The politics of tears

by | 1 Feb 2024

It used to be rare to see a politician cry - and now it isn't. Why is that happening and is it really all just fake?

I grew up under the strong impression that you shouldn’t cry in daylight, except at funerals. That’s partly the brutal culture of West of Scotland men, but I have been given that advice by all kinds of people in relation to work. Crying in the office is unprofessional is what I was taught. It just looks weak and decreases confidence in you I was told. And I really haven’t seen much that has changed my mind on that.

This doesn’t mean I never cry. From seeing and hearing Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square to a panel debate I did when someone shared a tale from a food bank that broke my heart, I am capable of tears.

Many years ago at a time in my life when a lot was going on I watched one of my now favourite films for the first time – Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. I had to pause it after the introduction sequence because I was in utterly floods of tears (only tangentially related to the film). It was one of the most cathartic moments in my life. Crying can be great – and then there are politicians…

At work, politicians aren’t like the rest of us. We generally don’t strategise what words we’re going to say or what demeanour we’ll put on in a given circumstance. Politicians do. This means that, when a politician cries, one of three things are happening.

The first of those is the real, genuine, caught-unawares pain of something genuinely upsetting you. Among senior politicians, those are rare. Trying to think of recent examples I can really only come up with Alok Sharma at COP26, who’s tears did not feel the slightest staged, not least because they weren’t strategically useful or dignified. The ‘mess of his makeup’ is what made it feel real.

The second is much, much more common. Those are the strategic tears, and they have two purposes. In the olden days (like, ten years ago say), if a politicians let out a strategic tear it was because they wanted you to think they cared. It was about showing empathy with the public.

In more recent times strategic tears are more often used to deflect when people are under pressure. The calculation is that someone crying must feel really bad about whatever the thing is and so the media will have to take it at face value. Alternatively, if you’ve been caught out, cry and make it about the other thing, the thing you’re saying made you cry.

So does that mean the politicians is being utterly insincere and has deep talents for character performance and an uncanny control over their tear ducts? Not necessarily

Examples of that are proliferating – Sturgeon used it a number of times (mostly those times coincide with how close or otherwise someone is getting to asking probing questions about care home discharges during the pandemic). More recently Michael Matheson did the same when the scandal over his iPad bill was at the make-or-break stage.

And yes, in all those occasions it worked. The politician got the headlines they wanted about ‘an emotional X broke down when explaining the toll that it was taking on them’. It doesn’t tend to last though, because people are catching on to the proliferation of examples of it. If nothing else, celebrity reputation management is devaluing the emotionally-charged apology (see Drew Barrymore…).

So does that mean the politicians is being utterly insincere and has deep talents for character performance and an uncanny control over their tear ducts? Not necessarily – which takes us onto the third kind of political tears. These are the old-school tears and they only occur in a very specific circumstance, which is a moment when a politician is feeling particularly sorry for themselves.

Both Thatcher and May only cried once; on the day they lost their jobs. David Cameron was the same but didn’t shed tears, and Tony Blair is a sociopath who can control emotions so avoided the risk. Politicians can oversee acts of gross inhumanity (austerity, most of the UK’s foreign policy) or witness evidence of terrible things (Post Office Horizon scandal or the horror of the Grenfell fire) with no obvious emotional reaction.

But if they feel sorry for themselves? Tears can flood. From a genuine belief that you don’t deserve what is happening to you and it’s all sooooo unfair, to realising your career is over, what you can’t deny is that these tears are sincere.

However, does this mean politicians are all unfeeling nutters who only have empathy for themselves? No, not at all. Senior politics is a tough game, you’re getting attacked all the time and you have to make decisions you don’t like. If you can’t manage a fairly heavy dose of detachment and distancing from the impacts of your job day to day, you’ll struggle.

David Cameron doesn’t strike me as an inherently bad man (so much as a self-entitled nitwit) and I don’t believe he would take any pleasure whatsoever in seeing the impacts of a arial bombing campaign he authorised. A politician may believe a given course of action is the right thing, but if they can’t then compartmentalise what they feel about the outcomes they’d never make a deicion.

But we simply can’t compartmentalise our own feelings about our own life in the same way, because you can not look at a photo of a dead baby but you can’t not feel what you feel about yourself. Yes, it is solipsistic and self-indulgent, but it is not a sign of a bad person necessarily. We all feel self pity.

I also have sympathy for both genuine and self indulgent tears, the former because they are honest, the latter because they are the definition of human

So what is the crossover between strategic tears and tears of self pity? Well, strategic tears work best if you can hint at a sincere feeling behind them and often the best way to do that is to make sure your strategic tears are about yourself.

There are two reasons for this. First, it is a go-to of psychopaths for a reason. When he wrote a book on how to spot a psychopath, the FBI interrogated who has probably questioned more serial killers than anyone alive homed in on one key factor; when a psychopath is under direct pressure and is being caught out in a lie, he or she will do everything they can to turn this around and elicit empathy for themselves.

“But where exactly were you between nine and ten that night?” “Look, do you know how hard this time has been for me? I was devastated, I was hurting, [lots more spurious detail about how bad things were for them], so if I can’t quite remember where I was exactly, surely you can understand?”

Why do psychopaths do this? Because it works. We are generally incapable of not feeling human empathy. For all of us who are not sociopaths or pretty far up the autism spectrum, recognising emotion in others is hard wired. Even if we don’t want to, we will feel instinctive empathy for someone who convinces us they are really sad or upset.

But there is another reason strategic political tears and self-indulgent ones merge; because it is a great way to make strategic tears look real. Just as an actor may try and think of a moment of real, deep sadness and pain in their own life if they want to elicit a tear on screen, a politician will find it easier to fake that if they dwell on something about which they are genuinely feeing the well-up.

Which, as I’ve pointed out, is most likely themselves. I don’t doubt for a second that Michael Matheson really was upset about his predicament as he presented in his Parliament show-down, but that doesn’t make them any less strategic.

I really do have a lot of sympathy for politicians – it’s a shit job, one where you’re publicly attacked on a daily basis. Thick skins become inevitable. I also have sympathy for both genuine and self indulgent tears, the former because they are honest, the latter because they are the definition of human.

But I despise strategic tears which are the lowest of the low. So, to cut a long question right down, did Sturgeon feel genuinely upset during her evidence session? Yes, her reputation was being shredded. It wasn’t fake. So were they shitty, cheap, fucking cynical strategic tears too, all designed to save her skin?

Yes, with a cherry on top and all the sprinkles.

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