Collective Emotions

It is not uncommon for groups of people within a shared community to experience what’s known as “collective emotions.”

Sociologists Christian von Scheve and Sven Ismer define the term as referring to “the synchronous convergence in affective responding across individuals towards a specific event or object.” Communities may celebrate together and they may grieve together. They may feel fear together or may share a collective sense of shame.

Importantly, as philosopher Bryce Huebner argues in detail, such collective emotion is different from simply plural emotion. That is, “there are emotional states that are not merely states of individuals in aggregation.” Collective emotion is something more.

In developing a model for collective emotion, Scheve and Ismer argue that “for collective emotions to emerge, individuals have to appraise an event in similar ways, which in turn requires a minimum of shared appraisal structures or shared concerns.” People must not only respond to an impetus in similar ways, they must be aware of each other’s emotional response.

I find it important to think about this as our nation continues to reel from the tragedy in Orlando and from too many other horrors our world has experienced.

In my own circles, I felt that sense of collective grief, collective anger, collective fear, and collective love.

But I’ve been struck by how many people have told me they didn’t.

They went to work on Monday to small talk about weekend plans and the weather. As if nothing had happened. As if nothing were wrong. When casually asked how they were doing, they found they had little choice but to respond politely:

I am fine.

Events like these, I suppose, expose our cultural fault lines. Many people in America consider the victims of the Orlando shooting to be a part of their communities – a community of humans, Americans, Latinos, or LGBTQ folks – but many others, it seems, do not.

It is not necessarily that they don’t see this horror as tragedy, but rather, that they have some emotional distance from it. It may as well have happened on the moon. It is easy to switch the news off and go about your day.

I’ve heard similar reflections from people of color following the many, many, many, acts of violence and brutality faced by that community. After hearing the news of the death of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, or any of the other 102 unarmed black people killed by police in 2015, they go out into the world saddened and angry, only to find their white peers, blissfully unaffected by the news, smiling and asking amiably, How was your weekend?

Having no doubt done this myself at times, I suppose it’s just a reminder of how important this collective emotion can be. That’s not to say that white people should take over the grief of people of color, or that straight people should make the mass murder of latino LGBTQ folks all about them.

But whether we see ourselves in the faces of the victims or whether we see the loving faces of our human brothers and sisters, we can, and should, all grieve together, all mourn together, and, above all, all work together to prevent such atrocities from happening again and again and again.

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