Emocracy: Freedom of Emotions?

In many ways, our shared emotional landscape is a commons that needs to be cared for by our joint effort[1]. However, this perspective restricts the scope of emocracy to clearly delimited communities who then still face the challenge to define – and subsequently uphold – the principles and practices to govern the emotions populating their shared spaces. Following a more recent historical trend, a broader  – and potentially global – approach would be to include emotions in the basic set of human rights: the French Revolution’s and American Independency’s way of describing universal characteristics valid for everybody on this planet. What if there was an article saying: “Everyone has the right to freedom of emotions and their expression”, similar to the existing article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”[2]?

My eighth hypothesis is: A universal right to the freedom of emotions has to be the right to express (and not only: to have) emotions. As a consequence of this, we would have to live with the non-falsifiability of all emotions, accept clashes between interdependent emotional attitudes, and come to terms with our expectation that emotions have to translate into actions in order to be “real”. Quite frankly: All this might not improve our living together. But let’s look at the different points one by one.

The freedom to have emotions: The freedom to have emotions is essentially a non-issue. So far, in human history, everybody had – and has – emotions. Assigning human beings a right to this phenomenon would be as trivial (or absurd) as assigning everybody the right to have blood circulation, the right to breathe, or the right to have bowel movements. Proclaiming a right to something only makes sense if and when the access to that something can be hindered or denied by other individuals – or by institutions[3]. Of course, our emotions can be disliked or disapproved of by others (and even suppressed by a cultural environment as a whole, e.g. in the case of emotional taboos), but nobody can keep somebody else from having an emotion in the first place[4]. Consequently, freedom of emotions only makes sense when understood to also explicitly mean the freedom to express emotions.

The freedom to express emotions: Assuming a right to freedom of expressing emotions, at first glance, seems very close to the right to freedom of opinion and expression: Both emotions and opinions are subjective perspectives on aspects of the world around us. So a straightforward assumption would be to posit a right to freedom to express emotions as long as other fundamental rights are not negatively affected. As in the case of the freedom to express opinions, while generally valid, the freedom to express emotions could be restricted or reduced when it interferes with other individuals’ rights (e.g. in the case of slander or libel) or with society’s care for its collective sanity (e.g. in the case of pornography or obscenity). However, there are three significant differences between opinions and emotions which undermine this straightforward comparison, namely  concerning non-falsifiability, interdependency, and action-orientation.

Non-Falsifiability: Emotions are not falsifiable. There is nothing “right” or “wrong”, “true” or “false” about what we feel. Of course, we (or others) might under certain circumstances not be happy about our emotions – but that doesn’t make them “false”. And we (or others) might under other circumstances enjoy our emotions – but that doesn’t make them “true”. Opinions, too, are not falsifiable, but – and that is an important difference to emotions – they can often be measured against reference points which, in turn, can be falsified (or verified) A dispute about whether unicorns should eat strawberries or not can (at least in theory) be settled by observing unicorns’ eating habits and studying the effect of different foods on their health. A clash between you liking unicorns and strawberries and me not liking neither unicorns nor strawberries can never be settled in the same way – although both of us might change our likes and dislikes over time, there’s nothing verifiable (or falsifiable) about them. They are what they are, at any given moment. This difference between opinions and emotions means: Statements of emotions can never be rejected on the basis of objectifying their reference points. With a right to the freedom to express emotions, we would therefore have to equally accept the statements: “I love strawberries”, and: “I hate all unicorns” – regardless of what strawberries and what unicorns people are talking about[5].

