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Love and Loathing in 2015: The power of place and the return of sentiment

Working in Rabat with a group of thirty-something policy analysts last week-end, I walked on eggshells as they gently but firmly pressed me on my views about the Charlie Hebdo events. Where did I stand? What did I think? My ‘Frenchness’, in combination with Counterpoint’s work on cultural risk made me a legitimate target of their questioning. My previous work, my ‘Canadienness’, my experience should have afforded me an arsenal of arguments on the complexity of the situation and the difficulty surrounding the issues of free speech, of representation, of political humiliation and violent extremism. But whatever the intellectual and political effectiveness of my arguments, it paled in comparison to my interrogators’ probing distress.

The 20 young Moroccans sitting around me could not have been more different from one another: some women wore hijab, others didn’t. Some looked like Shakira—golden and sassy; Others simply looked like young professionals in any administrative capital; Some guys wore suits, others wore jeans, cropped hair or dreadlocks, T-shirts or ties. They were trendy, or not. Extroverts and not. They were more or less fluent in English. They were all highly educated. And they were all shocked by the attacks; but even more shocked by what they felt like the world’s failure to understand them and what they hold dear in the aftermath—no matter what they look like, what they wear, who they are and what they do for a living. Some laughed at what they saw at ‘our’ incomprehension in the face of such an insult. One young woman’s words struck me in particular: her eyes laughed as she looked straight into mine and said ‘But Catherine, you’re leaving out the main issue here: Love. Our love for the prophet’. She went on to explain in detail, as I pressed her to try and understand, what this meant, what kinds of aspirations were bound into this love, and therefore the potential suffering tied to it. I’m not entirely sure that I entirely understood their emotional perspective. But I did come away convinced as never before that events such as those at Charlie Hebdo and everything that happened – and will continue to happen – in their aftermath make clear the need for work on cultural risk, and for a new kind of conversation about politics and culture. Meriem spoke of love, the images on African television spoke of humiliation and hatred, of protests in Niger where the French flag was burnt; the millions of people who marched in Paris and capitals across the world also spoke of love and fear. We are awash in emotions, their cultural and social expressions and their political and market consequences; so how do we make sense of them? Of how they are high-jacked or even manufactured (though no less real or legitimate for that) by political forces; Just as they, in turn, high-jack them?

The need for cultural risk analysis

2015 (you don’t need a crystal ball to see this) will be a year of deepening crises: the waters of the Eurozone will become choppy once again; Putin’s actions will continue to taunt the US and rattle Europeans; ISIS may exhaust itself, but not for a while and not before having profoundly changed the political and energy landscapes. All of this in the context of America’s reluctant leadership and Europe’s weak leaders and even weaker resolve. This remarkable unravelling of the international order will have profound consequences for investors, and will continue unchecked unless policy-makers and politicians learn to read the signs of this deep transformation, tailor their institutions accordingly and re-emerge as leaders. Which in turn requires a deeper, different knowledge of those who they lead.

None of these looming or continuing crises, however, can be understood without referring to the beliefs, myths, symbolic and religious identities, principles, traditions, values, emotions and key relationships that define the way in which each of these questions will be debated and experienced by individuals and communities of individuals. None of these, in other words, will be understood in any real way – and in ways that don’t make matters worse – without a near-forensic emphasis on the role of emotion and sentiment in politics and society, and a deep commitment to factoring in how place and culture shape outlook and behaviour.

Two of the many paradoxes of globalisation: and the tools to ‘get it’

We live in societies in which the speed of information and ubiquity of certain images create an illusion of intelligibility at a time of deepening uncertainty for many. The violence of a violent act is rendered unambiguous as it is repeated on a loop and immediately transformed into a meme. Its mystery vanishing under the certainty of what our eyes can see. And yet the complexity and mystery of the actions of the Charlie Hebdo shooters are as deep as those that lie beneath the choices of millions of people to march in France in the aftermath.

