As a retired psychologist, I know the power of words to direct emotions. In one study, a psychiatrist-in-training asked a psychotic patient to describe his hallucinations in detail. Sadly, the hallucinations doubled in frequency. When you focus on the negative, the negative expands.
We see this also in politics.
Late last year, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney warned that separatist sentiment was rising in Alberta. According to Peter Downing, Kenney’s remark was the “spark” that led Downing to found Wexit, a Western separatist movement that now has 160,000 members.
Kenney is a federalist. Did he predict that his comments would expand anti-federalist sentiment? Probably he did. He was using the threat of western separatism to expand Alberta’s case for changes in federal policy.
It is common in politics to win votes by stirring up negative feelings. This is not always a bad thing. Anger can be a powerful force for positive change. The suffragettes were angry women, but not anti-social.
But, since 1980, we have seen the rise of a broad international movement that increasingly shows itself as anti-social.
Research has discovered that, if your heartbeat rises by 10 beats per minute above normal, you can discuss only simple issues. If your heartbeat rises by 20 beats per minute above normal, all you can do is argue. As brain arousal rises, the quiet deliberations of the pre-frontal cortex become replaced by the threat-scanning vigilance of the reptilian brain.
This process, at once mental and physical, can be exploited for political gain. The international movement called populism makes deliberate use of high-intensity emotional messaging—the kind of messaging that revs up the nervous system to the point where reasoned thinking is replaced by unreasoned rage.
Nervous systems get super-charged only by giant grievances. To meet this requirement, the populist movement has normalized the practice of telling giant lies. The Canadian federal Conservatives behaved like populists when they spread the preposterous lie that Justin Trudeau had bought the Trans Mountain pipeline merely to “kill it.”
In the English-language TV debate, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer used Donald Trump-style populist tactics when he said, “Mr. Trudeau, you’re a phony and you’re a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country.”
Trudeau most certainly has failings. But, the idea that he is a “fraud” is an outrageous insult that sets a dangerous precedent for Canadian political discourse.
Trump revs up his followers by vilifying and even demonizing his opponents. He ridicules and taunts those who contradict him.
Recently he said that the Democrats who want to impeach him are “human scum.”
His new press secretary defended the phrase.
Trump’s rallies are popular, in part, because of Trump’s uninhibited ferocity. His savage put-downs awaken in his followers a sense of personal empowerment.
When Trump fans chanted, “Lock her up, lock her up,” they felt euphoric and fully alive. Hatred, when shared, can be energizing. During the Vietnam War, American soldiers were given high-intensity “Kill Kong” group rallies to prepare them to kill Viet Cong.
Some scholars have argued that the origin of the civilized vision of life is found in Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad,” where the Greek warrior Achilles returns the body of Hector to Hector’s father, King Priam of Troy. Before doing that, Achilles has slain his enemy Hector in hand-to-hand combat. Then, maddened by rage, Achilles has tied his enemy’s body to his chariot and dragged the fresh corpse through the dirt.
But that is not the end of the story. Achilles relents. The return of Hector’s body to Hector’s father is a belated show of deep respect for the slain warrior and his aggrieved father.
This is what defines civilization — respect for the dignity and worth of the other, whether friend or enemy.
In the current age of populist authoritarian leaders, we are frequently buffeted by clouds of toxic emotion. This toxicity can invade our bodies, infecting us with mild or severe outbreaks of unreasoned hostility.
Now, as always, we must quiet our minds and open our hearts.
Gary Willis is a Ph.D. in Clinical (Community) Psychology from the University of Calgary. He has resided in Kelowna since 1996, where he practiced psychology until his retirement.