Reading the title of this article might evoke pictures of people violently shouting at each other or bursting out into tears while pleading their cause in front of an audience. Whereas the first case will definitely be considered as a departure from democratic forms of public debate by most citizens, the latter could either be judged as an authentic expression of the intensity of one’s involvement in a topic (which – in a second step – could be seen as legitimate or illegitimate) or  merely as an attempt to manipulate the audience (which will hardly be considered legitimate by any reasonable citizen). Further contemplations on the connection between emotions and public deliberation might result in images of close-minded people (of all political directions and every level of education, by the way) vehemently denying those facts that would undermine their positions. Positions for instance about refugees, the Islam, capitalism, Europe’s influence in British politics, the corruption of the political system or corporate influence, climate change or gun violence in the United States.

If this is all what emotions inflict upon politics, there is no place for them in a democratic polity striving for political equality and social justice. Nobody could ever want a politics of “untutored passion” (Krause 2008, p. 6). Disqualifying emotions, then, is part of the standard view on deliberative democracy. Public debate ought to be calm, rational and dispassionate in order to fulfil its democratic functions: “The worry is that these affective modes of consciousness will cloud our reason and therefore impede the impartiality that is needed for sound moral judgment, equitable adjudication, and fair political deliberation“ (ibid., p. 1).

Before I address this concern and examine in what ways emotions actually benefit democratic politics, let me first briefly clarify my understanding of deliberative democracy. First of all, I am not interested in questions of democratic legitimacy. That means I put aside any considerations about how a political focus on discussion and debate could provide the normative base for democracy (for an instructive account cf. Benhabib 1996). My account on emotions and deliberation operates on a more practical level, concerned with questions of improving the inclusiveness of democratic deliberation. Unlike the position of Hans Blokland, then, who emphasise, at least in previous projects, the educative function of deliberation (cf. Blokland 2018a, 2018b), I follow a more encompassing view, combining deliberation’s educative aspect with the procedural element of reaching the best possible decision when faced with a political problem: “In the deliberative model democracy is a form of practical reason. Participants in the democratic process offer proposals for how best to solve problems or meet legitimate needs, and so on, and they present arguments through which they aim to persuade others to accept their proposals” (Young 2000, p. 22). Deliberation means “to weigh alternatives before choosing among them. It is to consider options carefully, balancing advantages and disadvantages, before deciding which is best. Deliberate actions are those that are not rash and hasty but rather intentional and purposeful […]“ (Hall 2007, p. 88). There is no doubt that this process has educative power (cf. Young 2000, p. 26; and Fishkin 2009, p. 119–150, for empirical evidence), but the more encompassing view allows for more far reaching conclusions and is closer to real-world political deliberations, which ultimately constitute the standard to be approached by my considerations.

Practical and Theoretical Insights on Emotions in Deliberation

Having clarified this framework, I can proceed by evaluating the claim that emotions inevitably obstruct public deliberation. I found evidence for the contrary in two different spheres of life: certain communicative practices associated with my work as a communications coach as well as the broad field of philosophy of emotions. The former might indeed count as pre-theoretic evidence, while the latter clearly has systematic explanatory power, especially where insights are applied to deliberative democratic theory.

As a communications coach I have experienced that directing one’s attention to emotions and needs is enormously helpful for resolving intra- as well as interpersonal conflicts. Construing emotionality as instances of “needs in danger” (or, for the sake of completeness albeit less prone to be conflictual, “needs fulfilled”) highlights their life-serving function, which is to provide us with information about how our environment interferes in our essential goals and projects. When needs are fulfilled, thus, we experience pleasant emotions like joy or gratitude, when needs are in danger, we experience urgent or distressing emotions like helplessness, fear or sadness. Insofar emotions reveal that something valuable is at risk (or – to the contrary – enhanced) they usually motivate adequate actions (or – in case of enhancement – the expression of joy or gratitude). Identifying and empathetically acknowledging emotions often are pivotal steps to resolve conflicts without loosing connection to oneself and one another. Demands are common, though, to approach conflicts rationally: to focus on the facts, don’t get too involved or let your emotions boil over, and so on. There is definitely some truth in these demands, although they are erroneous in a very important respect. It is never helpful to violently express one’s emotions. This violent mode, I assume, is the result not of acknowledging but instead of trying to suppress one’s emotionality, often for a considerable time. Approaching conflicts by disqualifying and ignoring emotions leads only to a fictitious rationality. I acknowledge that processes of emotional conflict resolution indeed require something that resembles rationality in some ways. That is what I meant by saying there is some truth in the demand for rationality. It requires concepts which I assume to actually lie behind the demand for rationality: calmness and mindfulness. Conditions which are the likely result of an empathetic and appreciative approach to emotionality in conflicts, at least according to the collective practical experience of my profession.

