How do we cope with political uncertainty?
By Lizzie Soden –
So here in the UK we have experienced 3 big election shocks in 3 years. There are now continual daily attempts at fortune telling about the outcomes pertaining to various complex Brexit strategies. Some people want to turn the clocks back to a time when they ‘felt’ secure. To a greater or lesser extent it’s true that the political climate, our political allegiances and societal values are always necessarily evolving. They never remain stagnant. However, recently they have not just been evolving, they have undergone a revolution. There appears to have been a rupture in the zeitgeist. It is challenging to be able to view a shocking and unexpected seismic political shift from many different angles, and try to observe objectively the many ways it impacts and changes our world view.
There is an infinite amount of explanations, interpretations and analysis as to why things are happening as they are. These are embedded in pre-existing theories, ideological values and moral intuitions. They are also embedded to a great extent in the current mood of the country, and the individual’s relationship to that mood. In a period where it is widely acknowledged that politics has become polarised, it is inevitable that we we are confronted with viewpoints that are the polar opposite to ours and we can become defensive, angry and outraged, unless we can take into account the points made by the other side.
Lets face it, after the results of the 2017 UK general election, any politico worth their salt was left feeling as if they were recovering from a clubbing week in Ibiza, both in terms of sleep deprivation and a come down from chemically induced, altered mind-states. It’s been an ’emotional roller coaster.’ It is obvious that many political pundits and especially Cameron’s old disciple George ‘Judas’ Osbourne might have had a helping hand in the form of a nose full of coke, but the truth is; all of our brains have been churning out an assortment of mind altering chemicals without any outside help from the Westminster drug dealer.
I run the risk of sounding like an amateur neuroscientist here, and hasten to add the strong caveat that I would never reduce emotional responses down to brain chemistry, or politics merely down to emotional reactions. However during an election emotions run high. We are dealing with a multitude of human paradoxes. Our thoughts impact our reactions.
Cortisol and adrenaline are brain chemicals known as the ‘stress’ hormones, in that when balanced, they regulate the bodies natural and appropriate stress response. But when stressors are ever present and you constantly feel under attack that ‘fight or flight’ reaction stays turned on. Being in ‘fight’ mode necessitates defensive and angry reactions. At worse it evokes aggressiveness and deliberate cruelty. These chemicals can be induced by your political adversaries seriously challenging you. If they appear to be winning the arguments which you have heavily invested in, you are going to fight. However, you have to be armed not just with the political arguments, but with the right state of mind in order to win.
When we have ‘learnt’ our politics from a particular interpretation of a script written by a particular political theorist, or from a party manifesto, if we are not careful we can adopt religious thinking and hold our beliefs to be truths, propped up by the echo chamber of our ‘comrades’ or political colleagues. These scripts are easily broken down to core principles in much the same way as the Ten Commandments. The most absurd and downright stomach churning version of where that kind of thinking can lead, was the Ed Milliband ‘Ed stone.’ In the 2015 election, some deluded and totally out of touch political strategist encased in the Westminster political bubble, came up with what he thought was an excellent idea. Let’s carve our manifesto’s pledges into a stone tablet so they are immovable. By hanging onto rigid beliefs, if we are not careful, we are miraculously transformed into a total dick. We get scared, we get aggressive, angry, cruel and pedantic in order to protect ourselves. We are on the defensive as opposed to the offensive. At worse, we are thrown into a constant anxious, angry or depressed state.
Oxytocin is known as the “cuddle chemical.” The reasons why we feel the need to team up and be engulfed in constant affirmation of our beliefs is obviously not just to do with teaming up to fight for our political positions in solidarity with others. On a basic level, it is also to do with psychological protection; that comforting and self-soothing feeling of belonging and having a tribe. The production of Oxytocin makes us feel safe. This is pumped out in spades when we are with people we are close to either intellectually or physically. Or both. We all know how people inevitably end up in bed together when passions are aroused in these political parties. Who knew John Major had it in him? (Probably best not to mention Diane Abbot and Jeremy Corbyn.)
