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Open for Debate

Emotional Imperialism in Public Discourse

8 February 2021


Alfred Archer                                                    Benjamin Matheson



In order to protest police brutality and racial injustice in the USA, in 2016 the American footballer Colin Kaepernick decided to sit whilst the American national anthem was played before games. At the time, he said “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Kaepernick changed his form of protest after meeting with Nate Boyer, a retired player and a former member of the US military special forces. Just as members of the military kneel to show respect for a fallen comrade, Kaepernick now protested racial injustice by kneeling whilst the American national anthem played. In this way, Kaepernick aimed to both show respect for his country and protest racial injustice.

In response, Kaepernick was accused of being anti-American and anti-military in the media. He was subject to threats, abuse and other forms of pressure to try to get him to stop protesting completely. Whilst campaigning for president, Donald Trump said that Kaepernick and other protesting athletes should leave the country. And despite some prominent defenders of his right to protest, Kaepernick was forced to leave his team and couldn’t get hired elsewhere. Indeed, there were suspicions that he had been “blackballed” by NFL teams because less accomplished quarterbacks were being hired over him.

While there may be numerous things wrong with demanding Kaepernick express pride for his country in a particular way, one criticism is that people should be given a certain degree of freedom to determine their own emotional responses to certain events, especially to injustices to which they feel personally connected. To try to force Kaepernick to express pride for the American flag is to violate his right to determine his own emotional responses to racist police brutality. This case then might be thought to highlight the importance of a distinct set of rights concerning feelings and emotions that we call affective rights. The problem here is the coercive way Kaepernick’s critics sought to change his response. An emotional appeal, such as Nate Boyer’s appeal to Kaepernick to modify his protest from sitting to kneeling, can seek to change how one expresses emotions without violating their affective rights.

Kaepernick’s case also seems like a clear example of what we call emotional imperialism (Archer and Matheson Forthcoming). Emotional imperialism is a form of cultural imperialism. According to Iris Marion Young (2009: 58-59): “To experience cultural imperialism means to experience how the dominant meanings of a society render the particular perspective of one’s own group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one’s group and mark it out as the Other”. For example, in a homophobic society, the experience of heterosexuals may be taken to be representative of human experience in general, and the experiences of homosexuals marked out a deviant and inferior. A core part of any culture is a set of understandings, norms, and values that relate to our emotional lives. Emotional imperialism involves a powerful group imposing aspects of its culture’s emotional norms and standards on another less powerful group.

Kaepernick’s case clearly illustrates what we have in mind here. In a country with a long history of racism and white supremacy, a mostly white group of critics, joined together to try and coerce a black man to conform to their preferred emotional reaction to the USA flag and anthem. This group included significant parts of the media, the man who would soon become president and Kaepernick’s employer and potential employers. By pressuring him to stop protesting in the way they did, these groups are attempting to get him to conform to their emotional norms and standards, and identifying Kaepernick as an outsider for failing to do so.

This is just one example of emotional imperialism. There are others. We have previously written about the Irish footballer James McClean’s refusal to wear the poppy to commemorate those who have died fighting for the British Armed Forces. We argued that this also involved emotional imperialism. In both cases, powerful groups try to use their power to pressure someone or some group to change their public emotional reaction to events they are personally connected to.

We think emotional imperialism is not just restricted to these kinds of cases, but will often occur when a group or person tries to pressure or force others to conform to a particular kind of emotional reaction. This frequently happens online: a person reacts to an event in a way that others deem objectionable and then rather than reason with the person and engage in a legitimate emotional appeal, others may try to get a person fired, collectively shame that person, or find other ways to enforce conformity.

While we think it is often better to reason with a person and use a legitimate emotional appeal, there may times in which we should pressure people to conform to particular pattern of emotional responses. Jeffrey Blustein (2014: 207) argues that ritualistic aspects of commemorative practices can involve “disciplined emotionality” to regulate and ensure appropriate emotional reactions to events such as Holocaust. This suggests that enforcement of emotional responses is sometimes permissible, but it seems that it will only be permissible in exceptional cases. We might be tempted to say that it is permissible when we are fighting for the benefit of a less powerful group.

However, this raises many issues. First, it is not always clear when one has become a more powerful group. Second, many opposing groups seem to take themselves to be less powerful, and the belief that one is less powerful might then make one feel justified in engaging in what one might other otherwise believe are impermissible means of changing other people’s minds. Third, such emotional enforcement might become emotional imperialism. Power has to be gained at some point and enforcing emotional responses seems like one way for the less powerful to gain power, which might then lead to the “othering” that marks out emotional imperialism as generally wrong. This leaves open the possibility that emotional imperialism can be permissible. Even if it ever is, we think it will be extremely hard to know when.

Given these problems, a better general approach may be to try to avoid enforcing a set of emotional standards on other people. This can be especially difficult when we see people publicly celebrating people who we think are morally heinous. But perhaps rather than trying to coerce people to accept our emotional standards we can instead attempt to show people a different point of view from which a different set of emotional responses makes sense.



Archer, Alfred & Matheson, Benjamin (forthcoming). Commemoration and Emotional Imperialism. Journal of Applied Philosophy

Blustein, Jeffrey M. (2014). Forgiveness and Remembrance: Remembering Wrongdoing in Personal and Public Life. Oxford University Press: New York.

Young, Iris Marion (1990/ 2009) “Five Faces of Oppression.” in Iris Marion Young Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press).



1 comment
  1. David Robertson

    Men will always try to control other men, it’s in our genes. If we educate our children to our genetic prepositions, we can avoid the illusion of morality,

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