“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.