Dopamine is related to our feelings of pleasure. So what happens when we adopt political beliefs that are far more helpful and effective in that they are flexibile and open to change? We can make alliances and expand our tribe. Arguably the Dopamine kicks in. It produces a rush of pleasure chemicals in much the same as any externally sourced pleasure inducing opiate. When you think about, or are told stuff that makes you feel good, that Dopamine tap starts running. (That’s why there is an the argument for trying to generally think positively about things.) So when something occurs that you are ecstatic about, you’re definitely ‘coming up’ regardless of any MDMA pill popping. And if all of your affiliated tribe are also off their heads on surges of opiates impacting their brains, it is only a matter of time until it is 6 am on Sunday morning and you realise you haven’t stoped political partying since you went out on Thursday night.
Serotonin is the chemical that induces a sense of calm. Whether we feel defensive and angry caused by too much cortisol and adrenaline, or nice and cosy and (sometimes delusionally) idealistic caused by too much Oxytocin, or ecstatic and as high as a kite caused by too much dopamine; that chemical imbalance floods out our serotonin levels, which gives us a brain full of stress and uncertainty. Getting back to a chilled state of mind is what’s needed to produce the serotonin and return to a sense of balance. An adequate amount can then make us feel focussed yet relaxed.
Can any political animal remember when they last felt relaxed?
It seems that after prolonged periods of emotional instability we reach out to self-sooth in anyway we can. We need to feel grounded again. In the end, after no doubt indulging in pastimes or substances that help us to escape, we can then chose to respond to the ensuing uncertainty in two ways:
1. By being adaptable
Watching people practising the ability to be able to adapt their positions in the light of ever changing unexpected circumstance, in order to develop an informed and reasoned response to “where we are now” has been inspiring. The connections made with new potential allies and the realignment of political strategies is the way to go. This approach has been all about quickly identifying and welcoming any new opportunities which are emerging.
2. By sticking to our guns.
Less inspiring has been watching people gather the same old troops around them, baton down the hatches and merely stick more and more stubbornly to their outmoded and now redundant principles or campaigns.
Since the Brexit vote and the election of Trump, the public’s uncertainty about the future was already impacting the zeitgeist. Theresa May tried to capitalise on that climate of instability by coming up with what she believed would be the answer to all of our prayers. She would offer a ‘strong and stable government.’ In truth she was about as strong and stable as Windows XP apparently.
Actually what she underestimated was the extent to which seismic political shifts were welcomed by much of the population. They were tired of ‘more of the same.’
Touchy Feely or Stiff Upper Lip?
There is an arguably quite legitimate viewpoint that we can, or should, abstract ourselves from our emotions and temperament when we engage in politics. This has arisen in response to a certain interpretation of our current culture. In that view, the seemingly large shift towards the fetishising of how we ‘feel’ about things is taking precedent over reason and that is indefensible. However that view entails a kind of assumption that adopting some kind of objective reasoning is superior to acting on our subjective emotions. The question is are they mutually exclusive? Reasoning does not operate independently of human emotion. Every abstract value we fight for, we do so because of an emotional and moral attachment to it. Without human emotion we would not have concepts such as liberty, equality and justice, because all of those concepts are the outcomes of both desire and disgust; feeling dissatisfied by not having something, or being appalled at how things are. Human emotions are what generate our beliefs and values.
We may be cynical about self-obsession, but we do need to engage in self reflection? This is totally distinct from self absorbtion and purely focussing on how things affect us. In fact, they are often confused.
We need the ability to stand back from our emotional responses in order to identify emotionally led reasoning which is helpful, as opposed to unhelpful. This is one of the best tools to use when it comes down to effective political discourse and getting people on our side. It is, for example, obvious that merely ranting on about our particular political standpoints, but being unaware of how those rants can be interpreted by others, is not a process that will get your adversaries on board.
Arguably, what attitudes to our adversaries we adopt is paramount. We have all experienced some arrogant angry idiot coming up to us in a pub or at work spouting their opinion, acting as if they are right and not being open to listening to any other explanation. Have they ever changed our minds about anything? Hurling insults and telling people off is never a good strategy.
Out of control emotional states impact our ability to think clearly in different ways and formulate good persuasive arguments. Understanding our emotional responses does not.
