A December 2020 critique of President-Elect Joe Biden’s writing style prompted this blog. The pundit said President-Elect Biden was erudite but lacked an “emotional component.” It got me thinking about how the rest of us write. Do we write with an emotional component? If so, what are the ethics of writing emotion?
Madame Wiki defines emotions in biological terms: “Emotions are biological states associated with the nervous system brought on by neurophysiological changes variously associated with thoughts, feelings, behavioral responses, and a degree of pleasure or displeasure … Emotions are often intertwined with mood, temperament, personality, disposition, creativity, and motivation.”
Writers are taught when they are just little tots that emotion is the name of the game. The story is not nearly enough, we’re told. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s is good, but not nearly good enough. Diction is an affliction, and profluence a much-needed nuance. But none of that works if your protagonist irks.
Good writing teachers tell us plot points appeal to the reader’s intellect but are far from the essence of storytelling. To move readers, voters, or political constituents, we have to write emotionally. We have to stir the coals of feeling, need, devotion, and fellowship. To make our writing consequential and sell books, we have to connect by making a call to action, one that appeals to the heart and soul, not just the frontal lobe.
Scriptwriters know there are three feelings when a script comes to life on a screen: boredom, interest, and wow! The “wow factor” is what lawyers, politicians, preachers, and presidents need. They know you lose audience without emotion. You supplement with information. Ethical compliance is good, but not vital.
What ethical components are mandatory in presidential writing? Must they be truthful, well intended, moral, non-violent, not racist, and nondiscriminatory? Those ethical norms apply to policy statements, governmental standards, healthcare, and tax relief. But how can a politician, on the stump or on camera, reach readers emotionally and ethically?
In 1933, when addressing the nation as the Great Depression raged, FDR said, “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In 1962, JFK said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard …Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the Industrial Revolution, the first waves of modern invention and the first wave of nuclear power. And this generation does not intend to flounder in the backwash of the coming age of space, we mean to be a part of it, we mean to lead it.”
In 2008, Obama said, “I have never been so naïve to think as to believe we can get beyond our racial divisions on a single election cycle or with a single candidate, particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own. But I have asserted a firm conviction, a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people, that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact, we have no choice. We have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union … What we know, what we have seen, is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope, the audacity to hope, for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”
In 2020, on election night, President Trump said after most states had been called in Biden’s favor, “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.”
Two weeks later, President-Elect Biden responded, “Respecting the will of the people is the heart of our democracy. Even when we find those results hard to accept … [President Trump’s] position is so extreme, we’ve never seen it before, a position that refused to respect the will of people, refused to respect the rule of law, and refused to honor our Constitution. Thankfully, a unanimous Supreme Court immediately and completely rejected this effort … The court sent a clear signal to President Trump that they would be no part of an unprecedented assault on our democracy.”
In all four cases, the call was to emotion, not just information. It was a call to action, not just planning. Three of the four were clear examples of ethical writing—truth, hope, a shared notion of good faith, and common ground. The ethical exception was Trump because his claims lacked any semblance of good faith, good will, or good intentions. The other three presidents were beacons of honesty and heartfelt patriotism.
Moral emotions are feelings that play a major role in ethical decision-making and action. All writers, but especially elected officials, should write in ways that highlight ethics, social responsibility, self-critical reflection, and personal accountability. Tragically, too many readers succumb to an older form of patriotism—if the President says it, it must be true. It was true of Honest Abe, FDR, and Barack. It is lacking in Trump.
Behavioral Ethics is a relatively new concept. Looking at political writing through the lens of behavioral ethics calls for ethical messaging at three levels.
- Recognizing that citizens will react to leaders’ words, especially when they are ethically tinged, instinctively rather than rationally.
- Knowing that people believe that they are leading ethical lives while simultaneously doing things ethical people should not do.
- Understanding cognitive limitations, social and organizational pressures, and situational factors that make it hard for even the most well-intentioned citizens to act as ethically as they should.
Sadly, ethics and politics are domains with inconsistent goals and consistently projected in negative ways. Politics is fueled by a single purpose: constructing and keeping control over the executive and legislative branches of state and national government. In widely recognized cases, ethics are strangled by the politics of power. One way to minimize those effects is to test political writing by looking at its ethical content. Another way is to examine political outreach and donation requests for the “emotional component.”
However, if you conflate ethics with emotion, you get political mush. “Moral emotions such as guilt, shame, and pride play a central role in motivating and regulating … people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When moral emotions are experienced on behalf of one’s group, they can have a deep impact … These emotional responses can potentially motivate society members to enact a range of political response tendencies, varying from pure defensiveness, resulting in opposition to any relevant compromise, to sincere willingness to offer an apology or to compensate the outgroup.”
There you have it—an ethical dilemma made of guilt, shame, and pride.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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