Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
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Hassner and Hoffman See Politics of Passion

April 25, 2010

Passion, not rationality, drives contemporary world politics, agreed Pierre Hassner and Stanley Hoffman at a recent talk at the Institute. As part of the Innovating Global Security lecture series, the two scholars – the former of Sciences Po Paris and the latter of Harvard University – challenged the notion of “rational choice” and explored how much of today’s violence and conflict can be traced to a less savory aspect of human psychology: fear.

Hassner offered a sweeping overview of theoretical discourse on fear and passion to suggest that the “illusion of a dispassionate world,” however popular, is still an illusion.

Tracing points of consensus and disagreement among theorists as diverse as Hegel, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, Hassner suggested that discourse on passion has undergone several reversals.

The recent global economic crisis provides the perfect testing ground for the theories of passions, suggested Hassner. Greed and hubris drove economic actors to forego delayed reward for immediate satisfaction, he said. Popular reactions to this greed were no less passionate, and ripples of anger can still be felt today.

Both Hassner and Hoffman viewed globalization as a turning point in the relationship between passion and politics. Discussing Rousseau’s ideas on the divisive nature of passions, Hassner said that globalization has brought diverse peoples together, and in doing so, heightened tensions between and among them. According to Hoffman, globalization has changed the object of fear itself. With the rise in power of non-state actors, states’ fears are no longer confined simply to other states, he said, citing the growing fear that nuclear power will fall into private hands.

Well versed in literature as well as foreign policy, Hoffman’s perspective on passionate politics combined history with psychology. In the early 20th century, fear of other political actors was reserved for elites. “War was unexpected for the average person,” he said, citing the large number of films made during World War I that did not refer to the war.

According to Hoffman, this distance or apathy was short lived. "People have moved in very little time from complacency to hysteria,” he said. Today, people of diverse political and economic positions are afraid.

What are the consequences of this growing fear? Hoffman asked. Today, growth in passion exists alongside a persistent unwillingness to recognize passion. This led to the “incompetence and arrogance” of the Iraq war, a misguided attempt to eradicate fear, Hoffman said.

The US attempt to get beyond fear in the Israel-Palestine conflict has also proven unsuccessful. “We have acted not as fire extinguishers but as incendiaries,” he said.

Some kinds of fears – like the fear for one’s security and survival – should be eradicated, Hoffman said. Nevertheless, Hassner and Hoffman agreed that a dispassionate world is not necessarily desirable. Though many voters, politicians, and media voices would like to trump passion with reason, “passions are what produce history and culture and can be a preface for morality,” Hassner said.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend ‘11