The Age of Feelings

“Agonistic” is a word I use occasionally around here which may be unfamiliar. I use it to mean the opposite of dispassionate reason—expressions of emotional and argumentative form. The graph above, drawn from an article in The American Interest by Peter Stearns, documents how expressions of basic emotions—joy, anger, shame, or sadness but particularly anger have all increased in recent years. Mr. Stearns observes:

References to all the so-called basic emotions have climbed considerably—sadness, anger, and surprise particularly, but also fear and, intriguingly, disgust, which had declined steadily since the early 19th century.14 Only happiness has remained flat, though joy is up, after a previous nosedive during the Depression and World War II. Self-conscious emotions have surged as well; this involves the dramatically rising claims about guilt, but also embarrassment (and shyness), as well as shame, with pride making smaller gains and only humility—predictably in an age of assertive individualism—holding fairly stable. Experts urge a distinction between shame and guilt—and any cultural anthropologist will insist on an inner-directed/outer-directed difference—but the fact is the two emotions have tended to move in tandem in American history, plummeting after the mid-19th century until the recent joint revival. Love and grief are up, though they have not reached late 19th-century levels. Not only has grief been embellished by the new public manifestations, but even love has found unexpected new targets, as in the rise of the quest for “soulmates” in evidence since the 1980s. Nostalgia, predictably, has surged,15 as has anxiety.

This the age of Facebook and Twitter and they are emphatically not media of reasoned discourse. They are devices for the expression and evocation of emotions, intended to move not convince.

As the United States changed from a primarily oral society to a literate one the expression of emotions decreased; now that we are becoming post-literate and, I would argue, primarily visual, emotional expression is back on the rise. In the past I have discussed at considerable length these phenomena and their implications under the subject “Visualcy”.

I have expressed considerable concern for these developments and their implications for the American polity. Mr. Stearns continues:

The extent to which many supporters seem to value Trump as an expression of emotion and resentment, almost independent of any specific platform, seriously roils the national political process. The startling prompts from the most recent Republican National Convention, at which speaker after speaker explicitly urged Americans to “be afraid, be very afraid,” and to see “carnage” everywhere they looked, reflected clever awareness of the nation’s emotional mood, while also contributing to that mood in turn. Impulses on both Right and Left, despite sharp partisan division, celebrate the growing priority of emotion in public life—including the vigorous if fruitless effort, again by each side, to seek the shame the other. Displays of emotion and the search for emotional validation severely complicate any constructive discourse, adding to the other changes in American character, including the key decline of trust.

The same trends also jeopardize tolerance. One of the virtues of the redefinition of American individualism, according to many late 20th-century studies, was a greater support for tolerance: I as an individual will indulge my impulses, but I will also respect the indulgences of others. And this has clearly played out in a number of important if incomplete values changes in areas such as interracial marriage and sexual orientation. But more fervent emotionality now threatens this trend, as it further underwrites partisanship: My group’s emotions are just fine, but your group’s need to be brought under control, for I reject their validity.

I don’t think that the trend is compatible with good, honest, effective liberal democratic government but I also don’t believe that these trends will or can be reversed. We’ll see.

14 comments… add one
  • Andy

    “This the age of Facebook and Twitter and they are emphatically not media of reasoned discourse. They are devices for the expression and evocation of emotions, intended to move not convince.”

    So true it bears repeating.

  • Basically, a tweet is the equivalent of a belch. I don’t think that presidents should be communicating in belches.

    That so many people are taking to their fainting couches over them is a problem but it’s a problem of a different order.

  • Guarneri

    “The extent to which many supporters seem to value Trump as an expression of emotion and resentment, almost independent of any specific platform,…..”

    That seems awfully one sided, as the Democrats traffic in taunts of racism, class envy etc as their standard tools.

    Control of immigration used to be accepted practice. A country gets to decide if allowing people in is beneficial. Now illegals are re-packaged as “Dreamers,” no doubt all saints. Those who disagree, or care to represent the interests of US citizens or legal immigration are called racist or xenophobic. The former position sounds like policy; the latter sounds kind of emotional.

    Appointment of constitutionalist judges sounds like policy. Invoking back alley abortions sounds emotional.

    Regulatory and tax relief sounds like a policy stance. Invoking “Armageddon” and sops to the rich and shafting the middle class, despite the facts, sounds emotional.

    Disclaiming one sided managed trade agreements, I-Pay-You-Receive global warming agreements or flimsy arms agreements seems like a policy stance. Henny Penny wailing about the future of the planet, trade wars how we look in the eyes of, dare I say, shit-hole countries, sounds emotional.

    Whether one agrees with the policy stances is irrelevant. It doesn’t seem Mr Stearns tried very hard.

  • Andy

    Yeah, I can barely stand Twitter anymore. It’s useful to me for getting links to information I otherwise wouldn’t get, but most of it is virtual belching. And too many people try to use it instead of actually writing something. I saw a series of something over 100 tweets in a row for someone trying to explain something. I’m like, dude, just write it down somewhere and give a link.

    Facebook is a little better. I spend a lot of time on it now because it’s part of my work. But there is still a bad ratio of emotional vs informative content.

  • TastyBits

    As usual, I am confused about something.

    Trump supporters get their marching orders from the Trump tweets. Trump supporters are largely unemployed workers who cannot be retrained to work in a modern manufacturing factory, and yet, through some mysterious process, they are able to use twitter.

    Are the progressive whiz kids are setting up the Trump supporter’s phone/computer to allow them to get the racist, homophobic, transphobic, and *.phobic of their master?

