How much do emotions impact or even dictate political outcomes like ethnic violence, wars, or even genocides? That is a key question posed by international relations theorists, political scientists, psychologists, and communications scholars. Where do these emotions come from? How do they play out? Maria Armoudian speaks with Roger Petersen, David Altheide, and Jeff Birkenstein.

Roger Petersen is a Professor of Political Science at MIT. He is an expert in civil war and violence and is the author of Western Intervention in the Balkans: The Strategic Use of Emotion in Conflict.

David Altheide is Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. He is an expert in media and society and is the author of Terrorism and the Politics of Fear.

Jeff Birkenstein is a Professor of English at Saint Martin’s University. He is an expert in terrorism and culture and is the author of Reframing 9 / 11: Film, Popular Culture and the “War on Terror”.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: I would like to start with Roger Petersen. Can you first give us an overview about violence and emotions and maybe you should start with the international relations literature that pertains to fear and threat and then bring us up to speed with what you have been doing.

RP: I should probably mention that I have a book which is called The Strategic Use of Emotion in Conflict and it deals with all the Western interventions in the Balkans, especially between Slavs and Albanians. And the premise of this work, which builds off the understanding of ethnic violence, is the West intervenes in conflicts by believing they can introduce a sort of a rational choice game, that they can arrange sticks and carrots in a certain way to induce behaviours. And the local people have a little wider view of human nature, one that incorporates emotions and they see emotions as resources. And they use emotions as resources to basically screw up the game of the Westerners who believe they are imposing a rational game. So there are certain emotions which are very powerful I think in being able to be mobilised as resources. Two of them relate to violence and that is anger and fear. And fear is really based on the cognition that there is some danger, but anger is based on the cognition that someone has done something bad against me. And if you frame what has happened to you in different ways you can generate either anger or fear. But a big thing they do is they shape risk perception. So if you are under fear, you generally tend to upgrade risks, but if you are under anger you tend to downgrade risks and believe you can retaliate. And sometimes political entrepreneurs wish to inculcate anger if they want to get a violent spiral going between actors, sometimes they wish to generate fear, especially ethnic cleansing, and if the other side doesn’t believe they can keep themselves safe you will separate and you will get ethnically homogenous groups. I spent a lot of years looking to see how political leaders mobilise fear, anger, contempt, hatred, and resentment and they would do different things to generate one of those emotions in order to try to mobilise different types of political behaviour.

MA: Can you give us an example that really would elucidate how this actually works?

RP: If people remember what happened in Kosovo, the Serbs carried out a massive ethnic cleansing of Albanians. But the Albanians came in after that and they started wanting to intimidate Serbs to leave Kosovo and really there are no Serbs left in any of the major five cities in Kosovo today south of the Ibar river. If they wanted to create fear, they would leave what they call night letters, they would leave a note in the box saying ‘We have a list of people we are going to go after and you are number two on the list’. When you don’t know who put the letter there, where it is coming from, what is going to happen to you and your family – that is the way to generate fear in an opponent and then the only solution for them was to leave Kosovo. Now if you were in a situation where you want to create a violent spiral, in 1998 Albanians believed and Kosovo believed that the West was not going to intervene on their side unless violence happened and so they decided we needed to get a violent spiral, and they attacked certain Serbian policeman and they attacked them by saying ‘We the Kosovo Liberation Army killed a couple of your policeman’. And they knew this was going to generate a backlash because their belief was the Serbian policeman could not control themselves, they would escalate the conflict and generate a violence level which would trigger Western intervention. So in the one case where the Albanian actors had already won and wanted to create ethnic cleansing, they were creating fear by anonymous means where you didn’t know where the attack would come from. And in the other case, it was ‘We attacked you, you think we are inferior but the inferior people just killed a couple of your people’ and that generated the massacres at Racak and other places where the US decided they had to intervene. So those are a couple of examples about how political actors actually calculated, we want to get a certain kind of emotion and that is going to motivate the behaviours they want.

MA: And then on the other side of course, they took the narrative and framed it in a different way in order to get a reaction from that side?

