Splodges of emotion


I have been doing some thinking about life and politics and writing. Leicester City winning the premiership. Ken Livingstone’s mad utterances about Hitler being a Zionist. Donald Trump.

You know, the normal Tuesday morning stuff.

And I am coming to the conclusion that our lives are dominated by big splodges of emotions. Primeval gut feelings that don’t listen to logic. These massive feelings hit us with such force that there is little room for dispassionate argument or debate.

It is as if the emotions are so strong that they take up all the bandwidth. We don’t have room for anything else.

Scientists talk about there being two sides to our brain. The conscious brain is the human side. It deals in logic and words. You can talk to this side of your brain and it will reply. It’s the Today programme on radio four. Question time. A one to one conversation with someone on your wavelength.

The other side of our brains is like a primitive animal. Professor Steve Peters calls it a chimp in his more or less wonderful book “The Chimp Paradox”. This side of our brain deals in deep emotions. It hates or loves with passion. You can’t argue with the chimp side of your brain, although you can tempt it with bananas or hit it with sticks.

Take cuddly Ken Livingstone, who is alternately quite an intelligent bloke and as mad as a March hare. He has made a more or less sensible comment about anti-Semitism which has blown up into a raging row. He argued that Zionism is not the same thing as Jewishness.

I can see his point. There is a massive debate going on about who should live in the Holy Land. The Palestinians and Jews both think it should be their home. With his conscious logical brain, Ken Livingstone says that we should be able to express an opinion about this topic without being accused of being anti-Semitic.

Ken believes that you can argue against the concept of Zionism – that the Jews should have a Nation State in Israel – without criticising Jewish people. The Palestinian point of view is legitimate too.

Don’t look at me for an answer on that one. I haven’t got a clue. As an atheist / Church of England Brit, I don’t have much of a preference either way. I just want them to stop killing each other. In my ideal world, I would ask them both to share their toys and play nicely, but somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen.

If Ken’s argument stopped there, then it would be mildly controversial but not a big deal. But then he pulls the pin out of a hand grenade and lobs it into the room. He drops the A bomb by mentioning Adolf Hitler.


It took me a long while to understand what he is trying to say here. I think I have worked it out. The logic is tortuous and convoluted, but there is a logic. Of sorts. Maybe.

If I’ve understood Ken (not easy), it goes something like this:

  1. The Palestinians believe that the Holy Land belongs to them.

  2. The Zionists believe that the Holy Land belongs to the Jews.

  3. It is not anti-Semitic to argue for the Palestinian point of view because Zionism is not a religion or a race of people.

  4. Some Jews are not Zionists. Some Zionists are not Jews.

  5. For example, Hitler – the most non-Jewish person you can think of – argued for Zionism in 1932.

That’s it, I think. He introduced Hitler into the argument as a throw-away example to support his argument that Zionism and Jewishness are not the same thing. If a non-Jew can believe in Zionism then Zionism is a separate thing from Jewishness.

His argument is pretty flaky on historical grounds. The one kernel of truth is that the German Nazi party did sign the Haavara agreement in 1933 (not 1932) which made it easier for Jewish people to emigrate from Germany to a Jewish community in Palestine. That does not mean that Hitler supported Zionism before he “went mad”, as Ken sees it.

The Nazi party’s prime motive was to get the Jews out of Germany, not to create the state of Israel. That’s not Zionism.

Ken’s argument also doesn’t work on logical grounds. Zionism is a belief which is rooted in religion. It does not stop being a religious belief if one non-religious person argues for it.

But Ken’s biggest problem is that he has provoked a big splodge of subconscious-brain emotion. He has prodded the chimp with a very large stick and the chimp is furious.

For many people, particular for Jews, Hitler is an abhorrent character. We don’t need to go into the whys and wherefores.

What Ken has done is to link Hitler to the Jewish people. This creates such a tidal wave of emotion that any logical argument is drowned out. Ken’s original point – that it’s not anti-Semitic to support the Palestinians – has disappeared. Now everyone is talking about the Hitler point. The chimp has taken over.

Intelligent politicians know this. They know that there are some subjects that you simply do not discuss. A more seasoned politician would have known not to introduce Hitler as an example. You just don’t go there.

These big splodges of emotions are also used to push us in directions that politicians do want. Trump has built his Presidential campaign by appealing to voters’ chimp instincts. A fear of immigration – let’s build a wall! A fear of terrorists – let’s do more water-boarding! Let’s make America great again.

His policies are paper-thin, but they are resonating with large portions of the American population because of the waves of primitive emotions that they produce. It is classic fight or flight stuff.

Yesterday, Leicester City won the premiership, largely through teamwork and supporting each other. They tapped into this big primeval emotions and made the emotions work for them.

You can see it in writing. We authors might think that we are crafting clever sentences and making deep philosophical points. But what our readers are doing is connecting with the characters – sharing their pains, worrying about them, loving them or hating them.

One thing that has surprised me about the writer’s journey over the past couple of years has been this emotional connection between readers and characters. Big, unreasonable, primitive splodges of emotions.

Get it right, and your readers care for the characters. They want to read on to find out what happens next. They are desperate to know how the characters that they love get out of this difficult situation.

Get it wrong, and you end up where Ken Livingstone is right now. Being used as a pawn in a campaign to oust Jeremy Corbyn.




2 thoughts on “Splodges of emotion

  1. Thoughtful things you present here. I, too, have become dismayed at the cultural direction that seems to be promoted in today’s society (feeding off emotions rather than supported by reason) that if you disagree with me, not only must I hate you as a result, but if possible, I must kill you.

    Maybe your observation that heavy emotional wrangling in fiction in prompting reader connection with fictional character is successful because in a work of fiction, the emotional charges that draw us to the character are ultimately resolved in some way. If this resolution is not complete, which sometimes happens in a story, its path is illustrated, which provides hope for the character. This might explain the current and growing interest in memoir, which is fraught with emotion, which is the seasoning, the salt and pepper, of life experience.

    As you desire, I would be just as happy to leave the cultivation of emotion out of politics. Trump is successful on this level because the frustration of much of the American public with the disingenuousness of their representatives has been driven beyond reason into the realm of emotion. In many ways, I am in the same boat. I don’t think Trump is a good candidate; I believe, however unfortunately, that he is preferable to the liberal alternatives currently in the running.

    One thing about Trump that appeals to a lot of people is his disdain for political correctness. The time to stamp that out is long overdue. It is a form of terrorism, more dangerous because it is so subtle. Maybe Trump, if successful in his bid for the White House, will provide leadership in that direction, to turn our heads back around so that we can call a spade a spade without being ostracized, condemned, persecuted, or slaughtered.

    Merry Christmas! There! I said it! I trust you aren’t offended!


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