- Published: 27 June 2016 27 June 2016
If climate campaigners need more proof then the EU Referendum shows how fear, resentment, and shame trump evidence every time.
Whilst now might not seem like the right time to ask ‘what can we learn from this?’ the result of the EU referendum and the blow it has dealt to those campaigning for environmental and social justice behoves us to reflect quickly. Unlike a parliamentary election this referendum vote has set us on a decades long path, one we cannot just undo after a few years.
Perhaps the most important lesson, and it applies equally to campaigning around climate change, is that facts and evidence, even when they seem overwhelming, are never enough to change hearts and minds. Liberals and leftists, on both sides of the Atlantic, have been so slow to learn this lesson. In contrast the successful Brexit campaign appealed to peoples’ emotions and identities, knew and used the power of myths and offered simple, clear and engaging narratives.
So what were the emotions? Brexiters were very canny in portraying the pro-Europe campaign in terms of ‘project fear’. It only takes a moment’s reflection to recognize that this was a classic case of denial and projection at work. For one of the most powerful emotions behind the anti-Europe campaign was fear, a fear that became encapsulated in the image of the queue of foreigners used by UKIP in the last week of the campaign. Globalization, climate change, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, these and other developments ensure that we all now live in an age of anxiety. But we know that, unlike emotions such as jealousy, anxiety is ‘free floating’, it has no single focus but exists as a fluid, visceral and intangible affect that seeks an object to anchor itself in. This is what populist politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson do, they give this intangible but powerful feeling a focus.
But this is not the only, nor even the major feeling that populist politicians are able to exploit. More important is resentment or what continental Europe has always referred to as ressentiment. This concerns the resentment of those whose suffering is not heard because, it seems, no-one any longer speaks for them. If this sense of injustice remains unaddressed then it turns in upon itself. In everyday language we refer to nursing a grievance – an original sense of injustice which then adopts a bitter, complaining and righteous tone. Nietzsche unkindly called this the ‘slave emotion’, that is, the emotion of the weak. Unaddressed resentment soon becomes this qualitatively different and toxic emotion, one the Europeans knew so well because of the role it played in the 1930s. This is the danger that Britain and Europe now faces once again.
Finally there was the role of shame. In developed economies like Britain and the USA globalization, post-industrialism, etc. has left a whole section of the population behind. In our culture today nobody wants to be a ‘loser’ – such a pernicious term. But in the referendum campaign because the pro-European campaign assumed facts and evidence would inevitably triumph, those who weren’t convinced were often seen as blinkered, prejudiced and ignorant and, worse, plain stupid (now where have we heard that phrase before?). This was a kind of ‘shaming’. Shame is one of the most wounding emotions there is. When we feel shame we feel small, inferior and inadequate, that’s why shame is inherent to the experience of class and race in unequal societies, that’s what it does to people.
People campaigning around climate change and environmentalism are now mostly aware of the need to avoid guilt-tripping those who are not yet convinced by our arguments. We also need to beware of shaming them, making them feel ignorant or stupid just because they wont ‘wake up and smell the fire’ like we have. Shaming those who don’t agree with us is hardly likely to be a successful recipe for bringing them over to our side – it might satisfy our need to feel ‘in the right’ but at what cost?
Fear, resentment and shame, these are all negative emotions; they lie at the heart of human suffering. They are already present in relation to climate change. Fear as the reality of drought, flood, fire and heat breaks in. Resentment at the very idea that we in the West may have to make sacrifices if climate justice is to be pursued. Shame when we feel ‘less than’ we could be in rising to the challenges that confront us.
At the recent Climate Psychology Alliance workshop “The Power of Restorative Narratives” Marina Cantecuzino reminded us of the risk of leaving suffering unaddressed through a lovely phrase - “what can’t be transformed will be transmitted”. In the difficult times that are coming for climate campaigners this should be one of our key tasks: To recognise and accept the negative emotions we will encounter and to address them with thoughtfulness and compassion. Only then might fear be transformed into hope, resentment into generosity and shame into pride.
Chair of Climate Psychology Alliance
Chris Robertson's reflects on this paper and offers his own thoughts in An Unravelling World in need of Radical Repair
Image © Kjpargeter | Dreamstime.com EU referendum Man Photo
Other articles on this subject
Europe, Climate Change:Imagining Oneself to be an Exception by Paul Hoggett
An Unravelling World in Need of Radical Repair by Chris Robertson