We resort to often ridiculously blinkered justifications when we are angry / fearful / devastated / euphoric etc. In some ways that’s what politics is all about. The word derives from the Greek word ‘Politika.’ This literally translates to “affairs of the cities.” Politics is about people. It is passionate, it is messy. It is ultimately about winning a battle of ideas. So if political rhetoric is dictated not only by the content of argument, but our attitudes and behaviour to our opponents and their particular ideologies, there is obviously a clear emotional investment element in any of our political viewpoints. Many of these investments we may not even be aware of.
The extent to which different people are attracted to certain political party lines and arguments, because they give them simple answers, is variable. People with different personalities and temperaments crave different amounts of certainty in their convictions.
Finding answers to questions that perplex us brings with it a return to a sense of security. However much you might have some kind of self-soothing relationship to certainty, lest we forget, certainty can come hand in hand with bigotry.
Searching for answers and explanations to baffling and complex issues is an essential part of the human condition. It is religion’s USP. The problems arise when we latch onto explanations that resonate with us emotionally because they feed into our core belief system. We can then adopt those explanations as if they are arguments in the debate. We hold them dear even if they cannot stand up to scrutiny. This is wrong-headed. If we are open-minded and curious, however, uncertainty comes with the territory. It is complicated and that is OK. With that attitude we are far more able to adapt and connect on issues that unite us and find solutions to those that divide us. In the end, that is what enables to advance political thinking.
The Blame Game
An example of political explanations which can make us feel certain about our view, but are unhelpful, are those that have emerged from adopting the blame game. Blaming others for aspects of life you feel to be unjust, to avoid having to think about things a bit more, is a tried and tested technique to gain certainty. Actually we don’t just blame others; we blame quite abstract political concepts such as lack of democracy or abundance of patriarchy. We even blame events for being the simple reason certain things occur. The people, events or concepts we blame may not be totally blameless but they may not be the only explanation as to why things are as they are.
When we have identified a certain explanation for an injustice, be it immigrants, the Labour Party or the EU, (some are more encompassing than others) we feel empowered by knowing we have the answer. That in turn makes us feel good. Again the problems arise when the explanation is adopted as a truth rather than a belief. Beliefs can be challenged. Truths cannot. If our beliefs cannot be challenged because we adopt them as truths, our political beliefs remain stagnant. If we surround ourselves only by political groups and echo chambers that reinforce these stagnant beliefs, no new ways of looking at things or adaptations of ideas can occur.
Living in the Past
Another example of political explanation that we unhelpfully adopt involves trying to understand or reject ideas because they did or didn’t work in the past. Again, we can make a simple political judgement, be certain about it, as we believe we ‘know this is true through experience.’ We can accept or reject the idea with certainty. That in turn makes us feel good. However, are we not then blind to the numerous other factors in which today is not the same as yesterday?
We might get snarky or angry about how mainstream political parties aren’t what they were. They are totally different to how they were 20-30 years ago. They don’t appeal to the same demographic or class as they used to. They have sold out, or are disingenuous. Are we are so invested in those explanations that offer us certainty, that we can no longer see alternative explanations? The argument that because things ‘were’ like X they should still be like X does not stand up to any scrutiny. There may be some element of truth in an observation from history. We may be able to learn from the past to some extent. Conversely though, can you imagine a world where the mainstream political parties had the same values and priorities that they had 100 years ago? To be so, they would have had to ignore the ways that society itself has evolved.
We are no longer living in an industrialised nation where large numbers of workers are employed by large organisations, many of which are publicly owned. Workers are now fragmented by the gigging economy and our work life has been transformed by digital technology. We don’t need to work in an office and automation has replaced numerous amounts of unskilled labour. Many more young people are in higher education.
Has not the whole certainty of where we belong in terms of class, now totally changed? We no longer merely have the social strata historically referred to as the proletariat. We also have the growth of the precariat.
Maybe an explanation that encompasses the belief that because things were a certain way in the past, (viewed retrospectively through rose coloured glasses,) they should have remained that way, again gives us a sense of certainty in our explanations. “It was all good then. I knew where I stood. Back in the day…”
You may now immediately conjure up the little Englanders harping back to the days of cricket on the green and the local smoked filled pub, but I see the exponents of this explanation for why things are as they are all over the political spectrum. The classic is the demonisation of the young for not being and behaving the way we did. It happens in every generation. The persecuted rebels of the past become the adult authoritarians of the present fuelled, by outrage.
