Political violence entails a broad range of violent acts aiming at attaining political goals. Political violence is a complex phenomenon, and multiple underlying factors and motives account for its occurrence. The utilitarian point of view which reasons that people use protests as a means to an end can be easily undermined by the impracticality of some politically violent actions. A more plausible hypothesis is that perpetrators are governed by emotions. This essay will discuss the association between emotions and political violence and examine the case of Bouazizi’s self-immolation and its impact on the Arab world.
Emotions are subjective personal experiences that are triggered by both internal and external events. Emotions have the potential of affecting the human mind and body, resulting in physiological changes and encouraging people to take action or behave in a certain way respectively (Pearlman 388). Cosmides and Tooby describe emotions as superordinate adaptive mechanisms, for instance, a stressful situation would make a person fight, flight, or freeze (2).
This mechanism applies to people’s reactions to the political situation in their country – they take action, escape, or stay passive. Pearlman argues that the likelihood of a protest can be predicted based on the prevailing mood in society (388). The author singles out dispiriting emotions such as shame and sadness and emboldening emotions such as pride and anger, with the latter increasing the probability of political violence.
Political violence can be instrumental and expressive: in the first case, a violent act is committed to benefiting the perpetrator financially or socially whereas in the second case, an act serves as an outlet for rage and anger. One of the most resonant acts of expressive violence is the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Living in an impoverished rural area, Bouazizi struggled with running a small business because of the constant mistreatment from the police (Abouzeid). After his wares were confiscated and his complaint to the governor’s office was declined, he set himself on fire in the middle of a street.
His death became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring since it was the first open act of protest against the autocratic regimes. Following his suicide, several other men emulated his act – a phenomenon explained by individual-level exposure to political violence and emotional distress (Canetti 940). Protests broke out in Bouazizi’s hometown and spread across his region and the entire country. The same year, Tunisian President Ben Ali stepped down and fled to Saudi Arabia.
Since the association between emotions and political violence is well-known, some political leaders use emotional manipulation strategically. The opponents of Ben Ali portrayed Bouazizi as a heroic martyr who changed the course of political history. They interpreted his actions as purely political, and the broad coverage of the incident on social media added many non-existent details to the story to trigger an emotional reaction.
Another example of emotional manipulation through social media use is the political platform of President Donald Trump. On many occasions, Trump misinterpreted facts such as the state of international relations or crime statistics. In his Twitter, he provokes hostility and uses fear-mongering tactics. For instance, he is famous for saying that Mexicans are “bringing crime, bringing drugs; they are rapists” (Jacobs). Both the exploitation of personal tragedies and the distortion of facts are elements of social engineering.
One of the greatest challenges of political science is finding a feasible explanation for the escalation of violence. So far, some theories have been seeking to describe the “Domino effect” of political conflicts, and namely, why people join violent movements en masse. A prime example of emotional reaction as a catalyst for political violence is the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi and the uprising in the Arab World that followed soon after. The media coverage of a young man’s death was controversial: his image was exploited to criticize Ben Ali’s government. The case of Bouazizi is not the only instance of emotional manipulation in politics; another illustrative example is the tactics used by Donald Trump.
Abouzeid, Rania. “Bouazizi: The Man Who Set Himself and Tunisia on Fire.” Time. 2011. Web.
Canetti, Daphna. “Emotional Distress, Conflict Ideology, and Radicalization.” PS: Political Science & Politics, vol. 50, no. 4, 2017, pp. 940-943.
Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. “Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions.” Handbook of Emotions, edited by Michael Lewis and Jeanette M. Haviland-Jones, 2nd ed., Guilford, 2000, pp. 1-23.
Jacobs, Ben. “Trump Defends Mexican Rapists Claim During Conspiracy-Laden Speech.” The Guardian. 2018. Web.
Pearlman, Wendy. “Emotions and the Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings.” American Political Science Association, vol. 11, no. 2, 2013, pp. 387-409.