Emocracy: The Benefits

Let’s look at the benefits of emocracy[1]. As emotions rule our world, what do we gain[2]? At first glance, quite a lot: Who wouldn’t appreciate a society in which human beings are aware of their emotions, can freely express how they feel, and receive respect from others for their feelings? In this vein, “empathy” – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others – has become a universal spell for our times, from raising kids to caring for the sick, from marriage to management, and from “The Empathic Civilization”[3] to “Empathy and Democracy”[4] and “Digital Empathy”[5]. So the rule of emotions, it seems, carries an inbuilt prerequisite for these emotions to be shared, heard and listened to. Emocracy’s benefits come with a catch[6].

My fourth hypothesis is: The rule of emotions brings huge benefits into our private, professional, and public lives – but all these benefits have a downside. I’ll look at the three domains of the private, professional, and public spheres in turn, where the obvious benefits are caring relationships, purposeful organisations, and tolerant societies.

Caring relationships: It has been a while since emotions have ventured out of the closed rooms of psychotherapy consultations and group therapy sessions. By now, we have grown used to expressing our feelings towards our families, friends, romantic partners, and children. We know a lot more about what makes those close to our hearts happy (or sad), cheerful (or angry), calm (or pensive). We emphasize that we want our children, above all, “to be happy”, creating conditions for secure attachment, playful exploration, or mindful relaxation. With our partners, we engage in mutually considerate investigations of the terrains of our feelings, wading through family heirlooms, previous partners’ legacies, and mental artifacts of cultural backgrounds. With our friends, we exchange expressive love and deep joy – as well as our frustrations and furies. All this enriches our lives. However, the richness flips into poverty when we confuse sharing  our emotions with expecting the ones we share with to fix what we feel. Sharing love does not oblige our loved ones to make us feel good; sharing anger does not oblige our enemies to help us get rid of our rage.

Purposeful organisations: Over the past years, companies (and other organizations) have moved on from the 19th and early 20th century ideal of hierarchical structures and orderly processes in which everybody knows what they are supposed to do and does their job, regardless of whether they love what they do or not. The new paradigm is work that is meaningful, enjoyable, and carries a purpose for employees[7]. Nowadays, companies have “Feelgood-Managers”; and cosy corners, tabletop soccer, and free vegan smoothies have spread far and wide. Flat hierarchies empower everybody in the organisation; chief executives wear sneakers; and daily, weekly, or monthly huddles review successes and “biggest possible screwups”. Of course, there’s merit in an organisation that inspires its people, and it is wonderful to watch employees being excited about their job. All this makes work a better place. However, the excitement flips into stale routine when employers and employees confuse enjoying their jobs with expecting their jobs to deliver excitement. Signing up for a job does is not the same as signing up for a fun trip to Arcadia, Utopia, or Disneyland; and not enjoying every second of what we do is not a sign that we’re not doing the right thing.

Tolerant societies: With the exception of the last few years, the past decades since 1989 have for a while seen a global rise in the tolerance and openness of societies. The ruling vision was one of communities who accept and respect minorities, and honor difference and diversity between human beings[8]. By definition, tolerant and open societies are accepting of different moods and emotions – to the point of raising “political correctness” to a general virtue. Societies where everybody can express their views, opinions, and wishes, and where the community finds ways to cater to different and diverse needs and wants are still what many dream of. However, regardless of real-world developments in certain parts of the globe, tolerant societies face their own challenge – the threat of the “Dictatorship of the Small Minority”: the fact that the broad majority tends to conform to minority’s wishes if the cost of doing so is marginal for the majority[9]. So tolerance flips into intolerance when citizens confuse openness with the obligation to minimize disturbance for all possible sub-groups of society. Being open does not equal conforming to every possible whim of others.

* * *

The rule of emotions brings huge benefits to all areas of our lives. At the same time, all these benefits come with a tipping point at which their advantages turn into  counterfactual restrictions of what they set out to advance. In particular, emotions carry the burden of not giving upfront directions on who has to bear their weight. Assuming that I love you – is it me, you, or both of us, or neither who has to deal with this? Assuming I want to enjoy my work – is it me, my employer, or both of us, or neither who has to live up to this wish? Assuming we want to live in a diverse society – is it me, my fellow citizens, all of us, or none of us who have to bear the consequences? This brings us to the challenges of the rule of emotions – about which I’ll talk in the following posts.

Stay tuned!

[1] This piece is the fifth chapter of a series of blog posts on emocracy. The opening chapter can be found here and should be read first for context and perspective; the second chapter – on how the success of psychology contributed to the rise of emocracy – is here; the third chapter – on how we’re chained by the “like” button on social media – is here; the fourth chapter – on hate – is here.BACK TO TEXT

[2] The last three posts dealt with the questions: “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?”; this is the first of a few addressing the questions: “What is gained? What is lost? And for whom?”. The final question – “How do we want to shape our living together now and going forward, given that the age of emocracy seems to be here to stay?” – will then be addressed in later posts.BACK TO TEXT

[3] Jeremy Rifkin’s book from 2009: “The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis” with its accompanying website [retrieved Aug 3, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

[4] “Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation” by Michael E. Morrell (2010).BACK TO TEXT

[5] As far as I can see not (yet) the title of a book, but an often used concept to describe the required attitude of awareness and attention in online interactions. A nice (German language) explanation emphasizing the need for digital empathy for media professionals and “amateurs” can be found in this short article by journalist Richard Gutjahr [retrieved Aug 3, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

[6] For a very well thought-through critique of empathy (as one of the side effects of the rule of emotion), I highly recommend Paul Bloom’s “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion” (2016).BACK TO TEXT

[7] The most recent Harvard Business Review has an article about “Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization” that gives a good overview of the thinking behind this trend [retrieved Aug 3, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

[8] The visionary chronist of this dream was Francis Fukuyama with his book “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992). Alas, subsequent events proved his optimism wrong.BACK TO TEXT

[9] The term “Dictatorship of the small minority” was coined and explained by Nassim Nicolas Taleb in this article [retrieved Aug 3, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

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