WorldbyStorm said,

    March 17, 2009 at 10:22 am

    I’d tend to think you’re absolutely right splintered. The rooting out of anathema is one of the least lovely aspects of all this. éirígí who I don’t have much time for on a political level seem to have had the finger pointed at them in an unreasonable and, to be honest, illogical way. It’s not that the dissident armed campaign isn’t wrong, but there are ways of saying that it is wrong in a way which doesn’t lead to the speakers voice going up in pitch at the end of every sentence. All that said it’s leading to no end of cognitive dissonance in a whole heap of places. FG can’t work out whether to embrace SF’ers or push them aside, Harris is in his usual mixed message mode and so on and so forth. Amazingly one trope I hadn’t heard in a while from otherwise sensible people, that of SF/IRA, has suddenly made an appearance.

  4. D. J. P. O'Kane said,

    March 17, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Did anyone see the Insight programme and studio debate about the current situation last night on UTV? It was an oasis of cool, calm sanity, with a panel and audience that covered all the main (and not so main) bases in Norn Iron politics. Very little emotionalism there, which maybe (touch wood) a good sign for the future.

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 17, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Blimey, is Nick bashing the MCB again? It isn’t that long since his “World, listen to Hassan Butt!” period, so doesn’t he run some risk in talking about who might be a representative spokesperson for Muslims?

  6. skidmarx said,

    March 17, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    I thought Anjem Chaudary came over as fairly reasonable on Newsnight. When actually existing British soldiers have been killing and torturing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, why should he feel the need to stay within the political consensus that says that soldiers are only doing a job for “this country”, and it is only the politcal messengers ire should be directed against?

    When The Wright Stuff had a discussion on the subject, the first caller said that these people should go back to their own country, which changed the tone of the debate as all subsequent contributors had to stress they weren’t being racist, and say that of course they supported freedom of speech.

  7. WorldbyStorm said,

    March 17, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Poor old Nick. I still have considerable residual respect for his political stances up to say… 2002 at a pinch. And would still happily quote him chapter on verse on some matters – particularly economic and social. But really, there is a sense he’s become a dyspeptic middle aged character with no focus (as noted by splintered above) at all. It’s really strange.

  8. Ciarán said,

    March 18, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    On a not unrelated note, it turns out the British government were planning another ‘homecoming’ parade in Belfast for Brit troops, but it had to be cancelled after the attacks. Well, at least something good has come out of it all.

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    March 18, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    And the unionists are dead annoyed about it. They’d been dying to have another parade.

  10. charliemarks said,

    March 23, 2009 at 1:28 am

    I always wondered if the Chaudary crowd weren’t infiltrated by the securocrats, but the explanation for their stunts could be a disinterest in changing other people’s minds. Sort of like the Phelps family homophobic protests against funerals of US troops killed in combat. Certainly, his performance on Newsnight seemed a little more considered – it strikes me though that in order to make a big impact, protest has to be outrageous. Airtime is not given over to another discussion on airport expansion unless someone throws custard over a government minister; you can’t get on Newsnight unless you anger people at a homecoming parade.

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