Heads and hearts

One of the recurring themes in the referendum debate has been the notion of head vs. heart. Are you voting with your head, or with your heart? My interpretation of how this idea has generally been used, is that rational, well-informed unionists are regarded as voting with their heads, on the basis of economic good sense and military security. By contrast, pro-independence voters are guided by their hearts, in the form of sentimental images of Braveheart, Culloden, the sound of the bagpipes, and so on.


To me, there is a lot wrong with this line of argument. For a start, there are surely powerful Unionist-oriented heart-dimensions to experiences such as fighting wars together, or having loved family members in other parts of the UK. Conversely, there are powerful and persuasive rational, evidence-based arguments around the economic prosperity and security achieved by other small nations such as Norway and New Zealand. The point here is that there are heart factors and head factors on both sides of the debate.


A further problem with the way that the head-heart distinction has been deployed, is the implication that head arguments are more important than heart arguments. However, this is not how we live our lives. Most of the time, it is a matter of combining the two. How do you decide what career to follow, or who to marry? If head factors were so important, we would all be supporters of the German football team, and the Tartan Army would not exist.


The final problem with the head-heart distinction, I believe, is that it functions as a means of hiding what is really important. My suggestion is: for “heart”, read “emotion” and for “head” read “critical thinking based on evidence”.


In particular, it has been extremely difficult for participants in the independence referendum to express their emotions in a direct way. There are many no voters who come across as angry, enraged, furious. There are yes voters who feel joy and delight. Somewhere in the emotional mix are feelings of loss (of our unity as a nation). Definitely, there is fear on both sides. In descriptions of, for example, Alex Salmond or Ian Duncan Smith, there may be expressions of disgust and contempt. Many of these emotions are strongly held, but can only be expressed through sarcasm and put-downs, or controlled through avoidance. This is why televised events such as debates and Question Time are such tense affairs – these emotions are near the surface, but it is not safe to express them.


I do not believe that these difficulties in expressing emotions are intrinsic to the referendum. We live in an increasingly rational, technological culture, that demands a high level of emotional self-control. But what this means is that it is then hard to know how to respond in situations where emotions are aroused. On the other hand, there are some ways that emotions can be allowed into the conversation. Television and newspapers are low-emotion media. Both movies and radio make it more possible for sincerity and feeling to be expressed. Face-to-face communication, for example public meetings, can be facilitated in ways that allow genuine emotions to be shared. It is perhaps significant that some of the most influential pro-independence items on social media have consisted of videos of people talking at public meetings.


The SNP leadership – Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney – are faced with a difficult balancing act in relation to opening up the emotional dimension of the independence debate. They have laid down the essential groundwork for the possibility of independence, by being calm, rational decision-makers and managers while in government. On the whole, though, their words tend not to ‘move’ people. The speakers and writers who have been able to move audiences and readers, during the referendum period, have been (among others) Philippa Whitford, Robin McAlpine and Paul Kavanagh. But, so far, they have largely operated in the domain of social media, and have not crossed over into the mainstream.




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