Affect in the century of reason

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This article was published on PETRIe,  on January 25, 2017. You can read the original here.


When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America, back in 2008, they told us it was over. Yet, if it really wasn’t, we grew to learn that we were few steps away from it: we’ve reached a world of true tolerance and equality, we thought. Little did we know that it wasn’t the world that was changing, but us. About to enter the Trump era, the antithesis of what the Obama administration meant, we wonder if we have become inhumanly apathetic, as a survival mechanism responding to a morally declining society moved by humanity’s worst emotions: anger and hatred. Although, finding a scapegoat might calm our guilt, the truth is that Donald Trump just unmasked a reality that is well rooted in today’s civilization.

Apathy is an essential emotion that has proven to be the highway to success. While public figures such as Barack Obama or Pope Francis made us hope for a better world, unethical acts were taking place before our eyes. Sentiments of racism and xenophobia were building up around us, but we thought nothing could happen because a black person was leader of the free world, and the most powerful Christian wanted to give women more visibility after centuries of gender oppression.

The lack of empathy in the general population might be one of the reasons why researchers are now putting the spotlight on psychopathic traits. It might be shocking to think of our society as a manic one, however, it is not so when we consider that we are being governed by corporate psychopaths. This is a valid explanation of the critical point at which we started to express insensible emotions. We became reptilians, as mentioned in the work of the Romanian artist Florin Flueras: “cold and calculating individuals devoid of empathy, extremely individualistic and competitive, with lack of compassion.”

We are left wondering whether this is a natural response to today’s paradigms, or we are being forced into a spiral of suspicion where we are extremely vulnerable to manipulation. When it comes to exploring the motivations of human disorder and social movements, scholars seem to agree on the fact that emotions play a critical role. Our emotions shape the process of cultural identification with certain groups. Although we might think our connection to some people is genuine, the reality is that the organisers of these movements consciously deploy certain emotions within the group to control it.

This tactic has been researched for decades, and was extensively used in key moments such as the Second World War or the Vietnam War. The scientific name is “Psychological Warfare” (PSYWAR) and can be defined as the way in which human emotions are manipulated to influence group behaviour. We can find a recent example in the wave of hate crimes against minorities seen in the USA after the victory of Donald Trump. Trump’s hate speech had his supporters believe that immigration is the only issue in America. Mass emotional manipulation to coordinate action is not new. However, in a world where people empathise with the emotions deployed in our group, but are desensitised to the understanding of others’ views, tactics such as PSYWAR can polarise a society to the extreme. In a globalised world where society seems to get more fragmented by the minute, are we heading towards becoming emotionally-detached puppets?

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