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Updated: October 28, 2013 15:47 IST

Emotions and journalism

A. S. Panneerselvan
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A. S. Panneerselvan
The Hindu
A. S. Panneerselvan

My earlier columns — “A framework for accountability” (October 7, 2013), “The bandwagon effect” (September 16, 2013) and “Unbranding ourselves” (October 1, 2012) looked at how the idea of justice constitutes the bedrock of good journalism. I drew from the philosophical explorations of Amartya Sen and John Rawls. Elsewhere, I looked at the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s idea of Public Sphere and argued that in the Indian case, with its plurality and diversity, there cannot be a single public sphere but multiple public spheres that often coexist, sometimes complementing and other times challenging one another.

Martha C. Nussbaum, one of the finest theorists on law and ethics, has expanded these ideas further. In her latest book, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013), she makes a case for love. The book’s jacket succinctly captures her quest for social justice while exploring the nature of human emotions: “Amid fears, resentments, and competitive concerns that are endemic even to good societies, public emotions rooted in love — in intense attachment to things outside our control — can foster commitment to shared goals and keep at bay the forces of disgust and envy.”

Nussbaum is a familiar name to the readers of this newspaper and is one of the advisers of The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. There are many elements in her book that can help journalists tackle competitive chauvinism and jingoism in this election year. Her journey is a tour de force that travels through Greek and Indian epics, the music of Mozart in ‘The marriage of Figaro’, the poems of Rabindranath Tagore and Walt Whitman, the rhetorical speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the writings of John Stuart Mill, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, B.R. Ambedkar, Auguste Comte and John Rawls to make a case for establishing just societies by foregrounding emotions that can be developed through critical reasoning.

Her postulates for mature citizens are primary lessons for being a good reporter as well. She wants citizens to learn to be both tragic and comic spectators of varied predicaments of life. Her argument: “the tragic perspective gives insight into shared vulnerabilities; the comic perspective (or a comic perspective of a particular sort) embraces the unevenness of human existence with flexibility and mercy, rather than hatred.” Then she, with incisive brilliance, investigates three emotions that pose special problems for compassionate citizenship: fear, envy and shame and also explain that some societies instead of combating them make the situation worse.

Ideal and real

One of the boldest departures in the book is her attempt to pre-empt the cynical view by exploring the relationship between the ideal and the real. She argues that this dichotomy between ideal and real is over simple and misleading because ideals are real. “Constitutions are ideal documents in the sense that they are not always perfectly implemented all the time, and also in the sense that they typically embody a nation’s deepest aspirations. But they are also real, supplying the basis for legal action when the rights they guarantee are not delivered to a particular individual or group.”

She rightly points out that the “freedom of speech,” the “free exercise of religion,” and the “equal protection of the laws” are all lofty ideals, yet they provide the basis for action and adjudication in the real world, for the education of real people, and for progress towards the amelioration of vexing social questions. My empathy — as a journalist and as an ombudsman for a newspaper — with Martha Nussbaum comes from her belief that the demand for love for people and their democratic aspirations are neither a tall order nor unrealistic. It is nearly impossible to reject her readings when she poses the following questions: “the objector presumably thinks that nations need technical calculation: economic thought, military thought, good use of computer science and technology. So, nations need those things, but they do not need the heart? They need expertise, but do not need the sort of daily emotion, the sympathy, tears, and laughter, that we require of ourselves as parents, lovers, and friends, or the wonder with which we contemplate beauty? If that’s what nations are like, one might well want to live elsewhere.”

To me, good journalism is a judicious mix of the ideal and real; head and heart; empathy and empowerment. Apart from the geniuses Nussbaum had meticulously studied in her magnum opus, I can see the same spirit getting displayed in everyday journalism. The desire to point out economic and social injustice and, the unrelenting desire to hold various institutions accountable to their own charters, to recognise kindred spirits, to aspire for just societies and to provide vital information tools to realise the inalienable rights of every man, woman and child are the mandate of good journalism.

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