RP: Yeah, but I think especially in these Balkan conflict situations there is a lot of material that you can work with. But I think with fear and anger, you build on violence and use violence in certain ways. Contempt is an emotion that the other side is really deeply inferior to you and I think in that case violence really isn’t a good tool but you build on other cultural understandings and cultural schema.

MA: Let’s bring in David Altheide. He studies emotions, specifically fear, and how the politics of fear come about through framing in mass media. So the government using certain frames and then the mass media disseminating those frames. Talk about the framing and how certain frames might emerge?

DA: One of the key questions is how we actually decide for audiences which steps we should take. A big part of that is how the situation is defined, and framing sets that out very clearly. For me one of the biggest examples, when we talk about 9/11, was when it started: how would we frame these attacks? Indeed even the word ‘attack’ suggests a kind of frame. How would we define planes running in to those buildings? Initially, some of the statements were well these are criminal acts, but then pretty quickly that changed to ‘Oh no they are not criminal acts, they are terrorist acts’. And so the difference between a crime and an act of terrorism becomes really significant because terrorism carries with it all sorts of other massive state reactions and terrorism also as a term in our society has a real history with it and some very heavy connotations, meaning things are going to be pretty random, you can’t predict anything, there is this powerful but invisible enemy. And so because of that, we then have to take some very strong preventive actions early on in order to stop potential terrorists. And then that in turn led to all kinds of things, various kinds of acts of surveillance and preventive detention and so forth, not to mention the kind of armed reaction invasion of countries and what have you. So that basic framing becomes really significant.

What we find fascinating about the media is that to some extent, unlike the situation that Roger just described with the Balkans, the American situation with terrorism was much different and it really pretty much depended on the mass media. The situation Roger’s been studying, the media play a part but it is much different because in that part of the world, the people involved in the various wars have a long history of experience and information about themselves compared to their counterparts, the other ethnic groups. And some of that goes back centuries. For more of the world, in terms of terrorism, the mass media are the source of the experience and how these things are framed and set up. And so when that happens, I think is the media play a very strong role in promoting fear first, and then out of fear comes a sense of danger, and then anger comes out of the sense of fear about what is threatening us and what we may or may not be able to do about it and therefore ‘I am angry at them and we must then take some retaliatory action’. And then we get into the whole propaganda spiral of framing these enemies in very simple ways, justifying actions that we are going to take to protect us, and it is always tasked with the notion that whatever we do, we can’t do too much in order to keep us safe from these people that we are angry at. And I think that’s what the approach to terrorism in the world has gotten us now where we are engaged in so many kinds of preventive action, retaliatory action in order to keep us safe from things that might happen in the future.

MA: I think one of the interesting things that is emerging from the focus on emotions and political psychology and this merging with political communication – two things are occurring. One is in the frame there becomes this good guys and bad guys, the us and the them frame, and that kind of instigates a different kind of social psychology. And then you get this framing of the emotions as Roger talks about and how there is an automatic behavioural mechanism that kicks in like a little trigger. Perhaps that is a good place to bring in Jeff Birkenstein.

JB: So far it is a really interesting discussion and I like the connections with Serbia which was very interesting for me. I was teaching as a graduate student at the University of Kentucky when the US and NATO went into Serbia. And one of my friends is from Belgrade and she came and spoke to my class and it was just very interesting to get a different perspective to what our media was then giving. One thing that is really interesting, and I think what David is mentioning, really makes me think about the role of media. Even the first couple of hours of 9/11. One of the things I think when you ask people, they have this common experience of 9/11 and the events, because if you were outside of New York or DC, if you were outside of the immediate impact area, you watched it on TV and everyone watched it on TV, so we had this common perception. But what is fascinating is that it was almost sort of a reflexive decision. There wasn’t an ulterior motive. But if you remember from the very beginning, the media, which we tend to believe in our memory, was they turned on the cameras and showed us what happened. You remember the example of what is known as the ‘Falling Man’. In other words, people jumping and or falling from the World Trade Centre. Well in the very beginning of the coverage of the attacks we heard and we saw and people discussed it and there was even a couple of scenes when you saw people fall, but even within the first couple of hours, not as a coordinated effort, someone who had control of the TV cameras was not giving us those images. So even after the first couple of hours those images were being taken away from us. It was a way of protecting us in a way that is unfortunate, I think. And that to me is really interesting just in terms of media and promoting fear and then anger. Because there was a situation where there was this raw data of an image of a person falling, and it was so raw that there was a reflexive decision to cut it off because you didn’t know what would happen when people saw it. And over time very quickly it got into the frame of 3000 dead Americans. In fact, I still cringe when I hear that today. But what we really know that it wasn’t 3000 dead Americans – it was around 3000 people, many of whom were not from the US. So just this way of almost reflexive gut-level framing is extremely influential and then it does lead to the idea of anger and how people can be controlled in terms of what their response is.

