Emotion in War and Peace


Roy Coleman and Madeleine Rungius

What is the role of emotion in war and peace? Many scholars on the topic focus on the rational causes of war and the role of rationality in moving towards peace. Thomas Scheff may be an exception to this when he argues that emotions such as shame can be implicated in causing war. Shame, can in certain circumstances, stimulate violence on the part of the shamed. Conversely, he argues that ‘respect’ between adversaries provide a pathway to peace (partly through uncoupling feelings of shame from violent urges). In particular, “exaggerated respect” can be deployed in moves to peace along with a negotiating process that should be led only by women. The associations Scheff makes – women, peace emotions on one side and men, war and reason on the other – are problematic and dangerous. Part of this binary has been to place women as the ‘over-emotional’ (meaning ‘too soft’, loving, empathetic) and men as ‘the rational’. This stance reflects a dualism in Western masculinist thinking in which emotions are pathologized and cognition is promoted. Despite 50 years of feminist scholarship on the fallacies and power-maintaining consequences of such a dualism remains intact.  Contributions like Scheff’s do not only enforce white Western masculinist thinking they also overshadow the experiences and knowledge of those outside of the hegemonic power structures. This forecloses a discussion around emotion as being implicated not only in the cause but are also part of the solution to war. We need to stop seeing emotion in the negative or in assigning its ‘positive’ attributes to one gender.

The rationalization of states, for example, has effectively hidden emotional underpinnings of state practice. Scholars, too, are often careful not to emphasize the cultural and emotional basis of their work. Modernist sociology mirrors the state to the extent that it is stuck with the idea that rational decision making is the (real) glue of social order. This idea is continuously reproduced and upheld in ‘real’ and ‘valuable’ research. Some research continues to challenge this and rightly so. We need to be critical of views that downgrade emotion or misrecognize its role and portray it as the villain for our social ills. Scheff has started to do this. However, despite his efforts to incorporate emotions related to warfare, he eventually reproduces the dualisms around knowledge production and gender that need to be overcome.

Scheff’s master concept ‘shame’ plays a central role in that aversion to shame is fundamental in modern societies: it is the threat of humiliation, the denting of pride that fuels vengeance and eventually war. It is “exaggerated respect” that Sheff highlights to achieve peace. Such ‘respect’ displayed by potential combatants should figure in peace talks no matter how unfelt”. This neatly captures a problem in that it is assumed that respect is not necessarily felt. It is, instead, a tactic for peace and, as such, firmly in the realms of diplomatic bluff and smoke.

‘Respect’ has all the hallmarks of state diplomacy and all the duplicity and feigned emotional niceties that go with it.

For us, ‘respect’ is not based on the emotional (which it either denies or hides) but is instead tied to interests, masculine posturing and rational thinking. If deployed tactically it will maintain the game of interests, hierarchies and the narcissism these promote. Thus, ‘respect’ bolsters the defence and recognition of power interests: it does not lead us to understand and feel someone else’s emotional lifeworld and/or suffering.

Furthermore, respect carries a temporality and rationalization of emotions that hides the actual emotions in play. This is potentially harmful when we think that respect is often discussed as something based on ‘respect of interests’. This falls squarely into the modernist dualism mentioned earlier and expresses the supposed superiority of cognition and rational decision making. ‘Respect’ has all the hallmarks of state diplomacy and all the duplicity and feigned emotional niceties that go with it. The emotional and sensual dynamics of state power – the narcissism that can reflect and reinforce national interests, for example, is not problematised in this posturing. It fails also to ask: What is being respected in such diplomatic game-plays? Which interests are worthy of respect? Trump respects Putin. Putin respects Trump. And, all at the same time, both these figureheads promote interests, tough national sensibilities and value systems that incite violence against non-heterosexual bodies, non-nationals and genders that don’t fit the binary.

We would claim a different approach that suggests that emotions are not only the cause of war but are also necessary in moving towards peaceful cooperation. Respect of interests needs to be put aside to really understand and identify with others and to be able to understand peace as a meaningful category and not something equated with stalemate. Interests and their domination in world politics has only led to fallacious rationalizations for intervention and non-intervention in wars, conflicts and disputes.



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Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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