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It’s the feelings, stupid

A lifetime of keen observation and participation has left me somewhat blasé about politicians and democracy, and so I am often dispassionate at election time. This (occasional) ability to be nonpartisan allows me to become a relatively neutral observer of the tumult and shenanigans of the polling season. When one is not unduly invested in any particular outcome, one can observe what drives humans into much comic derangement come election season.

One thing that became particularly obvious in Kenya’s recent general election is that we need to update Bill Clinton’s famous truism about what swings elections: it’s not the economy, stupid; it’s the feelings.

Long before polling day, I had begun chatting with all and sundry “kwa ground” (as we say in these climes), and I detected a persistent and strong sentiment: that of acute dissatisfaction with the status quo. I had small businessfolk of all types telling me, vociferously, of their anger with their personal situations in recent years, and of their intention to vote for change, any change. This happened often enough to tell me that the “bottom-up” framing that went on to win the day was catching a strong wave of feeling.

Interestingly, this feeling was not happening in the upper echelons of society. Many of those fortunate enough to be in the elite tiers were caught in a different sentiment: fear of change. They might have concerns about the status quo, sure; but they had a greater fear of the unknown. This sentiment made them miss the wave building beneath them. Many believed, right to the end, that we would get continuity after the election, not radical change. Not because of the reality on the ground; but because of their personal wishes. A nonpartisan, analytical view of the situation would have predicted a very close result: and so it transpired. Yet many seemed stunned by this outcome.

This reveals a life lesson we should all pay heed to. We might think we are rational creatures who make logical decisions. Indeed, my early education required me to take the assumption of rationality as a fundamental entry point. The reality is rather different. People are driven less by what the ancient Greeks called the logos of a situation; they are affected by the far more amorphous pathos: the set of feelings and sentiments that the situation throws up.

I watched this play out in the recent election, and marvelled. Most people took a hard position very early, and stuck to it, no matter what the evidence for or against. They had strong feelings, in other words; feelings based on likes and dislikes of the candidates; feelings based on personal investments, both emotional and financial, in one side or the other; feelings based on resentments about the past or fears about the future.

It was a roiling mass of feelings, this election. You could barely find an independent person with a neutral perspective. Almost everyone was caught up in highly strung partisanship. They had taken a side, and were damned if they would be shaken out of it. If any news favoured their candidate, they would share it and celebrate it. If it favoured the opponent, they would question its veracity and ignore it. Their side would win big, because it must.

I offer two perspectives. First, let us all accept, embrace, and harness the feelings that rule our lives. We are educated to appear rational, but at the end of the day everything is a feeling. GDP, inflation, profit are not drivers of action in themselves; they generate feelings about our wellbeing. Those feelings—of desperation or safety, of distaste or attraction, of fear or hope, then drive us to do things—to vote, to work, to invest.

We must train ourselves not to deny our feelings when they appear, but to be very aware of them. When we veer towards a particular side or standpoint, we must be conscious of the emotions that are taking us there. Awareness makes us pause. We may still go with those emotions, but in full recognition that what we are about to do is more about our biases than our objectivity. In other words: when you catch feelings, try to catch your feelings and see why they are there.

The second perspective: never abandon reason completely. Look for the logical, objective part of your brain, and train it to come to the fore when needed. A meditative practice is often very helpful in this regard, in that it helps us to restore calm to the agitated mind. We can also look for perspectives outside of ourselves and our usual groups. When collective emotion runs too high, seek out some equable and impartial people—in person, and online—and listen to them. They may not change your decisions, but they could make you see what you are missing.

Feelings rule us, but we must not let them blind us.

(Sunday Nation, 9 October 2022)

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