Tory Emotional Gameplay: Fear Anger Panic, Lust Care Play
Pat Kane reads the runes of the Toryverse and tries to explain how such a seemingly dysfunctional and execrable group of people manage to still capture electoral success. The answer he suggests is in emotion science.
For the average progressive on these islands, and particularly furth of the Tweed, the perplexity ever deepens: Why are these Tories so impervious to harm, in their politics and poll ratings?
Why doesn’t a grim, factual recitation of their appalling record – the hundreds of thousands of Covid dead; taking money out of the pockets of the poor at their moment of greatest hardship; doing “access capitalism” and cash-for-honours with the world’s plutocrats – take them down? What is their attraction?
For some years now, I’ve been digging around in the fields of what is generally known as “the science of emotion” (covering evolutionary psychology, affective neuroscience and other specialisms). It’s partly been about trying to find an answer to the questions above.
Like all scientific investigations—whether into questions of consciousness, emotion and motivation or not—the current map of emotion science is hardly definitive. There are huge contending schools, ongoing studies, etc.
But I think we can use some of this fields; tools to begin to explain the mysterious, irrational-seeming hold that the Tories have over post-Brexit popular consciousness. (It also helps us to see why Scots indy is such a direct threat to it – more on that towards the end).
I was sparked to write this by a piece from Matthew D’Ancona in Tortoise, trying to explain Boris Johnson’s durability, particularly this section:
“It is self-evidently the case that the [UK] government faces huge economic questions in the years ahead as it struggles with the self-harm of Brexit and the scarring of Covid.
But it is a big non sequitur to conclude that these challenges will neatly end the era in which identity, culture and belonging mattered as much as they have, and restore politics to its supposedly proper status as a branch of economics.
This is not because economic pressures do not matter – who could make such an absurd claim? – but because they are more intimately entangled than ever with questions of culture, self-perception and place.
Why does Johnson make so much of immigration? Because he knows that the “red wall” voters who elected Tory MPs on a probationary basis in 2019 make no distinction between economic and cultural precariousness.
The more fearful you are about your identity as an employee (or one of almost a million people who were still furloughed when the scheme ended last week), the more fearful you become about your place in the world and the perceived threats to it. This insight is at the heart of Johnson’s politics. [My emphasis]
Which is why he and his colleagues are waging their culture war so implacably at this conference. Yesterday, the party chair, Oliver Dowden, claimed that Labour “has got woke running through it like a stick of Brighton rock”, and took aim at those who argue that Britain is “dominated by privilege and oppression” and “should view its values and history with shame”.
Meanwhile, his successor as culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, told the Sun on Sunday that she “could almost hear the almond latte cups hitting the floor at the BBC when I got this job.”
The Human Homeostat
Let’s scan this passage through some of the lenses of emotion science. The most obvious one is the current research focus on homeostasis.
Homeostatis is the idea that our minds primarily evolved to help us survive the risks and threats of existence. Therefore, we are constantly trying to predict and anticipate what’s coming to us. We generate models of reality in our head in advance of moving through the world, which we “error-correct” in the face of experience.
To some extent, we crave the stability of the homeostat – the temperature device in your house which seeks a set point, and adjusts itself accordingly.
But we’re not room devices: we’re social, linguistic, complex mammals, living with others that are just as complex. So we need a guidance system – something that is more than a temperature number on a dial, helping us reach for (but never quite achieving) such a balance or homeostasis.
For mammals, that guidance system is our primary evolved emotions, evolved to help us survive over hundreds of millions of years.
The neuroscientists Jaak Panksepp and Mark Solms identify seven emotional systems – three negative (FEAR, ANGER, PANIC/SADNESS), three positive (LUST, CARE, PLAY), and one elemental, sitting behind all the systems (SEEKING). [They capitalise them to emphasize their primary, their evolutionary force, and I’ll follow that in this article.]
In the D’Ancona passage, you can see this whole system moving under the surface of the words. (The cards are somewhat stacked: it’s generally understood that the negative emotions are twice as powerful and compelling than the positive ones.)
The FEAR system is triggered by feelings of threat, which sends the mind whirling around looking for safety options. So immigration and the shaking of identity can combine to trigger the same primal FEAR system.
Emotion science uses the term “visceral” for these systems. Visceral indicates that our primal emotional response is largely involuntary: we are in the grip of these strong feelings, they are not amenable to higher-level, more cognitive brain control.
It’s why “Project Fear” was so successful in the indyref: once we’re induced into that state, we start to scrabble towards homeostasis, however we can achieve it. We become the “conservative animal”. Similarly, the Brexit phrase “taking back control” assumes that some force has already weakened us, has opened us up to predation.
This begins to explain the Tories’ command of their post-Brexit public (again, massively south of the Tweed), by the way they string together or orchestrate these viscerally-triggered emotions. You attach FEAR to ANGER – the requirement for aggression to resist a force or remove an object – by means of a culture “war”. That balanced, homeostatic identity, the sense of self that you crave, isn’t just challenged passively (by economic immigration) but actively (by “woke warriors”).
We underestimate the playful in politics
There’s something else this primary-emotions map reveals. What seems to be always underestimated and misunderstood by progressives is the way that post-Brexit Tories can attach FEAR and ANGER to PLAY.
