Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Complexity of Emotion in Authoritarian States

Seeing the videos of crying North Koreans after the death of Kim Jong-il, many people gravitate to the question of whether the emotion on display there is “genuine.” As I’ve written before, I think this question misses the point: to the extent that cults of personality matter politically (that is, secure ongoing commitments to a regime and its institutions), the genuineness of emotion hardly matters (though it doesn’t hurt). Cults of personality work precisely by making it very hard for people not to provide credible signals of commitment to a political leader (including, if necessary, proper public mourning when they die, complete with sufficient displays of crying and rending of garments). And North Korea is not a place where people who do not feel the requisite emotions can safely stay home, much less display unapproved emotions in unapproved ways. If nothing else, the inminban (neighborhood committee: like your nosy neighbors, only superempowered to snoop on you) will note your uncooperative and recalcitrant disposition, and then you may be passed over for job opportunities or promotions (especially important in relatively prosperous Pyongyang, where most of the videos are coming from); your family may encounter difficulties in securing educational opportunities and various material goods (the state, after all, controls most of these opportunities); and of course you (and your family) may be punished in a variety of ways, depending on how severe your “lack of respect” for the late and dear leader is judged to be. [Update 15 January 2012: via Doug Mataconis, I learn that people are in fact being punished for insufficient mourning, as expected].

Under the circumstances, a bout of competitive crying (helpfully encouraged here and there by zealous supporters or genuinely distressed people) is a relatively low price to pay to be left alone; and there is some evidence that at least some people engaged in this sort of strategic mourning the last time North Korea had a leadership transition, when Kim Il-Sung died (as I discussed at the end of this post, on the basis of some anecdotes presented in Barbara Demick’s fantastic Nothing to Envy). But of course by participating in the official ritual of mourning regardless of your “sincere” feelings you confuse everyone around you, including, it must be noted, supposedly “well-informed” North Korea watchers. How could you possibly tell who might not feel genuinely sad (outside a very small circle of close family members, perhaps), when everyone around you seems to be crying so hard about the death of the leader, and the state broadcasts carefully chosen images that suggest that the entire nation is in shock and mourning? (Note how few images from cities like Chongjin have been shown, where people are far less privileged than the residents of Pyongyang, have more access to news and information coming across the border from China, and where anti-Kim feeling is not entirely unknown). Natural cognitive biases (the “availability heuristic,” for example) and social cues all conspire to tell the disaffected that they are alone in their indifference or hatred for the recently departed; in fact, they tell them that their very feelings must be mistaken, and that they better get the right kind of feelings, pronto. Could you, dear reader, remain sulkily at home in these circumstances, with no certainty of receiving any support from anybody should you get in trouble with the authorities, just to make a statement? If so, you are probably made of sterner stuff than most.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that crying convincingly is not that hard to do, especially in groups, though it seems as if only genuinely distressed people could manage it. Like yawning or laughing, crying is often contagious, and just as groups of people often laugh hard and genuinely at unfunny jokes, groups of people can cry hard and genuinely for reasons that have little to do with “real” grief. Funeral practices in many nations often include or have included groups of mourners who are expected, sometimes even paid, to engage in ostentatious displays of grief that may be far out of proportion to the sentiments of those present, and that at any rate amplify whatever actual feelings of grief others may be experiencing. As some have noted, funeral attendance (accompanied by appropriate displays of emotion) is an important part of Korean cultural norms, indicating respect for the dead; flattery inflation can take care of the rest. And even if you are not directly ordered to cry, “spontaneous” sorrow is a useful signal to express in these circumstances, and the appropriate language for expressing such sorrow is known to all in North Korea, and helpfully reinforced by state propaganda. (This includes the knowledge of where to congregate, what to bring, what to wear, etc.)

Nevertheless, the question of whether the people being shown in those videos are actually feeling distress and sadness is understandable. In many social situations, the genuineness of emotion really matters to us, and the possibility that North Koreans genuinely cared for Kim Jong-il makes us uneasy. It suggests that people can be easily “brainwashed,” in this case to care for a man who, by almost any objective measure, made their lives much worse than otherwise, in fact actively harmed them by his rule. 

North Koreans are certainly exposed to much propaganda claiming that their leader has godlike powers, and have often great difficulty in accessing alternative sources of information. (It is not, however, impossible for them to access such information, especially since the 90s, and many people, especially in places close to the Chinese border, appear to have done so). The North Korean propaganda agencies have long experience in creating narratives of national resentment that deflect responsibility for outcomes from leaders onto outsiders, and these narratives appear to resonate at some level with many people in the DPRK. Indeed, sometimes their claims are even minimally plausible: the US and other powers do bear some responsibility for North Korea’s current state, and the atrocities of the Korean War were not all (or even mostly) committed by communist forces. It is but a short step from here to the thought that in this sort of information environment most people are likely to believe special claims about the Kim family, and hence are likely to have felt genuine grief at Kim Jong-il’s passing. Our folk-psychological ideas postulate a simple connection between information, belief and emotion, and hence suggest a quick “fix” for this situation: change the information environment and you change the emotion; change the emotion and you change the regime (eventually). Yet I think emotion in highly authoritarian contexts is a much more complex matter. It is not even clear what “genuine” emotion could possibly mean here.

