Geopolitics of emotion

by Terence MacNamee

Cultures have an emotional tone to them. We find it natural to speak of nations in terms of their “temperaments”. The Spaniards are supposed to be proud and fiery, the English distant and aloof. The idea of the temperament goes back to Antiquity, more precisely to Hippocratic medicine which saw people as being governed by a particular emotional constitution, one of four: sanguine, choleric, melancholy or phlegmatic. Hippocratic medicine also noted the influence of “airs, waters and places” on the people who lived there, so that whole nations could be thought of as having a temperament that was determined by their natural environment.

In modern times this “emotional typology” has been a particularly French preoccupation. In the 18th century, Rousseau, for example, contrasted the Northern Europeans with the Southern Europeans (in which he included the people of the Middle East). Language originated, he thought, when man felt an inner need to address his fellows. But the Southerner, who was blessed by natural abundance, said aimez-moi (love me!), whereas the Northerner, who was preoccupied with survival in an inhospitable environment, said aidez-moi (help me!).

The French political scientist Dominique Moïsi has taken up the Rousseau tradition by talking about what he calls the “geopolitics of emotions”. He reasons that the great cultural areas or civilisations in the world today are each dominated by one great emotion. The Western world is dominated by fear, because it is in danger of losing its hegemony. The Arab world is dominated by shame and humiliation, because the Arabs are unable to use their resources to regain the advanced position they once had. The Asians, by the same reasoning, are dominated by hope and optimism, because they feel their time has come.

Moïsi’s thesis is interesting, though it all seems too neat and too obvious. How much of it is projection? one wonders. No doubt the real emotional factors are a lot more profound and more differentiated, and not subject to political changes occurring every few decades.

But the theory does remind us that culture is very much a matter of emotion rather than reason. How could it be otherwise, when most of what we call culture goes on below the level of consciousness? The thing is that the emotional tone of a particular culture is closely related to its values, and can be the expression of these. The anthropologist Anna Wierzbicka talks about “cultural scripts” governing the way in which people in a particular society interact, which seem to involve a particular emotional tone. For Poles, she says, “sincerity” is a key element in the script. For Americans, “being positive” is a key element in the script. As a result, Poles tend to see Americans as superficial and insincere, and Americans tend to see Poles as morose and unfriendly. The perceived emotional tone arises from underlying values and perceptions of the world.

It is also useful here to invoke the distinction made by emotion psychologists between real emotions, which are temporary, and emotional dispositions, which accompany us over long periods. Thus anger, sadness, shame and the like come and go in response to particular circumstances, but love is an abiding disposition towards a particular person or persons. Whether we are considered as individuals or as whole cultures, it seems that emotions can be dispositions that colour our social life – and the way we are perceived by strangers who only look at us from outside.