Learning to Feel

“The fascist madman cannot be made innocuous if he is sought, according to the prevailing political circumstances, only in the German or the Italian and not in the American and the Chinese man as well; if he is not tracked down in oneself; if we are not conversant with the social institutions that hatch him daily.”
                                              Wilhelm Reich, ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism’ (1)

In ‘Life and Death’ the radical American feminist Andrea Dworkin tells of a conversation she once had with her father about racism:

“He told me he had racist feelings against blacks. I said that was impossible because he was for civil rights. He explained the kinds of feelings he had and why they were wrong. He also explained that as a teacher and then later as a guidance counsellor he worked with black children and he had to make sure his racist feelings didn’t harm them. From my father I learned that having these feelings didn’t justify them; that “good” people had bad feelings and that didn’t make the feelings any less bad; that dealing with racism was a process, something a person tangled with actively. The feelings were wrong and a “good” person took responsibility for facing them down.”(2)

What is striking about her fathers comments are how unfamiliar they are. How often do any of us hear someone admitting to racist feelings? Or admitting to sexism, homophobia or any other form of prejudice. Most of us, (myself included), too often take the line of the young Dworkin- “since I am for civil rights I therefore cannot have racist feelings.” Or “since I am pro-feminist I therefore cannot have sexist tendencies” According to this conception prejudice is not an emotional or an institutional issue but rather a logical one.

It is a truism that prejudice and oppressive behaviour are fostered by certain institutional forms and limited by others. However the nature of many of the organisations created by the organised left over the years suggests that this is either not understood or is only understood at a fairly superficial level. Certain social and institutional environments serve not only to foster our most obviously negative tendencies such as sexism and racism, but also other less obvious maladies- such as the competitive drive to achieve recognition and praise. It is striking that while those of us on the left are quick to criticize members of rival factions for their supposed vanity and dominating tendencies, few of us are prepared to admit to our own feelings of ambition and desire for approval and recognition. Moreover the profoundly debilitating nature of our institutional and social backgrounds makes it highly implausible that the mere recognition of our negative drives is sufficient to cause their disappearance.

From early childhood onwards we are compelled to perceive ourselves and our peers in a competitive manner. At school we are encouraged not only to seek praise from figures of authority we are also taught to base our self-worth upon our comparative position- how close we are to being top of the class in a particular subject for instance. Not only do teachers encourage such behaviour they actually enlist children to create hierarchical forms themselves. During every sports lesson during my time at school the sports teacher would select two of the best football players and ask them to take turns to select members of the class to make up two teams. Naturally they would select the most able players first, leaving the worst players until last, thereby creating a particularly stark hierarchy. Happily I came somewhere in the middle of the class and was thus spared the worst of this particular form of humiliation, the likely psychological and emotional effects of which are not hard to imagine. The various forms of social and institutional training we undergo- training which helps to form our very personalities- should not be underestimated and it is greatly mistaken to suppose that such training loses its force once its nature is recognised. It is probable that our relationships with our peers are probably even more significant in the development of neuroses and oppressive tendencies; bullying in British schools continues at epidemic levels with often disastrous consequences- though it usually takes severe violence or a suicide before much concern arises in the media.

A further effect of the institutions and social backgrounds we inhabit that it seems to me receives scant attention are their incapacitating or diluting effect upon our positive emotions. We are daily reproduced not just as Reich’s fascist madmen but also as people who emotionally impoverished. Just over a year ago I spent a short time in the occupied West Bank. The group I travelled with spent time in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron and several Palestinian villages. We visited refugee camps, met with NGO’s and Palestinian families. We met people whose relatives had been killed during the intifada and families whose houses had been demolished. Speaking honestly I cannot say that the trip engendered feelings much different from those I had felt when reading about the conflict. The proximity of the oppression and the suffering did not provide any fresh insight or understanding. Nor did I feel fearful at any point. Hebron is dominated by a small Israeli settlement populated by a few hundred Gush Emunim (“Block of the Faithful”) religious settlers. These armed settlers who constantly harass the local population are “protected” by thousands of Israeli soldiers. Near the old marketplace- long since abandoned by the locals- there are checkpoints manned by heavily armed IDF soldiers. On all the surrounding high buildings there are IDF machinegun nests covered with camouflage netting. In spite of this very threatening environment I never once felt afraid. Indeed I often feel a lot more fearful walking through parts of my home city of Liverpool than I ever did while walking through Hebron.

My inability to feel what I felt were appropriate emotions during my time in the West Bank was very troubling to me and led me to two possible conclusions:

1. I am an unfeeling monster incapable of experiencing emotions such as sorrow and fear.
2. My upbringing left me ill-equipped to respond appropriately.