Consider, to fix ideas, a context where belief, emotion, and action are all aligned. Here, reports of belief (saying “I love so and so” if asked whether you love so and so), displays and signs of emotion (including the appropriate physiological reactions at the mention of so and so’s name), and actions (voting for so and so, giving them gifts, etc.) are all consistent with one another: we do not observe discrepancies between what people say (even to themselves) and what they feel or do. We might say that people in such contexts exhibit pragmatic consistency.

Pragmatic consistency is not always achievable even in settings where the costs of exit are low. We are not necessarily consistent in everything we say, feel, and do, for reasons having to do with everything from fears of social exclusion to an inability to figure out which actions are actually consistent with our beliefs (consider the epistemic difficulties involved in identifying what counts as the “environmentally friendly” thing to do in particular circumstances), or which of our beliefs are actually consistent (if nothing else, computational complexity considerations prevent us from always identifying such inconsistencies). We sometimes even speak of “integrity” when we sense that the achievement of pragmatic consistency is uncommon in some context: the person of integrity is the person who can achieve consistence in belief, emotion, and action, even when such achievement is difficult. Yet the ideal of pragmatic consistency makes it possible to speak meaningfully of “genuine” emotion – emotion that aligns with our beliefs and actions. (By contrast, we tend to understand signs of emotion that do not align sufficiently with beliefs and actions as indicating ersatz emotion).

We constantly strive for pragmatic consistency, sometimes by dubious means: we manage cognitive dissonance by discarding inconvenient beliefs, avoid information that might threaten cherished values or that increases our anxiety, rationalize our choices in various ways, regret actions that are too obviously inconsistent with what we tell ourselves or our loved ones, etc. This is complicated by the fact that we appear to have deeply rooted biases towards interpreting the status quo as just, and that these “system justification” motivations may conflict with “ego justification” (self-image) and “group justification” (group identity) motivations. In any case, the greater the dissonances to be managed, and the greater the costs of exiting a context, the harder the achievement of pragmatic consistency, and the less meaningful talk of genuine emotion becomes.

States like North Korea induce enormous cognitive and emotional dissonances, despite their large degree of control over the information environment: they claim that there is “nothing to envy” and that the nation is “most prosperous” while offering hunger and decaying infrastructure; they claim that the leader loves you while threatening the most horrendous punishment if you fail to obey the slightest arbitrary rule; they tell you to be proud of the nation while constantly discouraging all real comparisons; they blame all bad outcomes on outsiders, and all good outcomes on insiders; they proclaim freedom while restricting it in myriad ways, and so on. (In fairness, such claims are not only made in authoritarian states; but the dissonances are more obvious there). Achieving pragmatic consistency under circumstances that involve high exit costs and credible threats of punishment for failing to say, feel, or do particular things is very hard; it is hardly surprising that those who merely say what they think in such contexts often appear as heroes of integrity – the Havels and Solzhenitsyns of Soviet times, for example.

Managing these cognitive and emotional dissonances sometimes requires ignoring or reinterpreting inconvenient information (e.g., most people in the GDR were able to watch West German TV, but did not necessarily change their behavior in response to it); blaming the Tsar's ministers rather than the Tsar for bad outcomes; rationalizing the status quo in various ways; and so on. But just as cognitive dissonance can induce belief adjustment in either direction (and hence "providing"  North Koreans with more information will not necessarily imply that they will revolt), emotional dissonance can induce emotional adjustment in either direction: one can learn to feel the required emotions in order to avoid the anxiety of not feeling the right emotions. (One should not underestimate the human capacity for self-deception). Imagine what not feeling the approved emotions might entail in the North Korean case: negatively evaluating one's own country; feeling ashamed of it; feeling duped; feeling betrayed; feeling despair at the magnitude of the errors committed in the past; feeling unable to have pride in the achievements of one's community. Some people are capable of living with such feelings without falling into deep depression; most people, I suspect, compensate by aggressively chauvinistic nationalism and other strategies. (“Sour grapes,” for example).

But, precisely because such emotions are formed under a distinct kind of pressure, they cannot be easily interpreted as a guide to what might happen when conditions change – when exit costs are lowered, or collective action suddenly becomes possible, and so on. Those who cried the loudest and most “genuinely” at the death of the leader are not necessarily those who are most likely to defend the regime if conditions were to change; there is in fact surprisingly little evidence that the people who are most “emotionally invested” are always the most likely to defend a regime in times of crisis. (Defenders are typically found among those who have obvious material stakes in the regime, or who clearly stand to lose status). In other words, the crying of thousands is not a meaningful guide to what the people of North Korea would say, feel, or do under conditions more conducive to pragmatic consistency. 

(Happy new year everyone!)

[Update 2 January 2012: added "in times of crisis" to the last paragraph, the bit about the good Tsar to the next to last paragraph, and fixed some grammatical problems]


  1. glad we are beginning to look at collective consciousness (to me, the underlying theme of your post) , it has far more impact on us than we think ... it is the soup we swim in.

  2. I keep referring people to your cults of personality posts: thank you for providing them.

  3. Thanks Lorenzo! Glad they seem to be helpful.

    gregory: what do you mean by collective consciousness?

  4. The year is still young, but this is the most interesting thing I've read in 2012 so far.

    Very tiny quibble with "and the atrocities of the Korean War were not all (or even mostly) committed by communist forces". There were plenty of SK and some US atrocities, but nowhere near NK's level in number or severity.

  5. Thanks |3run0 - glad you found it interesting.