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Abbott-whacking Greens senator's emotional politics

  • 07 March 2014

In a speech this week to the almost empty Australian Senate, the Greens Senator Scott Ludlam excoriated Tony Abbott. It was by no means the stirring speech that the headlines suggested, but it was forthright.

Ludlam homed in on Abbott's politics of fear: 'your determined campaign to provoke fear in our community — fear of innocent families fleeing war and violence in our region — in the hope that it would bring out the worst in Australians is instead bringing out the best in us'. Whatever you think of Ludlam's speech, its implication was that politics includes a struggle over the cultivation, control and directing of public emotions, a struggle to 'bring out' in people emotions that are politically powerful.

We tend to think of our liberal political discourse as a neutral framework accommodating all perspectives and conceptions of the good life that don't impinge upon the rights of others. Our instinct is to think of our politics in terms of discussion and consensus — 'democracy as public reasoning'.

This may be because our sense of emotion, shaped by a regnant liberalism, is that it should be confined to the realm of the 'private', that public collective emotion is dangerous, easily associated with threatening and 'radical' politics. 'Public emotion' conjures up images of rallies and marching, the kind of ominous display crafted by Leni Reifenstahl in The Triumph of the Will.

That's why displays of public emotion are often met by calls for 'rationality', for a collective calm after which public reasoning can resume. Social 'calm' is the historical liberal antidote to the destructive public emotions of the early 20th century. As Pope Francis put it: 'we are a society which has forgotten how to weep.' 

But there's a problem here — our liberal democratic framework requires the cultivation and sustenance of certain emotions, just as any extremist political ideology might. There are base and not-so-base emotions, emotions that flicker for a moment, and emotions that linger.

In a recently published book the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that certain political philosophies and their attendant institutional arrangements rely on corresponding public emotions: liberalism's being the capacity for an imaginative extension of sympathy to the other. This is the emotional capacity that political liberalism rests on — a sympathetic recognition of other interests.

Technically, political liberalism does not rule out a role or political contribution for 'bleeding hearts', though — as Andrew Hamilton noted earlier this week — some