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Tears in her eyes

Updated Wednesday, 9th January 2008

There she was. The democratic candidate Hillary Clinton with tears in her eyes speaking about her ‘frustrations’ about how she keeps it all together. It was prompted by a question during an event and was featured and commented upon widely in all media.

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It is difficult to know whether she became 'emotional' because she was now trailing Obama or the campaign pressure caught up with her. Either way, barely 24 hours after this display of emotion, against predictions, she emerged as the unlikely victor in New Hampshire. It is impossible to know the effect of the tears in her eyes on this outcome. But I wouldn't underestimate it.

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Are we witnessing a moment in history when the place of emotion in politics (and public life) is taking the centre stage? More broadly, are we witnessing the emergence of a new image of 'being political' (used to be called ‘man’) who is not only 'rational' but also 'emotional'? The signs of these shifts are everywhere. It is almost as if we are back in the seventeenth century and the battle between what was then called 'reason' versus 'passion' is being waged again though the outcome is by no means certain. Throughout that century a new image of being political emerged where 'his' reasons triumphed over 'his' passions. This image dominated public life since then and what it means to appear in public always carried with it a strong element of being reasonable (as opposed to passionate) and rational (as opposed to emotional). In fact, this was one of the main arguments against including women in politics until the twentieth century: women ostensibly represented the irrational and passionate aspects of being human and such qualities did not belong in public space. Reading arguments by mostly male thinkers against the suffragette movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I am struck by how much emphasis was placed on women as e‘motional beings and how they were incapable of sound judgement in political affairs.

TImes have changed. First, of course, as the suffragettes had claimed, women proved themselves perfectly capable of sound judgement in political affairs, if not, in fact, more so than men. Throughout the twentieth century women have occupied significant political and public positions. As studies repeatedly show, the male world still dominates but it is no longer the same. Yet, it can be, and as many have said, women have occupied these positions by mostly acting in the image of man: rational, reasonable, calculative and instrumental. It was a survival strategy in a man'’s world. ’ Then, in the second part of the twentieth century, women began conducting themselves in public as ‘women’. (In the social sciences this was interpreted as a change from a politics of identity to a politics of difference.) With this interpretation, however, we risk fixing definitions of ‘'man' and 'w‘oman' and associating them with specific qualities: men with rationality and women with emotion. That’ is precisely why in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries many have approached such identities with flexible and fluid meaning rather than thinking that masculinity was lodged in the male body and femininity was lodged in the female body. (In the social sciences this was seen as the birth of cultural politics as opposed to politics of identity or of difference.)

The tears in Hillary Clinton’ eyes may well be one of those moments where such changes are crystallized. I have not encountered a comment by Obama on her tears but John Edwards, the third running candidate, did imply that it showed she is not capable of leadership: "I think what we need in a commander-in-chief is strength and resolve, and presidential campaigns are tough business, but being president of the United States is also tough business." I guess that's why Edwards is not in serious contention since he is clearly not reading the politics of affect that surrounds him. The remarkable aspect of the success of Clinton against Obama in New Hampshire is that that rare display of emotion may well have finally countered what many are attracted to Obama for: passion and emotion. I suggest that only when Hillary Clinton departed from the script that often constituted her as the reasonable and experienced leader and displayed that she was involved in politics emotionally that she was able to mount a challenge to Obama's passionate politics. Now was this strategic? If one means by strategy intentional action, I would wager that it certainly was not strategic. But if one means by strategy an intuitive orientation toward that which works, I would think that Hillary's tears in her eyes were strategic.  

I don't mean to suggest that emotion has now become legitimate strategy (in both senses) in politics under all circumstances or that women's’ entry into politics has brought about this change. There are many signs that indicate the image of being political now includes being emotional and many signs that men as well as women are caught in the production of this image. How this image affects the politics of our times is a broad issue that requires investigation.

 

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