PLAY is the primary emotional system that helps mammals explore and rehearse possibilities and new niches, in a joyful and pleasurable manner. PLAY helps us survive, if we can (as play scholars put it) “take reality lightly”, for some time at least.
Indeed the great play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith once defined PLAY as “adaptive potentiation” – the means whereby we spin out options for surviving and thriving. Sutton-Smith also defined it as “the stylized performance of existential themes that mimic or mock the uncertainties and risks of survival”.
So you see that “mimicking and mocking” of survival, at the expense of those who induce FEAR and ANGER, in Nadine Dorries’ humour above. But it’s precisely what Keir Starmer doesn’t see, when he describes Johnson as a “trivial man” in his recent conference speech. The charge of triviality misses the point entirely.
Visibly PLAYful people are displaying their good cheer, surplus energy, imagination and optimism, in the face of existential threats. This is attractive within human communities. Progressives clutch their pearls when Johnson makes dumb social media riffs on “Take Back Batter” or “Take Back Butter”. Progressives also love to despise that image of Johnson on the flying fox wire, legs akimbo and hair sticking out like straw from under the helmet, tiny Union Jack flags in his hands.
But in that very image, Johnson is literally “mimicking or mocking the uncertainties and risks of survival”. In fact, after his own Covid brush with death, Johnson’s continued ebullience, his antic behaviour, becomes even more admirable and attractive.
Politicians demonstrating the capacity for PLAY – whether that comes in the shape of humour, or cultural appreciation – is something which often accompanies political success. We could say the same for Cool Britannia and early New Labour—as well as the tight association of leading Scottish independence ministers and politicians with arts and literature.
The ludic self-consciousness of Brexit Tories is everywhere evident. “Leveling up” itself is a video-game term (“freezones” might as well be). With “Global Brexit Britain” as the brand-name of the game space.
Is this Tory aptitude for playing the full emotional keyboard, from FEAR to PLAY scientifically informed? Are they reading what I’m reading? Not sure. There is a long-standing association of advertising and marketing (using psychology and other mind sciences to incite needs and desire) with conservative politics across the world, from the start of Freudianism in the early 20th century.
The legacy this might leave is a naked ambition about manipulating affect. They have no shame about entwining “attractive” and “aversive” emotional responses to the world, in the most effective way.
However, it’s useful to observe (from the Panksepp-Solms model at least) where the Toryverse doesn’t answer the full range of visceral emotions.
A huge Achilles heel might be the Tories’ record in answering longings for CARE. Take Tory willingness to impose austerity, old and new; or the ham-fisted and incompetent nature of the Conservative governments’ Covid responses; or the everyday shortages beginning to arise from Brexit’s regulations and malfunctions.
Another weakness might be how the Tories register on the emotional system of PANIC/SADNESS. This is the need for us to avoid the experience of being separated and isolated, left on our own as social animals (often a threat to our survival). Emotional politics could certainly trigger this with the rising incidence of mental and physical health problems (Covid is a battleground for this triggering). An opposition could shoot straight for this nexus, aiming to pin the negative and aversive feelings it raises onto the incumbent government.
But if using these “science of emotion” maps are useful in anyway – and it’s a huge, ongoing task to develop and enrich them – it’s about bringing home one big lesson to progressives. Which is that risks have to be taken emotionally with messaging and policy. The full keyboard of affect and feeling has to be played in your politics.
Scottish nationalism at the emotional keyboard
Finally, I tentatively suggest that the SNP’s robust electoral supremacy could be rooted in the way they perform at that primary-emotions keyboard. Sturgeon’s maternal-bureaucrat-of-the-nation role during Covid, combined with her avid love of contemporary literature both Scottish or global, is a mix of CARE and PLAY that is a strong counter to the Johnsonian persona. FEAR and ANGER against a Tory Westminster regime is reasonably easy to raise.
But what might also be the emotional secret-sauce for indy politics is its ready stimulus of what Panksepp and Solms call the SEEKING system. This is the basic curiosity which every organism needs – the thing that drives them to get started in their day, to feel their agency in and capability for the world.
National self-determination – the clue may be in the “s”-word there – could be regarded as a permanent horizon, which invites and incites a collective SEEKING. A desire or “conatus” (to quote Spinoza) that pushes you to make your way through the world, to explore it with coherence and integrity.
Doesn’t this Scottish constitutional up-for-it-ness challenge the Brexiteers’ own version of collective vitality – their “Global Britain” and “Empire 2.0”? Brexitannia needs to throw nails across, and take a hammer to, the emotional keyboard of Scottish civic nationalism.
Scottish independence offers a viable alternative route to national homeostasis. In fact, it’s more like what Antonio Damasio calls “homeodynamics” – aiming at a gentle flourishing, within a supportive Nordic and European context.
So what circumstances will trigger the popular sense that Scottish collective stability requires a shift to a new niche and environment? That we need a more satisfying and less threatening public answer to our range of primary emotions?
I’m a lay reader in the human sciences, not the Brahan Seer. But I could say this: we’ll know it when we inescapably and viscerally feel it.
Pat Kane is researching a book on politics, creativity and the science of emotions.
Politics is visceral by Manos Tsakiris
Antonio Damasio and Manuel Castells in discussion, 2020
Help to support independent Scottish journalism by subscribing or donating today.