Whether I am an unfeeling monster is probably not for me to judge. However it seems likely to me that the emotional incapacity I exhibited is a created phenomenon – not something I was born with. Despite considering myself left-wing from an early age, like most boys of my generation much of my childhood was spent in war-games, fighting, watching violent films and indulging violent fantasies. Whilst a Palestinian child is probably likely to respond to Israeli soldiers with fear and anger the response of a young British male would more likely be excitement and awe. Due I think to the dominant picture of militarism presented in the mass media the soldiers retained for me a certain air of respectability in spite of my knowing plenty about the crimes committed by the IDF. I suspect that if I had met a Hamas terrorist I would have felt rather more fearful.

In ‘Message Received’ Greg Philo introduces a study on the effects of violent television on children. The study looked at how children responded to the film ‘Pulp Fiction’. It notes the very disturbing emotional reactions exhibited by the children:

“Most of the children identified the cool people in the film as the characters who were killers. The uncool were those who were killed, or were in other ways seen as weak…Five children named Vincent and Jules as the coolest people. They gave a number of reasons. Some of these related to style, such as ‘their clothes’, ‘the way he [Vincent] acts, talks’. Another child commentated that Vincent and Jules ‘never make mistakes’. Yet another said that ‘Vincent is not shy, the way he reacts around people.’ Still another spoke of his ‘self-confidence image’. Being ‘not-scared’ was also an important dimension of coolness. Alongside this went the ability to be ‘in control’ and to control others. As one commentated, ‘Jules would take control all the time’. (3)

Some children also appeared to perceive a hierarchy of coolness:

“It was interesting…that a child should name [Marsellus] Wallace as the coolest character. I asked him why Marsellus was more cool than Vincent. He replied, ‘Because Vincent is one step below Marsellus.’ The control issue is thus very clear – whoever has the most control is the coolest.”…The children who saw control and power as key parts of being ‘cool’ very clearly identified weakness as being ‘uncool’. For example, the child who had cited Marsellus Wallace as being cool wrote that the uncool were ‘people who are small, skinney, fragile”

The study further notes how glamorisation serves to deaden or deflect alternative modes of understanding:

“The interesting issue is how the images, style and excitement generated by the film could overwhelm other possible responses to cruelty and killing. This was referred to by one child in her response to the question about how could someone who killed people be cool. This was the child who had wanted the photos of John Travolta with the gun for her bedroom wall. She was initially perplexed by the question, and paused to think as she was answering. This was her reply:

“The point of the film is to make them look cool and you just go along with that. If the point of the film had been to make them look violent and horrible then you’d have gone along with that. They dress them up and the way they walk – they dress them up in suits and ties to make them look cool – like I’m boss and I’m in control… The violence was disgusting…But it was like, I’m trying to think of a word…camouflaged…by the other bits.”

The study concludes that while exposure to such material is unlikely to lead to violent behaviour it may well contribute to normalising lesser forms of aggression, such as bullying and other intimidating behaviour.  (4)

In the case of gangster related violence we can at least take comfort in the fact that in the mass media there is a fair amount of countervailing material. Television news programmes for instance do not glamorise the exploits of real life gangsters. In fact they are vilified and their actions are very harshly condemned. This is quite different from the media’s treatment of the British and American armed forces who are glamorised not just on film but also on news and in documentaries. In this case countervailing messages are slight to the point of non-existence. Furthermore in films such as Pulp Fiction, whilst the characters are certainly glamorised their violence is neither sanitized nor censored, thereby helping the audience to at least retain ambiguous feelings towards the characters. This contrasts very markedly with both fictional and factual treatment of the military.

The phenomenon of embedded journalists received acres of coverage in the media during the invasion of Iraq and in the immediate aftermath. Many left-wing commentators argued that this new phenomenon represented a particularly insidious method of relaying disinformation as news. Whether this is the case or not I will not discuss here, however research suggests that the British embeds at least were not unusually biased in their reporting. A study by Cardiff University found that in a narrow sense the embeds were relatively accurate. They certainly compared favourably with studio anchors who were the prime re-layers of false material.

The really dangerous effect of the embeds lay not in their crude propagandist impact but rather in their sanitizing effect upon our visual perception of warfare:

“One of the main limits placed upon embedded reporters was, in fact, the culture of British broadcasting, which – for entirely laudable reasons – makes it impossible to screen particularly violent or graphic images. Journalists are acutely aware of this, and fashion their coverage accordingly. This creates a problem that is, ironically, a function of the ability of embeds to bring the viewer close to the front lines. The coverage seems to take us closer to the reality of war, and yet excludes the ugly side of that reality… This resonates with responses made in the surveys and the focus groups, where respondents commented on the sanitised, almost “fictional” quality of embedded reports, bringing a “made for TV” version of war into their living rooms. The ideological consequences of this are profound. It may be that embedded reporters are, despite often diligent objectivity and undoubted courage, forced by current constraints to produce a kind of coverage which may, for some, make war appear more acceptable.” (5)

