Emocracy: An Exposition

Emotions rule our world. This in itself is not news. Ever since Cain slayed Abel, and ever since Zeus fell in love with Europe, human behaviors have been driven by aggression, passion, and all their cousins. But in the last years, something has shifted: In the past, quite regardless of culture and environment, human beings mostly saw emotions as  something unruly that had to be contained. In the very recent present, however, emotions have taken center stage in our personal, professional, and public lives. We live in an age of emocracy – but without ever having explicitly agreed on its constitution, principles, laws, and practices. This is a problem[1].

The past: For most periods of known history, human beings aspired to subdue emotions. In ancient Greece, of the two horses pulling Plato’s chariot[2], the noble one was the one representing morale and rational thinking; the wilful one was the one representing indulgence and emotional upheaval. In ancient Asia, amongst the four seals that define Buddhism, the second reads “All emotions are pain”[3]. In the European Middle Ages, emotions were moulded into precisely choreographed forms of interaction such as minnesong (for love) or tournaments (for hostility). And the 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of a workplace defined by hierarchical structure, orderly processes, and the virtues of “command and control”; and of a public sphere construed of parliamentary debate and (increasingly mass-) media. Both required citizen-employees who left their emotions at home, cosily enclosed by the cocoons of bourgeois family life, complete with sentimental novels, chamber music, and diary-keeping. “They do best who, if they cannot but admit love, yet make it keep quarter, and sever it wholly from their serious affairs and actions of life; for if it check once with business, it troubleth men’s fortunes, and maketh men so that they can no ways be true to their own ends”, wrote Francis Bacon in his essay On Love[4] – and even though he speaks of love, his words seem to be symptomatic for our ancestors’ perspective on emotions in general: Emotion as something separate from reason that best is kept at bay in forms and formats mutually agreed by each time’s and place’s habits.

The present: More recently, this has changed. Propelled by – among other drivers[5] – psychology and the rise of social media, human beings nowadays publicly identify with their emotions. Everybody – or so it seems – is in search of or (for the more accomplished ones) has discovered their “true” passion[6]; we expect our partners, families, and friends as well as complete strangers on social media to “respect our feelings” (and feel entitled to lash out at them if they “hurt our feelings”); we want to be (or become) happy, mistaking the right to the pursuit of happiness for a pervasive entitlement to boundless bliss; we continuously express our emotions in smiley, emojis, mood lights, and self-reflective (online or offline) musings. In the workplace, well-being, empowerment, enrichment, and purpose are replacing tasks, job descriptions, career paths, and business targets. This supposedly creates environments for working people which are vastly superior to the seemingly rigid setups of companies of the past. And the public sphere – more and more infused with the mechanisms of marketing and social media – is turning into a giant cesspool where autocrats get into online mud-wrestling and where (wannabe) celebrities publicly dig up and display their neuroses together with new shoes and nail art.

Emocracy – my term for this pervasive rule of emotions in our personal, professional, and public lives – is everywhere[7]. At the same time, we are far from ever having agreed upon how exactly this rule is supposed to be executed. As of today, emocracy has no constitution, no principles, no laws, and no common practices. It just happens. This has to change.

* * *

And then? Starting from these observations, the next posts in this little series will investigate three broad sets of questions, namely:

  1. How, when, and why did this shift towards emocracy happen? How, when, and why did emotions take over as lead actors in our personal, professional, and public life stories?
  2. With emocracy spreading all around us: What is gained? And what is lost? And for whom?
  3. Facing the fact that we now live in an age of emocracy: How do we want to shape our living together now and going forward?

Stay tuned!

[1] This piece is the opening chapter of what I plan to become a series of blog posts over the coming two-to-three weeks, as I use (part of) my summer vacation time for thinking about this specific challenge of our times. The exposition spelled out here is deliberately dualistic; more depth and nuance will be added over the next entries, so please be patient. BACK TO TEXT

[2] The “Chariot Allegory”, a metaphorical account of Plato’s view of the human soul, is in his dialogue Phaedrus in sections 246a–254e. A quick internet search for “Chariot Allegory” will lead you to further details.BACK TO TEXT

[3] A very accessible book-long explanation of these so-called “Four Seals of Dharma” is Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s What makes you not a Buddhist (2007); a much shorter summary by the same author can be found here [retrieved Jul 25, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

[4] One of his Essays, first published in 1597.BACK TO TEXT

[5] I will look at several causes and conditions in the coming posts.BACK TO TEXT

[6] For a research-backed critical perspective on this iconic quest see Olga Khazan’s recent article “‘Find Your Passion’ is awful advice” [retrieved Jul 25, 2018]. BACK TO TEXT

[7] My search for previous uses of the term brought up only a few scattered results, including references to a) “Emo Kids” in Urban Dictionary; b) a multi-national theatre performance by Interrobang; and c) a discussion on voting systems in a forum on “Democracy for the World”. If any of the creators of these sites – or somebody else – feels bothered by my use of the term, please get in touch with me.BACK TO TEXT

3 responses to Emocracy: An Exposition

  1. Anja, great post! I do stay indeed very tuned to read the next posts regarding emocracy (perfect fitting term by the way). I think it is also interesting to take a look at the truth of emotions- many people seem to declare feelings they do not feel at all but they think of as the appropriate thing to feel. And since the value of emotions is at a peak they obviously are used – so what happens when you instrumentalize them?
    So- many thoughts, thanks for inspiring me!

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