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Opinion

September 16, 2018

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The history of emotions

While historians do tend to write political, social and economic narratives, they often ignore the role of those decisions that are taken on the basis of emotions and produce vital changes in the course of history.

There have been many instances in history when rulers have taken immediate action without caring about the consequences. For example, when Alexander the Great was in Persia, he was deeply impressed by the court ceremonies and wanted to adopt similar protocols. He persuaded his Greek companions to perform various ceremonies and rituals, such as prostrating before him.

One night, Alexander’s childhood friend criticised him and refused to perform Persian rituals. In his drunken state, Alexander became furious and killed him. When Alexander returned to his senses and realised what he had done, he wept bitterly. But he couldn’t undo what had happened.

The Russian czars were known as ‘Groznyy’ (dreadful and terrible). They wanted to send a message to their subjects that any violation against their rule or any form of rebellion would be crushed brutally and mercilessly. The cornerstone of their rule was to create panic and fear among his people. This can be evidenced from their statues which show them with violent expressions on their faces.

Historians are required to carefully study statues, paintings and literature. On the basis of these sources, they can determine the emotions of love, hate, friendship and enmity within various sections of society and among various nations. Therefore, a comprehensive history of any nation requires us to explore its mentality and sensibility.

We can also trace how emotions change in different periods of a nation’s history. When a nation rises, its people tend to acquire confidence and pride. In one instance, a Roman ambassador went to an invader’s camp to initiate negotiations during a siege. During their conversation, the ambassador kept his hand on a candlelight, which burnt his palm. But he continued talking to the invader without displaying any visible signs of discomfort. The invader was so impressed by this act that he decided against fighting the Roman Empire.

Circumstances changed when the same Roman Empire witnessed a period of decline. There is a painting from that period that depicts the scene of a feast. On the table, there is plenty of food and Roman nobles are standing around it. But the sadness on their faces expresses their inner emotions and indicates the decadence that gripped the empire. Another remarkable painting by Spanish artist Francisco Goya shows the Spanish royal family of the 18th century. Although the painting depicts their exquisite attire, their faces display signs of luxury and licentiousness.

In most class-based societies, power was wielded by the nobility and the aristocracy. These groups were often free to express their anger against lower classes while people with no power and privilege endured humiliation, and were compelled to suppress their emotions against the ruling classes.

In some cases, when the political structure broke down, the powerful classes lost their authority. Ordinary citizens used this crisis to their advantage and freely expressed their hatred against their tormentors.

Three peasants rebellions completely changed the mentality of the exploited population. During the 13th century, English peasants rebelled under Wat Tyler’s leadership and acted freely for a short period of time. They expressed their hatred for feudal lords by plundering and burning their palaces, consuming wine from their stores, and torturing those who were captured. This created havoc in the upper classes. Soon after, the government took action and slaughtered the peasants.

In 1525, there was a peasant rebellion in Germany that sought to end feudal authority as Luther changed the powers of the court. The peasants attacked the castles of the feudal lords, dragged them out onto the streets and executed them. This horrified German rulers and their combined forces defeated the peasants. Although the independence of the peasants was short-lived, it gave them the opportunity to draw attention to the class differences in society.

During the French Revolution, peasants revolted against feudal lords. They not only burnt their chateaus, but also set their furniture and taxation documents alight. In times of political crises when the authority of the government collapsed, people are able to freely express their emotions.

In Pakistan, politics has from the very outset depended on emotions. Whenever politicians address mobs, they use emotions rather than rationality to mobilise them. A mob is often mobilised through slogans that have no meaning. Sometimes, religious sentiments are used to win support.

The consequence of emotional politics is that people lose their senses and are driven to commit violent acts and wreak destruction for a brief period of time. It has also affected voting patterns. Candidates who raise emotional slogans are more likely to get elected. Even political language has become emotional. Politicians threaten each other by using abusive language to humiliate their opponents. Emotional politics indicates the backwardness of our society.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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