  • sam

    They don’t have to use Twitter at all. All they have to do is watch Fox and Friends, his movin’ picture Twitter feed.

  • Modulo Myself

    If you want to blame the explosion of a feelings-oriented discourse on one thing, it might be the fact that the Boomers grew up in a world where nobody who was suffering was able to talk about what happened to them in WW2 and Korea. I was reading something by a man whose father was in both wars as an artillery commander. His dad was incredibly successful after returning, but ended up dying at 44 in a drunk driving accident. A father of a friend was also successful, but he would retreat to his basement and shoot his gun into the wall while screaming. Eventually, he committed suicide. He had been a captain in one of the first units across the Rhine.

  • TastyBits

    If I understand correctly, Trump’s 1.7 million Twitter followers are composed of the Fox and Friends, or are his the 1.7 million Twitter followers all perfectly perfect progressives and three Fox and Friends bobbleheads?

    Actually, I doubt the Fox and Friends Theory is correct. To my (limited) knowledge, Fox and Friends is only on cable, and most certainly, Trump supporters are too dumb to work a remote control.

    My feeling is that the 1.7 million number must be wrong. (If not, I will need a cuddle animal, fast.) We know that math and numbers are racist, and therefore, his only followers must be the poopie heads at Fox and Friends.

  • TB, I have it on very good authority that all Trump’s Twitter followers are paid agents of Vladimir Putin. I have been accused of being a Kremlin agent several times myself, tho I do not follow Trump on Twitter.

    All I can tell you is that Vlad’s checks don’t bounce, because the cheap bastard doesn’t even mail them.

  • Guarneri

    I think you cracked the code, TB. Now be an obedient robot and go memorize Trumps tweets.

    Me, I can’t. I don’t do Facebook or Twitter. Never have, and probably never will. So I’m stuck with sitting, deplorable style, slack jawed in my underwear with a bottle of vodka watching Fox all day long.

  • Gray Shambler

    I read Trump’s tweets every day, but have not signed up as a follower. Then, every day I march off to work. (marching orders?).
    Now let me tell you why I read them. I honestly believe the media MAKES THINGS UP in their head over heels zeal to outdo one another in proving anti-Trump bonafides .

    How else can Trump message America with a biased and unethical media loyal to a bygone administration?

  • The major media outlets don’t need to make things up. All they need to do is take events or statements out of context or transpose a sentence or two. In some cases just reporting them is enough.

    Twitter is where Mr. Trump crows about his victories and punches back when attacked. That he punches back at all is one of the things his supporters love about him.

    I neither love nor hate Trump and I don’t care whether he punches back or not. I care about the practical effects of policies. It bothers me that Mr. Trump makes his decisions from such a low base of knowledge. I agree with some of his judgments, disagree with others.

    So far he’s delivered for businesses. The response has been a booming stock market. If businesses respond by increasing investment, good. That’s what we need.

  • TastyBits


    You are not a Russian spy. You are also a lazy, layabout. A good Russian spy would not take his/her daughter to the park instead of spying. You are probably a poopie-head, also.


    … a bottle of vodka watching Fox …

    A deplorable drinks cheap beer and watches Fox and Friends. Ask any perfectly, perfect progressive. You are most likely a Russian spy and most definitely a poopie-head.

    @Gray Shambler

    … the media MAKES THINGS UP …

    Something can be fake but true. If enough perfectly, perfect progressive believe something, it is a fact – fake but true. Ask Dan Rather.

    In any case, you cannot fool us. We know you are a deplorable, and there is no way you have enough intelligence to setup a Twitter account or use a computer. Your wife is likely a Russian spy who is pretending to be you. You are most likely a poopie-head.

    @Dave Schuler

    The deplorables are usually the punching bag, and they have no champion. President Trump is not a right-wing kook. He is one of the elites, and before he went ‘off the ranch’, they would fawn over him to get his money. For the Trump-haters, there is an enemy ‘behind the lines’, and it is terrifying.

    (There is a coming awakening among black people, other minorities, and some on the far-left, and they will find their Trump.)

    I do not trust the stock market, unemployment, inflation, or any other ‘economic indicators’. Most of those are rigged, or they are an outcome of the financial/monetary system. For me, the manufacturing and service capacity needs to increase before I will celebrate.

    I do not know the level of President Trump’s intelligence or the ability of his intellect. In addition, I have no idea of his knowledge base. I do know that almost all of the prognostications have been wrong, and I question the intelligence level, intellectual capacity, and knowledge base of his detractors.

    Even if he is only doing half of what he claims, he is half-right, and his detractors are closer to never-right than half-right. I am a results kinda guy.

    On the internet, nobody knows you are a dog, and you post a lot about dogs. So, my guess is that you are a dog (and a poopie-head).


    I was promised perp-walks, and it was insinuated that the walking perp would be President Trump. It has been almost a year, and I want to see f*cking perp-walks.


    Is it just me, or does Trump Jr. look like Eddie Munster?

  • I do not know the level of President Trump’s intelligence or the ability of his intellect.

    I think that Donald Trump is smart enough; of course I don’t have the puzzlingly high expectations of the intelligence of presidents that most Democrats seem to. Most presidents are typical of the professional class: IQs 115 to 135. I don’t believe we’ve had a president in the last 30 years who hasn’t fit neatly within that range. I don’t think Mr. Trump is well informed and I think he’s incurious.


    Is it just me, or does Trump Jr. look like Eddie Munster?

    Could be. However, I will note that Ivanka does not look like Eddie Munster.

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