A sceptic might not be convinced by this practical and unscientific account. Or she might recognize that these considerations could be valid in the field of coaching or mediation but not in political discourse. I am not only a communications coach, though, but also a political theorist, so I have not exhausted my arguments yet. There is a certain strand in the philosophy of emotions that can be seen as a comprehensive theory underlying the practical approach: The cognitive-evaluative theory of emotions.

According to this theory emotions are cognitive processes, not states of mind or simply states of the body. These processes consist in assenting to a certain kind of judgement. That might sound a little odd, what does this mean? Assenting has the meaning of coming to a deep believe about the truth of something. In our case this something is a propositional judgement, propositional because it’s content can be expressed in a sentence. An example might help. The sentence “this friend of mine has gone forever” is the propositional judgement that we assent to in the case of grieving about the death of a beloved friend. When we encounter a bear in the forest we might assent to the judgement “I’m in a life threatening situation”, we experience fear directed to the dangerous object in front of us. Defining emotions this way might seem out of touch with real world experiences of emotions. That is true to some degree, but this analytical view is actually pretty helpful when we are faced with complex emotional dynamics that are difficult to understand. In these cases focusing on something seemingly odd like propositional judgements might help clarifying an emotions substructure and connections with other beliefs and values. To reconnect this understanding of emotions with everyday life experiences of emotionality I will add the point that these emotional processes are accompanied by bodily feelings and frequently by a vivid imagination, centred around the emotion’s object.

There would be much more to say about this theory, but this would actually go beyond the scope of this article. I will concentrate here on two other characteristics of of these judgements that are of special relevance for my argument. Firstly, they are directed towards something outside the individual’s mind. Emotions can aim at literally any perceivable object. Philosophers call this feature emotions’ intentionality. So, emotions are intentional insofar they are directed to an object. Grief is directed to a loss, fear towards anything that is dangerous, indignation to an instance of injustice. The emotion’s identity, what allows us to discriminate among several emotions, is constituted by the content of the judgement. It requires believing in a loss to experience grief, it requires perceiving something as threatening to experience fear and finally one must construe a situation as an instant of injustice to become indignant or outraged.

Secondly, these judgements are “concern-based” as Robert Roberts (2003) calls it, or “eudaimonistic” in the more abstract words of Martha Nussbaum (2001). That means emotions embody personal values, they are grounded in our personal “scheme of goals and projects” (Nussbaum 2001, p. 52). This is comparable to what I have called “needs” in my practical account. Anything that interferes with this scheme will cause emotions and by that provides us with information about the things that really matters to us. Emotions arise only if the judgements we assent to, have personal relevance for our lives, our personal goals and projects or the goals and projects of our loved ones. That is why we do not grief at all about the death of a stranger but become very anxious when we realise that we might have missed an important deadline (for a term paper, our tax declaration or a welfare application). The strengths of our emotions do not correlate with the strength of the perceived incident (there is no objectifiable way of measuring the strength of incidents in the social world, by the way), the strength of our emotions is grounded only in the personal, subjective relevance of the situation for our values, needs, goals and projects.

Anything that interferes with this scheme will cause emotions and by that provides us with information about the things that really matters to us. That is why emotions are also hugely important for political deliberation. In the words of Cheryl Hall: „I cannot discern my values by consulting my reason separately from my passion. I may determine what I think my values are, what I think they should be, or what someone told me they should be, but unless my feelings also happen to point in the same direction as any of these, I will not have determined what I really value“ (Hall 2007, p. 90–91). Sharon Krause puts it this way: „[…] sentiments set the basis for future decisions by providing a sense of what matters“ (2008, p. 3). So, as in coaching or mediation, emphasising emotions in political discourse might actually be something valuable, because emotions are phenomena that directly relate to personal values. Clearly identifying one’s values is a necessary precondition for both ethical and political deliberation.