MA: Roger Petersen, let’s talk about the idea that things are unjust. It seemed universal in the conflicts that you looked at that the framing of ‘this is unfair’ tended to be underlying all the conflict, especially the idea that ‘those people are doing something that harms us’…

RP: A lot of emotions theorists often talk about the beliefs that generate the emotion and what the action tendency of that emotion is. In terms of anger, the belief is that an identifiable person has done something wrong to you and the action tendency is quite clear, and that is to punish that person. Fear though is a little tricky because the belief is clear that I am in a situation of danger but the action tendency could be either fight or flight. There is some speculation – we don’t understand this very well – but I think the framing of the situation if I am powerless, and that is the source of danger, then I flee. But if the perception of danger is the danger is coming from someone who has power but I also have power, then the action tendency is to fight back. But I think the image of a body falling is really a helpless, powerless image which everyone intuitively understand, this is sort of like fleeing, and the media and everyone else probably didn’t want that, they realised relatively quickly that we need to fight back and we can’t look so powerless as this body falling down. I think you are picking up on this other emotion which is of resentment. And the belief that generates the emotion of resentment is that ‘My group of people is in an unfair position on a status hierarchy’. I think there is a lot of psychology involved, people think in terms of groups and in terms of group hierarchies, like in Iraq the Sunni have been on top all the time, the US came in, the Shia were going to control the country, and we didn’t anticipate at all the power of the resentment of Sunni Arabs to not be able to adjust to not being on top of the hierarchy. In Eastern Europe because these were empires that crumbled, you had these group hierarchies that were changing and status reversals are a very powerful and ubiquitous sort of part of politics which creates this feeling of injustice. And this is another type of powerful motivator. And, of course, politicians who are smart concentrate sometimes if they think they can get out of the violence game because the resentment is so powerful of another group, then they will have speeches and parades that highlight the status discrepancies.

MA: Wouldn’t you say that the resentment is wrapped up with anger in the way that David Altheide was talking about fear and anger. First there’s fear, then there’s anger, this was unfair, they did this to us, this is unjust and that narrative that fuels it, and that that is what is then fuelling the large wars, even say perhaps the US attacking Afghanistan and Iraq.

RP: Well I think the feeling that ‘My group doesn’t get what it deserves’ and this resentment, that makes it easier to use anger. But I think the idea about really talking about emotions in a productive way is to try to be very specific about what the framing, what the beliefs behind them are. And I think it is a different idea that ‘My group is in an inferior status position’ – which is resentment – and anger, which is ‘Somebody has really done something specifically bad against my group and there has to be some type of punishment for that’.

MA: David Altheide?

DA: I think one of the other very strong emotions that a lot of us have spent time looking at in addition to resentment is entitlement and the notion that we are more deserving than others, that a certain way that we want things is how the world really should work and so if something has happened that symbolically kind of challenges it, that becomes very important. Because one of the other concepts here that is connected to emotions but has a bit more to do how we act in the world is identity, or how do we see ourselves as being known by others, what do others think of us? And if you feel entitled to a certain approach in the world, ‘How dare anyone possibly oppose us’, for example, or ‘How dare anyone in any nation challenge our particular god’ or ‘How could anyone dare do certain things’, that ‘We have been given God-given rights and constitutional rights’ and so forth. Those things can then become very powerful in a sense of triggering these other things, like ‘You are taking something from us, I am worried about losing my rightful place here’ and so forth. I remember after 9/11 for example, was on the term that a lot of people were saying ‘Americans have lost their swagger and that’s why some of these actions happened’, ‘We are entitled to dominate in a certain way’. This sort of thing is not viewed universally in the world that way by all cultures obviously, but I think certain political systems tend to promote this as a thing for hegemonic rule.