Developing the tools and analysis that can help us make sense of such events and their roots is not a question of resources, or even a question of technical prowess— we already know that the unpredictable, will, predictably, happen more often. We know about ‘fat tails’ and ‘black swans’. No, this is a matter of interpretation; a matter of looking for meaning, rather than only looking for facts.
In the end, the two great puzzles with which we have to deal in our global era are: first the fact that, for all its homogenising, juggernaut force, globalisation has not only failed to eradicate deep differences and make us more easily predictable and more alike, it has often encouraged us to assert our differences with greater vigour. The second puzzle is to do with how we learn to understand our reactions to new forms of deep uncertainty, complexity and unprecedented interdependence and how to make sense of these reactions as they tumble out—complex, unpredictable and sometimes seemingly contradictory.

The power of place

Our first paradox: The realisation that despite the speed with which ideas and trends spread, despite the churning, thundering potential of globalisation to homogenise our behaviour, our outlooks and our preferences—despite all this, place (be it community, neighbourhood, nation or city) continues to determine much of our outlook and behaviour. However ‘global’ globalisation may be, it has, so far, failed to break our connection with place. Transnational parties have largely failed; movements, even when heavily branded as ‘global’ are still rooted in and defined by, context. Even Occupy a brand that travelled – was ultimately killed by the misplaced hope – and resulting nonchalance – of its universality. And one of the striking things about the Charlie Hebdo mobilisation after the murders is how ‘niche’ claims to universalism really are. In fact, what globalisation highlights is the parochialism of much of our conceptions of universality. The capacity to function in a globalised world requires an understanding of the deep specifics of place. Something that traditional risk analysis underestimates dramatically.

The return of sentiment

The second paradox concerns the unpredictability of human beings: in a world of efficiency and benchmarks, where policy-makers and business planners can elaborate targeted strategies and bespoke products and services—behaviour often seems less predictable, less understandable than ever. Traditional norms of behaviour have been weakened by diversity and (in many places) a decrease in deference to authority. What has taken hold seems more malleable, less ingrained and therefore less certain.
This return of sentiment to centre stage is manifest in a number of ways. In the political arena, populism thrives as it capitalises on declining trust, fear of uncertainty, disgust with elites, and disappointment in policy. And in a burlesque loop, policy-makers respond in kind and revert to demagoguery in an effort to meet their publics’ misunderstood expectations. Perhaps more dangerously, this has led to all sorts of generalisations about the end of reason and the dominance of emotions; the ‘ungovernability’ of citizens and the irrationality of consumers. Research simply shows the following: that after centuries of understanding reason as the opposite of emotions, we now know that the components of reason are varied—and that they include emotions. What we are faced with is not irrationality or incoherence, but rather the complexity of human beings. This is challenging enough, but add to it the fact that the results of this complexity (the intricacy of preferences, the variety of attitudes, the differences in behaviour according to context and information) now travels swiftly and unfettered and, again, the limitations of much current analysis comes to the fore.
These limitations are costly for governance as well as for business. First because they prevent decision-makers from being responsive: Failing to understand the different factors that motivate our fellow citizens (never mind those across the planet) leads to planning and commercial failures; As well as weak leadership. Weak leadership means slow decisions—this means driving up the cost of business and driving down the effectiveness of governance (see TTIP for instance).

Fix the blind-spots

The combination of these two blind-spots feeds the inability of decision-makers’ to deal with deep trends such as the decline in support for representative democracy; the renewed rise of virulent forms of nationalism and forms of acute chauvinism; anti-immigrant hostility; as well as disappointment vis a vis almost any form of democratic leadership, and the resulting attendant flirtations with robust forms of populism, both on the right and on the left. All of which, in turn, have massive consequences for businesses that rely on the effectiveness of governments, on the trust of the public and on the free-flow of information and people. Meanwhile, demands for radical transparency and more accountability in business and governance grow and remain unmet. Scrutiny mechanisms initially designed to maintain and enhance trust become ubiquitous, expensive and unwieldy under the weight of fear and suspicion.
For far too long analysts have shunned these blind-spots on the grounds that they are too difficult or time-consuming to tackle, or that they cannot be studied systematically enough. Yet the tools do exist—from anthropology to neuroscience, from psychology to new forms of institutional analysis, from language analysis to data mining and interpreting. It’s really very urgent that we all learn to use them.

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