Interdependency: Emotions are contagious. One person’s emotions influence another person’s emotions, both directly and indirectly. One person’s joy, sadness, happiness, or anger can spread, magnifying everybody’s joy, sadness, happiness, or anger. Or one person’s joy can make another person sad; one person’s sadness can make another person happy; one person’s happiness can provoke another person’s anger; and one person’s anger can cheer another person up. Opinions, too, can (and do) spread, and we are prone to adopting others’ opinions on the flimsy basis of what has become known as “cognitive bias”[6]. However, contrary to the spreading of opinions, emotions have a tendency to go into vicious spirals of self-igniting ever more complicated layers of emotions about emotions: First, I’m happy about finding a new lover; then, my former lover gets angry at my being happy; then, I’m sad about my former lover being angry; then, my new lover is mad at me being sad; then, my former lover is excited about my new lover being mad; and so on and so forth – until we part ways again, and the whole circus starts with other people and other feelings. When it comes to opinions, we have gotten used to “agree to disagree”, i.e. accept differences in opinion as different perspectives – and stay with that. With emotions, we are usually far from this stance. It is much harder to agree on a simultaneous: “I love you”, and: “You hate me”, so the difference triggers the cycle described above, as I get into rage about you hating me on top of my loving you. With a right to the freedom to express emotions, we would have to come to terms with such multi-layered clashes on emotions – regardless of who feels what about whom.

Action-orientation: Emotions are validated by action. It is common practice to expect people to not only talk about how they feel, but act accordingly: “How can you say you love me if you never give me flowers?”; “He said he hates his brother-in-law, but then he went on a sailing trip with him!”; “She said he was angry at me, but then I heard her whistle happy tunes under the shower”. Precisely because of the subjective, inner nature of emotions, we do not take people’s words as sufficient proof for them to “really” feel something. When emotions are not accompanied by action, we suspect lack of authenticity. In comparison, opinions’ link to action is much weaker. Cato the Elder’s: “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” was a (strong) expression of opinion, but nobody would have accused him of being inauthentic because he did not go out to destroy Carthage with his own hands. In this way, opinions can be extreme without automatically committing their holder to action[7]. Emotions, to the contrary, are intrinsically loaded with the expectation to spark action – and if no action happens, we doubt the honesty of the emotion. With a right to the freedom to express emotions, we would have to either break the link between emotions and action, assuming that there can be love without kissing and hate without killing – or else live with the full consequences of emotions “acted out”.

* * *

In our times of emocracy, we have probably already implicitly gotten to the point of assuming a right to the freedom to express emotions. So far, however, we have ignored the consequences: If everybody has the right to express all emotions (as long as other basic rights are not affected), how do we listen to such expressions? If clashes between differences of emotions become prevalent, how do we handle such clashes – both internally and externally? If emotions are closely intertwined with action, where do we draw the boundaries on what is “acted out”?

Stay tuned!


[1] This piece is the ninth 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 second of three 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?”. The previous post – the eighth chapter – dealt with the emotions as a common good.BACK TO TEXT

[2] For the sake of completeness, this article continues “this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. The full text of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights can be found here [retrieved Aug 11, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

[3] This logic is the starting point for the definition of human rights as rights which each individual human being can claim against intervention mainly from the state, but also from others.BACK TO TEXT

[4] This perspective would be further underlined if we were to accept a strongly biologistic view on emotions as triggered by hormones and their likes. If emotions are born from physiological reactions, there’s no way anybody can not have an emotion – unless, of course, such reactions are engineered by medication.BACK TO TEXT

[5] This, by the way, is exploited by those who claim that something has to be true because it feels true – a recently much used stratagem in political debate, moving opinion into the realm of emotions and thereby pulling the rug of verifiability from under its feet. Of course, there are situations when facts (and the truths they represent) can change – but these are well-defined and can be analysed. I wrote about this a while ago here.BACK TO TEXT

[6] Originally researched and then made popular by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. A good overview is in the corresponding article on Wikipedia and the list of cognitive biases on the same platform [retrieved Aug 11, 2018].BACK TO TEXT

[7] Of course, sometimes the line between opinions and emotions is thin, leading to increased worry that holders of certain opinions are driven by emotions and thereby compelled to also take action, as e.g. in the case of people holding a derogatory opinion on certain groups of human beings which gradually transforms into disgust or hatred, at which point the step towards action is but an inch away .BACK TO TEXT

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