Emocracy: Commons of Emotions

Living in an age of emocracy, we are tasked with finding ways to manage the transition of our emotional subjectivities into a commonly agreed upon intersubjective reality of human beings’ feelings[1]. Fortunately, the history of humanity has many examples of how people created common structures, stories, or stratagems out of individual stances, insights, or interests. Unfortunately, practically all of these examples have their successful and unsuccessful manifestations, and none (so far) has survived unaltered across times and places. Over the next three posts, I will examine three possible starting points for creating a shared emotional perspective, transforming our feelings from subjective attitudes into a shared intersubjective view. The three concepts I will investigate are: The idea of the commons; (human) rights; and transcendence.

My seventh hypothesis is: Just like the commons, i.e. resources accessible to and relevant for everybody in a certain community[2], our shared emotional landscape need to be managed by principles and practices agreed upon (and regularly updated) by all community members. This automatically puts constraints on the type of communities which can effectively cater for an emotional landscape, and within these communities, above all, it requires a clear definition of which emotions are helpful (and which hurt).

Emotions as commons: Emotions reigning the open space between human beings share many characteristics with traditional commons. Everybody benefits from positive emotions, such as the collective joy after a sports team’s victory or the universal cheerfulness when the weather is good (however defined)[3]. At the same time, everybody suffers from negative emotions carried into the realm of shared experiences. An single aggressor, a lone hater, or an individual madwoman can paralyse whole villages, online chat rooms, or companies. Just like with classical commons, we also don’t know who will suffer and who will benefit from the emotions spreading in the public sphere – a shitstorm can hit anyone of us out of the blue, just like sudden viral fame, or the jealousy born from others’ fear of missing out. In this way, our shared emotional landscape is very much like the shared pastures on which everybody could graze their cows, hoping for collective benefits and a protection against accidentally picking the one dry corner of the meadows with insufficient grass, flowers, and water.

Principles and practices: Traditional commons were always managed – sometimes more successfully, sometimes less so. As shown in the wonderful research done by Elinor Ostrom[4], among the eight design principles that make such governance of commons work well are “collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process” (3.), “effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators “(4.), “a scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules” (5.), and “mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access” (6.). Just looking at these four principles makes clear how far away from effective principles for emocracy we are today: The choices of which emotions are shared when and by whom are practically never made by the collective, but by the individuals sharing their emotions. Monitoring of the emotional landscape rarely happens – and if so, often not by accepted parties. Emotional contamination of shared spaces – e.g. mobbing, or hate speech – is barely covered by laws, and sorting out emotional quibbles very often doesn’t happen at all. Getting to jointly agreed principles and practices around our shared emotional lanscape which live up to these standards would indeed be progress.

Type of communities: In the past, communities sharing and jointly managing commons were mostly tightly bound together in time and space – a village sharing its grazing grounds, fishers sharing the shorelines for fishing, or farmers sharing irrigation systems for their fields. Today, communities sharing an emotional landscape are often spread out in space and bound together mostly by interests, e.g. in Facebook Groups or Online Chatrooms. This makes it more difficult to honor the first principle of governing the commons, namely a “clear definition of the contents of the common pool resource and effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties” (1.). When an online community dedicated to smoothie making gets into discussions on the benefits of veganism, religious views, or political preferences, things quickly deteriorate – to the point where people are excluded from the group, until the next dispute arises. Still, such – relatively small, purpose-oriented – communities are probably the best starting points for finding and upholding principles for jointly caring for the shared emotional landscape – much more than hoping for a global agreement on reducing hate emissions or displays of arrogance.

What helps and what hurts: Just like farmers need to agree on what is grain and what is weed, communities jointly caring for their emotional landscape need to agree on which emotions they want to collectively nourish – and which ones they want to see dry out or even actively eradicate. This is a difficult discussion which in itself contains plenty of seeds for highly emotional disagreements: For example, at first glance, everybody might agree that discontent or anger should be taken directly to those who provoked the discontent or anger, instead of being spread around as gossip or publicized on social media. However, in practice, everybody also likes to vent to friends, and sometimes it actually helps to share frustration or rage before taking it to those who provoked it. Coming to agreements on how to handle such cases is everything but trivial[5]. The same goes for the ways of sharing positive emotions, as any authentic display of contentment, joy, or excitement can easily flip into bragging. Should the farmer who already has the best-grown wheat really get the same share of water as everybody else? Or should they lay low and let others get their share too?

* * *

Caring for our shared emotional landscape with the same diligence and deliberation as we (used to) care for shared physical commons could be a way to help create an environment of mutually exchanged feelings to which everybody can contribute and from which everybody can benefit. Getting there, however, might take as much time and effort as developing the principles for fishing, grazing, or sharing groundwater. And there is a high likelihood that whatever the principles will be, they will be limited to and only functioning within well-defined, reasonably sized communities. How, then, could the commons of emotions be supplemented with global concepts that work beyond and across such communities? This will be the topic of my next post.

Stay tuned!


[1] This piece is the eighth 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. The fifth chapter deals with the benefits of the rule of emotions; the sixth chapter deals with the losses; the seventh chapter described the tipping point we have reached. This is the first of a few final posts addressing the questions: “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?”.BACK TO TEXT

[2] I’m talking about commons here in the “classic” sense of shared pastures, irrigation systems, or other (mostly natural) resources, as brilliantly described and analyzed by Elinor Ostrom, e.g. in “Governing the Commons” (1990). More recently, the concept has been extended to also mean resources shared by humanity as a whole, such as earth’s atmosphere, the oceans, or biodiversity. However, practical approaches that actually help manage these resources for the benefit of all are still in the making, and the best examples of global agreements hand responsibility back to smaller communities (e.g. the Paris Climate Agreement which its idea of distributed leadership through “nationally determined contributions”).BACK TO TEXT

[3] Of course, there are also always those who do not join the crowd in its shared emotional state – and sometimes the emotionalized crowd goes haywire, as in the famous examples of mobs across all times. Both cases could be explored more – but not today.BACK TO TEXT

[4] See above (note [2]), or this lovely video for a quick overview [retrieved Aug 9, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

[5] The challenges of getting to and honoring such agreements are beautifully described by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey in “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work” (2000).BACK TO TEXT

Respond to Emocracy: Commons of Emotions

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