“Long before a thermonuclear war can come about, we have had to lay waste to our sanity. We begin with the children. It is imperative to catch them in time. Without the most thorough and rapid brain-washing their dirty minds would see through our dirty tricks. Children are not yet fools, but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves, with high I.Q.s if possible.” (6)
                                                                                  R.D. Laing

In an imperial society the reduction of the domestic population’s capacity for empathy is a functional necessity. It is doubtful that the criminal violence that the British state repeatedly engages in could occur if the whole of the general public perceived our victims as real human beings like ourselves. This is also true in the case of violence internal to our society. For example the endemic violence and sexual abuse endured by the female population of the UK could not occur without the dehumanisation, (usually of a sexual kind), propagated by the mass media and the pornography industry. It is incidentally a mistake to suppose that deeply misogynist and sadistic sexual tendencies are the preserve of rapists and other “deviant” elements- very likely the majority of the adult male population is subject to such tendencies to a greater or lesser degree. This may not always exhibit itself in especially violent behaviour but at the very least it is likely to increase the dehumanised aggressive character that sex has assumed for so many, whereby sex increasingly comes to resemble pornography.

Those of us who do not have emotionally appropriate responses to suffering and injustice react to this fact in varying ways. In my case it resulted in paranoid feelings that I was the only one struggling with this problem. For others it has different results. At demonstrations and organizing meetings it is not uncommon to encounter activists and participants who make emotional outbursts that appear to ring false, statements of anger or sorrow that one intuitively feels derive not from really felt emotion but rather the desire to express emotions that one is not feeling. Whilst discussing these issues a friend of mine told me how strikingly different she had found demonstrations for Palestine as compared with a demonstration of striking social workers she went to. She explained how genuine the emotion of the social workers seemed as compared with some of the demonstrators at Palestine demos. This is not surprising since learning to feel for people who are far away and whom we have been taught by the media to view as something less than human is not easy. The striking social workers by contrast were protesting at injustice that they and their colleagues were actually enduring.

In the activist groups I have been involved with we have consciously designed our organisational structure and practice in ways that hopefully counteract oppressive behaviour. However this has not, for the most part been accompanied by open acknowledgement and discussion of our negative tendencies and emotional incapacities. Unfortunately most of us spend only a very small proportion of our time working within institutions that have progressive characteristics and structure. The majority of our time is spent in oppressive institutions and social environments which act against our better nature and that inculcate various oppressive and anti-social tendencies. Coupled with this we all carry with us the weight of years of institutional training and parental expectations. Some of us of course are more fortunate than others and were brought up in home environments which fostered our potential and encouraged our better nature – similarly some of us may have attended nurseries and schools that had a progressive characteristic. However even these benefits can only be considered a partial palliative given the power of the corporate/state/media nexus arrayed against the individual.

Our varying attempts to evade the problem are doubtless unhealthy for the individuals in question, secondarily it is dangerous for our efforts at movement building and as a result it is dangerous for those whom we are trying to help. I have found the expressions of false emotion from certain activists profoundly unsettling and I have even found that it serves to erode my desire to continue organizing to some extent. If it has such an effect on a relatively committed activist its likely effects on the wider public are not hard to imagine. Therefore our failure to recognise and struggle with our emotional incapacities may well be a factor in our failure to build bigger and more committed movements. Furthermore the failure to be more open about such matters may lead to disillusionment amongst already committed activists. Speaking personally there have been times when I have felt that I was the only one struggling with these problems and that my fellow activists were, without exception, saintly individuals not subject to similar difficulties. On reflection this is clearly not very likely- but given the absence of discussion it is easy to see how such paranoia and accompanying disillusionment can arise.

As with any other issue learning to feel is to paraphrase Dworkin, a process, something a person must tangle with actively. To those engaged in trying to alleviate extreme suffering this process may seem somewhat trivial, inward looking and not worth spending time on. However if we are serious in our concern to end suffering and injustice it is crucial to recognise and tackle the factors that retard the building of popular movements. In such matters it is not only our own personal development that is at stake but also the lives of millions across the world. 




(1) Wilhem Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Souvenir Press, 1972, pxv

(2) Andrea Dworkin, Life and Death, Virago, p224

(3) Glasgow Media Group, Message Received, p44

(4) We can speculate further as to what effects such material is likely to cause. It is depressing but perhaps not unlikely that even into adulthood our personal relations and also what we take to be sexually attractive are heavily effected by the media and the prevailing culture of our society. The notion of what is physically attractive has greatly varied over time and even varies between different societies today, suggesting that many of the attributes that are considered attractive are historically contingent. It is perhaps not unlikely that many of the attributes of personality that we consider to be attractive may similarly be partially created rather than innate.

(5) The report can be obtained from http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/jomec/en/school/39/180.html

(6) R.D. Laing, ‘The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, Penguin, 1967, p49

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