But what if I become angry in a deliberation about an upcoming political decision that deeply interferes with some of my core projects? This emotion might give rise to strong and perhaps violent actions. Actions that are misplaced in a political deliberation. Or it might prevent me from openly listening to the positions of the other participants, either because my anger leads me to judge their positions as less legitimate or simply because my emotion, understood as a cognitive process, is too captivating and takes attention away from other cognitive processes like listening to and understanding other participants. A third option is, that emotions might take something as their object which really isn’t and thereby obscuring the actual issue: „With regard to refugees and migrants, people had various fears and frustrations”, Hans Blokland experienced in his deliberative workshops, “[t]hese fears and frustrations often were more informative about their own predicament than about refugees and migrants“ (2017a).  Wouldn’t these possibilities justify to legitimately disqualify emotions in political deliberation?

Three thoughts about that: firstly, it certainly is possible to suppress violent actions even if you are outraged. That is a matter of character and decision. But it is impossible to suppress one’s emotionality as such. Emotions arise when something interferes with our scheme of goals and projects. That will happen inevitably in the face of upcoming political decisions. We cannot ban emotions from deliberation, we need a way to deal with them other than suppression, a strategy which is doomed to failure anyway. Secondly, imagine a different situation – or rather – a different emotion during deliberation. Listening to another participants account on the matter really touches me, I become sad and worried when I realise what the political decision that I favour would inflict upon this person (and the group to which she or he belongs). This sadness, grounded perhaps in rediscovering my value of contributing to the well-being of other persons in my political community, might lead me to a search for compromise or let me change my position completely. What I just described is another possibility for emotion’s influence in deliberation. I spoke of sadness and being worried but you could also interpret this situation as an instance of compassion. Finally, regarding emotions’ obscuring nature, I presume an approach that directly assesses the expressed emotions and searches for the values, goals and needs behind them will do much more to clarify the situation, than merely disqualifying those expressions.

Contrasting anger with compassion, though, might seem too easy a contraposition to actually be convincing. So, let me briefly elaborate on a different case, where anger, as a rather challenging emotion, actually benefits the discussion. Anger or indignation might arise in a deliberation when someone gets the impression, that an important argument is ignored by other participants due perhaps to the disregard of the person who brought it up (may it be, that this person belongs to a minority, is less educated or has raised some irrational arguments earlier in the discussion, which should not prevent someone from evaluating later arguments on their merits). In this case anger sheds some light on potentially undemocratic dynamics within the group.

Obviously, emotions can disrupt deliberation or enhance core democratic values within it. There might be emotions that are highly welcome and easily integrated in every political discourse, like compassion, some forms of fear or grief, and there might be emotions that require a lot of work and the right setting to become included without disrupting the discussion. Anger, shame and – as a hint on the complexity of the phenomenon – some other forms of fear or grief might belong to this second group. Disgust towards persons could also be one of it, since this emotion could obstruct the very beginning of deliberation by preventing people from entering into discourse (cf. Nussbaum 2001, p. 342–350; 2013, p. 182–186) Sharon Krause draws the reasonable conclusion: „We need to know when and how feelings should be incorporated into the deliberative process; we need to know how far empathic (or ‘affiliative’) concern should reach; and we need some standards or method for discriminating between sentiments that deserve our respect and those that do not“ (2008, p. 4). This is an enormously important project both in political theory and in society itself. This project requires convincing scientific accounts on how emotions might fit into politics as well as the adequate communication of these accounts to public discourse, including ways of allowing citizens to experience such forms of emotional deliberation.