Don’t believe everything you think
Emotional reactions facilitate a fair amount of purely emotional reasoning. The relationship between various heightened emotional states of mind and espoused political viewpoints is fascinating. From my meanderings around social media and listening to mainstream political commentary, I have observed people in many and varied emotional states. We have no doubt all been guilty of losing it. We have no doubt defriended some Facebook friends (which as a piece of political action is as daring as politely leaving the room whilst saying nothing.) We have got too passionate; we have seen people’s true colours; we have made some new unholy alliances. Politics is crazy.
Some desperate souls replace good arguments against opposing political viewpoints, by only engaging in snarky, bitter and cruel attitudes, or spin and manipulation. We all know some political provocateurs who punctuate debates by attempting to derail any useful discourse. They espouse bigoted narratives in order to distract people and appeal to our base instincts. The tabloids obviously have this down to an Art. Insulting opponents aided by distorted truths is their raison d’être. Whipping up the ‘they are dangerous, they will destroy you, they hate you,’ narratives feed directly into people’s fear and uncertainty; a useful state of mind for the implantation of their self-serving political solutions to overcome that fear. It’s not just confined to the tabloids. Many political commentators and spin doctors employ this technique. “This is the enemy folks. This is how we destroy them. Once we destroy them, you can go back to a state of security and stability.”
We are experiencing the emergence of a democratisation of political discourse and a far more diverse selection of voices being heard due to new technology and the internet. In many ways our political strategies and established political parties have not yet caught up with this rapidly changing phenomenon. Neither have the mainstream media or the political think tanks.
I am lucky to have a band of politically engaged friends from all over the political spectrum. Over the last three years, in particular, our tried and tested old political allegiances have been shaken up, thrown way up into the air, and landed back on the ground with a loud explosion, fragmenting in all sorts of different directions. It’s exhilarating for someone who sees new opportunities opening up and was getting so bored of more of the ‘same old, same old,’ in stagnant centralist political rhetoric.
In the social media political realm, it is transparent how different people respond to the same emotions. Obviously their response impacts their reasoning, mind set, reactions and attitudes. If we acknowledge human response to unexpected, uncertain and chaotic political outcomes is varied, we can better translate their positions. We each adopt a variety of tried and tested techniques to cope with uncertainty. Most of those coping strategies will be default modes that we automatically switch to without even being aware that we do so. Many of us may not have even identified these strategies. They are just a part of who we are. We don’t necessarily interrogate them in terms of whether those ways of coping are useful or not. We don’t see them as integral to our political outlook or political actions.
Adopting a Cause.
Many of us understandably have united around and invested wholly in a particular political campaign. In this case, we are generally going to be extremely reluctant to change our position. We may have adopted that particular political cause as a bedrock on which our positions are placed and embedded. If we are not careful, we can adopt a kind of uncritical religious belief in our particular group’s particular campaign.
It seems then, it may also be useful to identify, focus on, and scrutinise our core moral and political values in terms of ways we can effectively persuade people they are worth adopting and coming on board with. By rigidly sticking with certain political explanations, we are not engaging in arguments. There are numerous explanations for the same political trends or situations. In order to be effective in terms of having useful and insightful debate and developing new conversations and political principles, we may need some agreement on the way we think, communicate, and behave with each other.
A new campaign?
Maybe we need to start doing politics in a far more empathetic, clear-headed and courageous manner? Having a sense of integrity has in the last decade in particular been under appreciated. People are seeing through disingenuous, self-serving attitudes. Our attitudes to what is considered acceptable political discourse and how we conduct ourselves DO matter. If we are operating from a negative mind-state, our attitudes preclude us from being trusted or taken seriously by anyone other than our supporters. We don’t change hearts and minds by manipulation, insults, or fear mongering. Conversely, being totally idealistic and deluded about your position can make you defensive towards anyone who bursts your bubble. Neither can we analyse the world by pulling out our favourite political theories, without letting the world’s current situation change those theories. We need to interact proactively, now more than ever, with what’s actually going on in the world.
When we decide to engage with each other with empathy, clarity and courage, then maybe we CAN embrace a real and productive sense of certainty again. The certainty that things will change for the better and new conversations can take us forward to counter the current politically polarised stalemate.