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The dispassionate heart, or the heart in denial?

This blog was originally posted on Identity Campaigning.

There has been a recent spate of opinion pieces, bemoaning the lack of passion, heart, emotion and related ‘affective’ aspects of how we (public, leadership, etc) are responding to the urgent pressures concerning environmental issues, including climate change.

The general tenor of these pieces tends to express frustration, bewilderment, and sometimes anger at what seems like a complete lack of adequate response commensurate with the scale of threats facing us. Environmental communicators, researchers and advocates are genuinely scrambling to unlock some sort of ‘key’ that can usher in constructive sea-change action and change.

And each have their own set of assumptions and theoretical ‘tool kits’ to get there. It may be segmentation to help identify certain groups based on values and consumption pattern; it may be using scales to measure ‘affective responses’ to certain images or words (e.g. Anthony Leiserowitz, Elke Weber, or Jon Krosnick’s work just to name a few), it may involve speaking with communities affected already, such as  Kari Norgaard’s ethnographic work in Norway. Or it may be the more general ravings (and I say this respectfully, as there is always a place to rave and rant), that decry the fact that people seem numb, uncaring and lacking ‘passion’ or, in the latest screed in Grist.org, ‘heart’.

I tend to have a general issue with much of the work that either accuses people of not caring, or being ‘dispassionate’. I find it is 1) patronising, 2) psychologically bereft, and 3) lacking a certain amount of both empathy and compassion.

We all have a right to be angry at the lethargic, inert and woefully inadequate responses to taking measures NOW for mitigating a whole range of pressing ecological and social issues (of which climate is one).  In fact it’s GOOD to be angry; as the psychoanalyst Winnicott noted, it is our ability to say “NO” that is the basis for creativity; the capacity to set limits, boundaries. But we need to not just stop at anger, nor do we need to wring our hands at a dispassionate and heartless public.

Rather, we need to ask some very difficult and important questions: Why are people slow to respond? And I mean to really think about this in all its inherent complexity. Why did people remain silent when the National Socialist party began to take power in Germany in the 1930s and 40s? The only legitimate comparison to draw here is the way in which we have witnessed how people, even those in power, can become not only paralysed, but can literally not see what is right before them. This is something psychologists know a lot about; social psychologists have been studying this for decades, psychoanalysts focus on anxiety and defence mechanisms such as denial and projection. This is, actually, a hugely complex question.

We must be very cautious about retreating to knee-jerk explanations in the heat of our own, legitimate anger and pain at the damages we have wrought on the planet. We need to ‘honour’ these emotions, but to not stay in them. Otherwise we fall prey to simplistic, and crude explanations, which in the end, may not help anyone. Instead I suggest we take a bit of time to dialog with one another constructively; learn from different disciplines and remove our blinkers. And perhaps it’s time to really pressure the psychological community to step up: As Hanna Segal wrote, the only crime is silence, in the face of what we know to be happening. We must start hearing from the psychological community on these most pressing issues – arguably, the most pressing issues at present.

Renee LertzmanThe dispassionate heart, or the heart in denial?

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