Barriers to the Inclusion of Emotions in Deliberation

Both stages of this project will face several difficulties. On the scientific or philosophical level, there are ongoing debates about the real essence of emotionality. The question, what emotions really are, is answered in several ways. Some of them differ substantially. Feeling-theories for instance view emotions first and foremost as states of the body, that are not directed at any external object. Emotions, thus, are neither intentional nor dependent on a judgement’s proposition and in no way connected to a person’s set of values. The discrepancy between these theories and the definition I stated above is obvious. The shortcoming of these theories is also evident: insofar this notion of emotions perceives of them as impulsive and incomprehensible, they cannot become part of any form of reasonable deliberation. The only legitimate way to handle emotions in politics or ethical deliberation is the attempt to suppress them so that they can not cloud one’s reasoning capacity. If we instead “think of emotions as essential elements of human intelligence […] this gives us especially strong reasons to promote the conditions of emotional well-being in a political culture: for this view entails that without emotional development, a part of our reasoning capacity as political creatures will be missing” (Nussbaum 2001, p. 3). Although the philosophical community is not united in this regard, the cognitive-evaluative strand of the philosophy of emotions, associated with the work of Robert Solomon (1993), Martha Nussbaum (2001, 2013), Robert Roberts (2003), and others (for an advanced introduction, also containing different views, see the volume Thinking about Feeling, edited by Robert Solomon 2004), is both well prepared and sufficiently elaborated, to provide a comprehensive and sound theory of politically relevant expressions or instances of emotionality.

The field of studying emotions in political science and political theory seems very fragmented, more controversial than the broader field of philosophy of emotions and also to a much lesser degree operating with sound concepts of emotions. There is no clear guiding thread that holds different strands of research together (Hoggett & Thompson 2012, p. 1–2), except for the fact, that all the existing studies connect emotions and politics in some way. The reason for this might be twofold: firstly, a diverse range of phenomena is categorised under the label “emotion”, erroneously suggesting theoretical uniformity. Theorists who see emotions partly responsible for the rise of populism will have a completely different understanding of what emotions are than I have. Secondly, there is no single accepted notion of the proper place of emotions in politics (cf. Heidenreich 2012). If it is unclear, what emotions really are, than there can not be consensus about if and how emotions might benefit political processes and under which conditions.

Research, of course, needs to be controversial to some degree in order to function properly and produce valuable insights, precisely by assessing the conflicting positions. Undifferentiated theoretical connections, for instance between emotions and the rise of populism or between emotional rhetoric and attempts to manipulate voting decisions, though, can be problematic. Mainly because these accounts, operating with inadequate or at least under-complex concepts of emotionality, might confuse what emotions actually are with some other biases human beings are susceptible of. And by this they might ascribe certain characteristics to emotions that suggest to label emotions as undemocratic, even though this label rather belongs to a certain bias or faulty reasoning which is not identical with emotionality. Another point is that the notion of reason being superior to (and – in a first step – separable from) emotion is still dominant in politics generally and in deliberation in particular. A notion that can not be supported in the light of recent research in several emotion-related fields of study. As I have stated above, there are aspects of emotionality which can easily disrupt a political debate and pre-empt genuinely democratic decision making. But there are valuable insights in emotions, too, that needs to get heard to fulfil the democratic promise of political equality and inclusiveness. But for that to be acknowledged there are many obstacles to overcome in the social sciences. I do not argue in favour of theoretical uniformity but instead I demand that political scientists who approach emotions in politics or deliberation at least use a sound and encompassing as well as internally consistent concept of what emotions are.

On the societal level Susan Bickford concisely summarised the difficulties that emotional deliberation (or any attempt to change the perception of the role of emotions in politics) will face:

„[…] emotional expressions are interpreted, reacted to, given meaning by ourselves and by others in a context of difference, conflict, and inequality. This context also supplies multiple interpretive frames—ways of talking—about emotion. […] These cultural beliefs include general claims about emotion working with or against reason, as well as evaluations of particular emotions as valuable and appropriate (or not).“ (2011, p. 1032)

This would mean, for instance, that any politician, who is publicly expressing her or his emotions towards a certain issue, will face nearly opposing sets of responses (let’s assume that the emotion in question was both comprehensible and to some degree appropriate). Some groups will consider it a politically legitimate move, while others will consider it a weakness, an attempt to manipulate or merely an illegitimate departure from rational politics. The same is true, I suppose, for deliberation: if some participants in a deliberation start expressing their emotions towards the topic of the debate or the upcoming decision, this could either be welcomed by the other participants or judged as inappropriate. Iris Marion Young (2000) takes this observation as an example of an undemocratic exclusion from deliberating on eye level by means of disqualifying the contributions of other participants. Young approaches this anti-democratic tendency by explicitly demanding emotional content (either in rhetoric or in narratives) in political deliberation, to foster mutual understanding (p. 63–77). But her demands cannot, by itself, overcome the obstacles that emotions face in public debates, because these hurdles demand a more fundamental approach that takes all the social dynamics into account that Susan Bickford rightly identified.

Conclusion: What is to be done?

