Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Emotions are political, Reasoning is based on probability

Russell Brown in The politics of resentment is no way to run a country makes the following observation:

"Does this mean that journalists form an arrogant intellectual elite, distanced from the people? No, just that people whose practice is to assemble and compare facts are likely to be more circumspect on this issue than people speaking from the gut."

I think that what he means by "gut" is "emotional". Is the dichotomy between rational and emotional responses valid in terms of politics?

In evolutionary terms emotions are the first line of tools used for what we call "politics", ie the problem of getting along with other members of our species.

Emotions are not irrational, they have evolved to serve a particular -social (political) - purpose. Anger acts as a deterrent to those who may exploit us - "I am so pissed off I will risk my own welfare to get back at you" is a good reason not to aggravate someone. Love is an attempt to make someone else trust that you will not run off with another tomorrow - "I feel for you to such an extent that I am blinded to other, perhaps better, reproductive options". And then there are the self-policing emotions - Guilt, Pride, Shame etc, that enable others to expend less energy on that role.

The "sense" of injustice is also another mental module and one that has been triggered in people on both sides of the present ethnic dispute.

But we don't just have an emotional toolkit for undertaking politics, we have more elaborate mental modules that can be grouped together under the heading of "reasoning". This would include the ability "to assemble and compare facts" but reasoning is more than that since we are more often concerned with comparing possibilities, of anticipating and planning for future events which have a degree of unpredictability. And one source of major unpredictability in our environment is other people.

(And facts can be tricky things when looked at in terms of common knowledge - you might like to give the three dirty faces problem a go).

Our reasoning abilities are strategy modules - "what will I do if someone does that?", "what are they thinking?", "can I trust them?". Programmes such as Shortland Street are popular because they invite us to exercise these modules - we anticipate what the characters may do and how others will respond, enthralled (well for some) because of the uncertainty involved.

With disputes between ethnic communities (ie groups of related individuals) it is not necessarily enough "to assemble and compare facts". The dynamics of politics involves strategies for dealing with probabilities which is why people disagree even when they agree on the facts. Probabilities like "what are the odds of being excluded from the seashore even given particular assurances?", "what are the chances that my whanau's role in coastal management will be respected if ownership rights are not legally guaranteed?".

The beach/foreshore issue involves the emotions of trust and self-esteem (as well as others). Many Maori communities feel a loss of self-esteem because of the loss of customary rights. Many Pakeha feel a sense of distrust - fearing that the whole business will drag on forever.

So reason and emotion both play a role, but neither necessarily in themselves lead to a solution. That's why ethnic disputes are often so intractable.

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