The evidence of emotions

Emotions are evidence. Expressing emotions is useful not for telling the truth, but instead for the histories and connections they reveal.

We do not feel something because it is natural to feel that certain way. We feel something because we have learned to. Not in a conscious, programmatic way, but through aligning ourselves — or coming to be aligned — with other people who feel a certain way.

This doesn’t mean we’re constantly copying others emotions but rather that feelings undertake work. They ‘stick’ us to each other, as Sara Ahmed explains, or build us into communities, as Barbara Rosenwein describes.

Someone — a person ostensibly on the centre-left — recently argued with me that it was damagingly narcissistic to see ourselves as responsible for each other. But what is solidarity, and a sense of collective humanity, if not a feeling that we are each bound up in each other? And that there is a responsibility in that. And that certain feelings will arise from that sense of responsibility.

In this moment, as we look around at all the iterations of white supremacy that dominate our politics, we see so clearly deep expressions of selfish emotions. Those with incredible power over others who yet only see themselves as being under siege, a victim, wounded, beset. Emotions can be a technique of distortion — at various times wilful and/or unconscious. They can be deliberately untruthful, articulated in the service of furthering harmful lies.

There is a demand routinely made by polite society not to respond with anger to what even the ICJ has understood to be a mounting genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza. This sits as part of a longer history of white colonial imagining that the calls for liberation by those subjected to violence and racialised as non-white are inherently aggressive. That they cause fear.

Many of us need to do much more work decolonising ourselves than we seem to realise.

A quality that we often see in white society is that people want to be able to do harm (harms which they justify for all sorts of reasons) but still think of themselves as good people. Emotions are useful in helping them do that. If you focus only on your own pain and suffering while undertaking these harms — ‘this is what is helpful for those others! It pains me to have to do this!’ or ‘I am trying to do good! Why must they protest me!’ or ‘I just want to live in peace! I am upset that this requires others to be imprisoned or massacred!’ — then your feelings (which are expressions) become techniques for the enactment of a historical chain. This chain threads together a series of alleged wounds: borders must be sealed because ‘we’ fear what ‘foreigners’ will do to ‘us’ or take from ‘us’. Children — usually Aboriginal — must be subjected to curfew because otherwise they will ‘cause damage’. And so on.

The expression of narcissistic emotions produces violence. Feelings are part of larger narcissistic political projects. White supremacy — and white fragility — are produced, in part, by and through these narcissistic feelings. When colonisers focus on their (or our) own suffering and pain, and heighten it in order to centre themselves (or ourselves), this produces violence. These emotions keep the colonisers at the centre of concern. In doing so, they assert their desired future.

So it can be tempting to think that the emotions of politicians and decision makers are irrelevant — to dismiss them out of hand. But it’s potentially useful to take them seriously for what they can tell us about how politics works and what discourses it relies on. There is this tension, of course, where many of us both dismiss politicians as too far gone, but also call on them repeatedly to make different decisions. This tension is healthy and it is right. We need decision-makers to be constantly on that edge, and we need them to be proving themselves to us.

We all must be feeling pressure. This pressure is correct. We all must feel our way to doing better. We all must feel challenged.

But too often, decision-makers don’t seem to see themselves as part of the same emotional community as us, or that they are responsible to us. That is patently obvious. And in a settler-colony, where politics is founded on genocide (that is, on a ‘logic of elimination’), it is a structural necessity for politicians to imagine themselves as dominating in order to control the public.

If those in power demand that we take care of their emotions, they need to firstly take care of ours. And while we can take these emotions seriously as a site for analysis and discursive deconstruction, this does not mean coddling them or believing them as truth.

Indeed, as Randa Abdel-Fattah wrote in December, it is clear that the feelings of Zionists and their supporters are being given pre-eminence over the feelings of Palestinians and their supporters:

Expressions of Zionist fragility expose a calculated, purposeful strategy of insisting on the status of victim when confronted with the material fact of Palestinian existence and the solidarity of others.

We all know the litany of instances when the feelings of hurt or fear expressed by supporters of Israel have been used to shut down and marginalise expressions of Palestinian identity, culture or resistance. One more recent example from me, which I’ll anonymise considerably: I was talking to someone who had put up a ‘Free Palestine’ sticker in the window of their business, and they explained that a friend who put the same sticker up at their related place of work had been told by their superiors they had to remove it. So the response of middle management was to get stickers for a big group of these workers. And they all put them up.

We don’t need to coddle these narcissistic emotions. Indeed, we must not do so. It can be helpful to see the work they do, and ethical not to take them as a truth that we must abide by.

Some feelings have the weight of hegemony behind them. Some other feelings are dissident.

For those of us who are colonisers, then, the question becomes: how to ensure humility, and cultivate the practice of decentring ourselves and our feelings. How to always be in a position of learning. How to ensure our emotions are not nationalist or selfish or work in the service of building bounded and closed-off groups.

So the task is also to think about which emotional communities we’re in, and what they open us up to, or close us off to. What don’t we know, but we could learn about, if we were emotionally oriented differently? We need to make sure our emotions aren’t racist. It is devastating to have to write this sentence, and to know that for some people that might feel controversial. But we are all responsible for our emotions: this is the simple and important truth.

How can our emotions do the work of helping us fight against colonialism? How can we see how the ways we feel are colonial, and work against that, and be drawn to different types of feelings?

What are the feelings — anger, rage, grief, love, joy — that connect us towards justice and liberation for all? How can they be instantiated in productive ways that open us out and undo and redo us, rather than in languages, articulations and discourses that shut us off? How can we fight in angry ways, and say ‘stuff you’ to those who refuse to see that anger is love, is community, is resistance, is building?

Because all we have is each other.


Image: Public art, Haifa (Ted Swedenburg)

Jordy Silverstein

Jordana Silverstein is a Senior Research Fellow in the Melbourne Law School. A social and cultural historian, she is the author of Cruel Care: A History of Children at our Borders (Monash University Publishing, 2023) and Anxious Histories: Narrating the Holocaust in Jewish Communities at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century (Berghahn Books, 2015).

More by Jordy Silverstein ›

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