Against the background of all these difficulties, how shall the community of political theorists and social scientists proceed in answering the questions, that Sharon Krause has put forward? Existing accounts of the role of emotions in deliberation operate with underdeveloped concepts of emotionality, merely subsuming anything that is colloquially called emotion under this term. Political theory needs to employ a more analytically sound approach towards human emotions on deliberation. An account that is able to discriminate between instances of emotionality that either disrupt or deepen democratic deliberation, that provides instructions about how to deal with and perhaps transform disruptively expressed emotions, an account finally which is based on a solid theory of emotions’ dynamics and the content of emotional judgements. An important task, thus, is to develop an encompassing view of emotions’ interferences (positive and negative) in political deliberation by connecting different approaches of the philosophy of emotions with findings from several different emotion-related fields of research, like psychology and neurophysiology (cf. Damasio 2006, for an instructive and comprehensible neurophysiological account, supplementing the cognitive-evaluative theory of emotions). Another important task is to foster empirical research of emotions’ influences in political deliberation, guided by an elaborated cognitive-evaluative account on emotions.

Let us now contemplate on some practical possibilities on a far less abstract level. I want to demonstrate how a small-group discussion, similar to those Social Science Works conducts with groups of refugees or “worried citizens”, provides a setting in which emotions can successfully be integrated.  At the same time this setting is able to produce the empirical evidence necessary to refine our understanding of emotions’ interferences in deliberation.

I want to develop this setting by examining and adjusting the considerations behind the deliberative workshops of Social Science Works. The starting point, thus, is a moderated small-group discussion about the individual meaning and evaluation of concepts like democracy, tolerance, freedom, and so on. These discussions are conducted according to several standards: taking people serious, foster mutual trust and facilitating an exchange on equal terms. Their overall aim is to “be a general experience in tolerance, reflection, and civic participation, which can pave the way for further deliberative exchanges and civic activities” (Blokland 2017a). They are unfit, though, to incorporate particularities like personal backgrounds, as Hans Blokland notes (2017b). These backgrounds, he argues, might “obscure the essentials and regularly suggest the existence of something totally unique and distinctive, something that is, consequently, incomprehensible for people with different backgrounds” (ibid.). I strongly disagree with the assumption, that directing attention towards particularities, life stories as well as emotions, reinforces notions of incommensurate life experiences and cultural relativism. It is true, however, that “in these stories truth and relevancy are often difficult to assess “ (ibid.), but focusing on the connections between these life experiences and the emotions, which accompanied them, provide information about values, goals and projects that are likely to foster mutual understanding and a sense of commonality.

For that to succeed, though, I suggest some changes in the overall aim of these discussion groups. If the deliberation’s intention is to disclose and, by means of discussing on eye-level, educate the participants understanding of general concepts like democracy, as is the case with the projects of Social Science Works, there is only a vague or abstract criterion to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant particularities. If the deliberation is centred around a specific problem to solve, the upcoming particularities, emotions and narratives, will with a higher probability contain valuable information about the goals and needs of the participants in regard to this topic. Goals and needs that might or might not be shared among participants but which are always comprehensible to one another and can help foster mutual understanding. And when the upcoming particularities do not contain information in regard to the topic of the discussion, relevancy is much easier to assess and can then openly be communicated  to the discussants. Additional changes include transparency about the integration of emotions in the discussion (and perhaps a meta-discussion about the benefits of that approach) and a moderator, who is trained to disclose the connections between particular stories, the subliminal emotions and the values, goals, projects or needs behind them.

These proposals, since they have not yet been tested in a real world small-group discussion, must be considered as incomplete and preliminary hypotheses. They are a starting point or perhaps a blue-print for the collection of empirical evidence based on a promising yet also preliminary theoretical account. But social science needs to start elaborating on these issues somewhere, given the current developments in democracies all around the world. The existing accounts do not operate on a solid scientific base and further research, scholarly exchange and perhaps most urgent the collection of empirical evidence are important next steps.


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About the author

Phillip Reißenweber is communications coach, trained in Nonviolent Communication based on the approach by Marshall B. Rosenberg, political scientist with an emphasis on political theory and doctoral candidate at the University of Greifswald. In his PhD thesis he investigates the role of emotions in political deliberation in connection with possible designs for actual settings to integrate emotions in public discourse.

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