How to live in a Scotland of the heart and mind

The call for 'a better quality debate' on the Scottish referendum has a dangerous tendency to downplay the extent to which feeling, emotion and instinct determine both individual choice and national identity. Improving the conversations does not simply require a better knowledge of 'the facts' but that greater import be placed on 'emotional literacy'. 

Gerry Hassan
9 July 2012

Politics is about feeling, emotion and instinct.

But most politicians and political debate try to deny this, more often than not stressing the importance of logic and reason. Yet this is not what drives most of life. This is the age of rage, of moral indignation at bankers, politicians and media. SPL followers fury at the arrogance of Rangers FC and their fans’ sense of denial.

The same is true of much of the Scottish debate. There are regular calls for raising the quality of debate that frequently fail to understand that feelings, fear, emotions and instinct will shape and decide many of the arguments.

The idea of Scottish independence provokes strong feelings in both supporters and opponents. The former believe in the prospect of a fresh start, mobilising Scottish opinion, and gaining responsibility domestically and internationally. This provokes in the latter a sense of loss, sadness and even incomprehension at why some people believe this so passionately.

The pro-union argument raises equally powerful feelings. Pro-union opinion stresses that Scotland gains by being in a larger union, reducing risk and having more influence globally. Opponents stress the negatives of the UK, its flawed, stained history, and believe Scotland should stand apart from such a past and present.

An interesting insight regarding this comes from Drew Westen’s ‘The Political Brain’, a study of every American Presidential election from 1960. He argued that when reason and emotion clash, the latter usually wins. Westen found a distinct and striking pattern in American Presidential elections. Democrats have traditionally prioritised policy, logic and facts; think Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000, pre-‘An Inconvenient Truth’.

Republicans told stories, were folksy and connected with voters with anecdotes. Think of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.  The Democrats who did not fall into this dynamic - John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Bill Clinton in 1992 – won, and reshaped the agenda.

We even have a whole expert world of psychology and neuroscience which studies this. A New York University/UCLA study found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty whereas conservatives tended to be more structured and persistent. A UK study by Geraint Rees of the Wellcome Trust even went as far as to claim that left-wing and right-wing people were different with respect to which part of the brain they thought from.

A recent Strathclyde University study by Laura Cram looked at the emotions which arose in relation to the Saltire, St. George’s Cross and Union Jack. Her sample, she stresses, was not scientific but self-selecting, and so she emphasises her findings are provisional.

‘National identity’, says Cram, is related to ‘gut instinct’, but also has a direct link to how we view and think of broader issues such as the economy. She found that people became anxious about the state of the economy when shown a Saltire or St. George’s Cross.

What this research evidence suggests is that the dominant way of thinking about political consciousness, which centers on what Drew Westen calls ‘the dispassionate vision of the mind’, is false. This picture represents a trickle-up theory: of voters carefully evaluating and processing policy positions before coming to make up their minds. But this conception of the human mind, argues Westen, has no real relationship to how we think and make decisions.

What is more apposite is what Westen calls a ‘passionate vision of the mind’, centred on vision, values, stories and emotional connection. He argued that campaigns and candidates that ‘tell compelling stories about who they are and what they believe in’ will nearly always win.

This is how we have to understand the psychologies of the Scottish debate. The next few years will see a surfeit of facts, figures, claims and counterclaims, but underneath it all will be the power of emotions, hearts and minds. If the fate of Rangers FC and the case for and against it can elicit such feelings, we have to be able to reflect that the cause of Scotland’s future might just produce a little bit of passion and heat.

The next two years will be shaped by hope, optimism, fear and anxiety, by the full gambit of human emotions and responses, and none of these are wrong. Whether pro or anti-independence, none of these are the product of false consciousness.

Where are the pictures of our compelling stories about the future of Scotland? So far neither the ‘Yes Scotland’ or ‘Better Together’ campaigns have decided to articulate such a vision. Instead, both have gone for the modern day technocratic, managerialist approach of trying to appear reasonable and sane, while discounting a more passionate approach.

Somehow we have to bring into the debate the Scots imagination in order to better describe the different Scotlands of the future of independence and the union. We need to have stories which connect with all our different emotions: to feel and understand our hopes, doubts and fears.

Is this possible in the Scotland of today? After forty years of contemporary constitutional debate we should be able finally to raise the political and emotional appeal of our politics.

Who can begin to speak this language and outlook will, I think, shape the contours and outcome of the independence debate. Really the pro-independence forces ought to have the easier task, but we have seen so far that they have gone down the route of the Democratic Party in the States, being safety-conscious, avoiding risk, and not articulating or connecting to gut instincts. And no one should underestimate that the pro-union camp might be able to claim this ground.

So let’s say yes to a more emotionally literate political debate, one shaped by vision, story and passion, and accept that fear, hope, doubt and uncertainty will all play a part in voters’ minds and hearts.

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