Emotional Speech Exhaustion

Posted: July 26, 2005 at 10:24 am in politics

[Oops, wrote this over the weekend and meant to post it last night, but forgot, so I'm doing it now]

Brad wrote a post two months ago about free speech and free will. And I liked it a lot. I even commented on it. But I wanted to write it up in my own blog at some point and extend his analysis. But I kept getting distracted by other things. Unfortunately, my thoughts appear to be relevant again, so I’m going to finally write it up.

Basically, Brad’s observation was that speech had two components, an informational component and an emotional component. Informational speech benefits from free and open debate, where ideas can be examined and selected in a Darwinian process, with the best ideas becoming widespread. The scientific community is a relatively good example of this, ignoring personal biases and paradigm shifts.

However, Brad goes on to observe that emotional speech displays a different sort of filter, where the speech that rises to the top and becomes the most widespread is the speech that is the most appealing to crude primitive emotions, because those are the most powerful emotions. Fear was the example he used, fear of terrorism, of losing one’s job, etc.

My comment at the time was that emotional speech works best when it is extreme. It’s hard to get people’s emotions riled up with “We need to compromise”. You need slogans like “No blood for oil!” or “Give me liberty or give me death!”. And that therefore emotional speech was extremely dangerous to civil society, because society and living together is all about compromises.

After thinking about it some more, I’ve realized that emotional speech may contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction. In particular, emotion is exhausting. We can only respond emotionally so many times before we start tuning something out. It’s like the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. He yells “Danger! Danger!” once, and everybody rushes to the rescue. He does it again, and they respond more slowly. Eventually, no one responds at all.

I noticed this because I’m on several liberal activist mailing lists at this point, left over from my excursion to Ohio last fall. And they all use emotional speech. The particular John Kerry email that sparked this line of thought was entitled “Democracy at Risk”. And I responded to it with “Um, yeah, whatever”, because I’d been getting far too many of these emails, and I just couldn’t summon the moral outrage any more. I just couldn’t. My capacity for responding to emotional speech had been exhausted.

It came up again last week with the Supreme Court nomination of Roberts. MoveOn immediately started bombarding its members with messages; I got several emails and even a phone call with a recorded message saying that Roberts was basically a Nazi who would abolish abortion, destroy the rain forests and sell out to the corporations. And it was so hyperbolic that it was completely unconvincing to me. Fortunately, it seems like this immediate appeal to emotion has now died down. That first day after the nomination of Roberts, I was worried that the Democrats were going to fight his nomination tooth and nail in an all-out scorched-earth battle, and then they and their supporters would have nothing left when Bush nominated a completely insane arch-conservative for Chief Justice. It’s a matter of marshalling one’s resources, and picking one’s battles, because emotional speech is exhausting, and people can only stay outraged for so long (although, come to think of it, that’s not entirely true – there are some people I know who live in a perpetual state of outrage, but I’m hoping they’re the exception rather than the rule).

So I think that emotional speech is highly effective, and is dangerous because its effectiveness discourages compromise. But I think that it is also self-limiting, because it does not retain its effectiveness when used continually – eventually the townspeople stop coming when you cry “Wolf”.

Come to think of it, there are cases where emotional speech exhaustion does not come into play. When defending one’s home, or one’s life, one can stay in a state of high emotion indefinitely. And I think that’s what we are seeing in American politics at this time. The fundamentalist conservatives truly believe that their entire way of life is under attack, and that giving any ground would be tantamount to dying. The fear of death is enough to sustain emotion indefinitely, I suspect. And this may be the difference between the two sides at this moment. The conservatives are fighting an emotional battle for their way of life. The liberals are fighting a reasoned battle for abstract concepts such as equality and liberty. And because of that dichotomy, and because of the effectiveness of emotional speech, the conservatives are currently winning.

One other random thought before I end this entry. I think there is one more component to speech that Brad didn’t mention, and that’s the framing component. The frame, as described by Lakoff sets the stage for how the rest of the message will be processed. In fact, the frame determines whether the message contains informational or emotional content. It is precisely because of the power of emotional speech that framing has become so important; if the frame is effective, the speech engages our emotions and our outrage. If the frame is ineffective, the speech tends to be informational and thus requires a lot more effort to inspire action.

I’m not quite sure how all of these ideas tie together as of yet. But I thought I’d throw them out there, because I’ve been mulling them over for a while without making any further progress on them. Let me know what you think.

3 Responses to “Emotional Speech Exhaustion”

  1. DocBug Says:

    Free speech and free will

    I’ve always believed that a healthy society encourages free and open debate among its citizens, and am a strong supporter of technology and trends that support free and independent speech….

  2. Bug Says:

    I think that’s true at the individual level (certainly I’ve become much less emotional by politics in the past year). I have to wonder whether emotional exhaustion can be directly applied when looking at a culture as a whole though, given that there are always new young hot-headed 20-year-olds to replace the burned-out 30-something activists that preceded them. Certainly society goes in cycles with regard to polarization and emotional thinking, but when looking at patterns over years or decades I expect that’s much more due to demographics, economics and insecurity than one generation becoming worn out by the previous generation’s passion.

  3. Beemer Says:

    In fact, the frame determines whether the message contains informational or emotional content.

    That seems like a really, really significant idea. Need to explore it more. In particular, does reframing mutate content from emotional to informational? What are the laws governing this? It seems like an exploitable feature.

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