MA: Jeff Birkenstein?

JB: Well isn’t it so interesting what David is saying. If we remember post-9/11 there was a big chunk of the country, myself included who wanted to ask what seemed like a simple question: why did they do this to us? But at the time that was a very problematic question because it went outside the frame, the frame was ‘Well they are animals, they are terrorists, they are bad people’. I think George Bush said something along the lines of ‘They hate us for our freedom’.. And so to ask the question from their perspective not accepting it, agreeing with it, or condoning it, but ‘Why did they attack us?’ And that question was very problematic and a lot of people wanted to seek out that information for their own benefit. But the response through the media that really was quite a ringleader in terms of a certain kind of reaction that the American people should have, that was really outside the bounds of acceptable questions at the time. You still had a desire for a lot of people to ask that question so they were asking it in other ways. They would ask it directly or indirectly in alternate methods, maybe not through the media, but all sorts of other avenues. Because people desire information. But at the same time there is always people who don’t want to seek out this information and that is quite a conflict right there. And that gets right to the sense of entitlement that Americans had.  Because many people say ‘We are a beneficent power, we are a beneficent presence, we are the greatest country in the world’. Those slogans came under attack and the last thing the media and many politicians wanted to hear have asked was ‘Well why did they do this to us?’

MA: That response was also framed in a very distinct way, Roger Petersen would you like to respond?

RP: If the enemy is just inherently effective, there are different emotions. I think hatred and contempt come into play there. But if the enemy is not inherently effective but for some other reason did bad things to us then we are angry and need to punish them, but I think the struggle is a little different. If you hate someone the tendency is to physically eliminate their presence. If you are angry you just need to punish them. And so it is sort of interesting about how Americans frame these terrorists: are they a small group? Do they actually have reasons? But once you get into reasons, then we can’t hate them and we can’t have these campaigns to try to eliminate them as much. So I think there was a lot of that going on. Bill Maher said [“Staying in the airplane when it hits the building – say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”] and then he had to leave the air. To say even a statement like that, which I don’t think is even that controversial, to attribute anything good to this at the time to an inherently effective enemy – that generates an emotion. But, of course, once we get into Iraq, George Bush said Islam is a religion of peace, and he had to go out and try to not have that framing because those emotions become counterproductive at another time.

DA: One of the things you have to do in order to generate a certain response from your audience and to generate a response that the audience views as appropriate and therefore sees you as a leader, is you have got to be able to tap some key emotions. And it becomes a real challenge and so you have got to define things in a certain way. One way that we help do this is through controlling language and using certain words. Jeff kind of suggested all but banning the use of other words and so the language starts changing. Let me give you an example: the US in both of these wars [Afghanistan and Iraq] paid a large number of people to help fight the wars. Historically, in the past, when you pay somebody to fight your war for you, that is to say they are not your own soldiers we have called those mercenaries. Well ‘mercenary’ has a very bad connotation to it, mercenary is something that other countries sometimes do, and it is really vulgar and immoral to pay somebody to fight your wars. Well, the US and the various companies that we paid to fight these wars has continued to deny that they are mercenaries and very few of our political leaders ever referred to these folks as mercenaries. In some way it would be refreshing for someone to say ‘Yes, we are using mercenaries, it is cheaper this way, so what’ and get on with it. They’re ‘contractors’, or ‘consultants’. ‘Mercenaries’ suggest a certain definition of a situation and a country such as the US is entitled to a certain thing, because historically most countries and groups see themselves as morally superior to the people they are fighting. This is true almost universally. Language helps do that in some very important ways.

This interview was originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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