The science behind the comic
Chapter 2 ▾
As our project studies how citizens move away from "merely" resenting their political elites to also blaming each other for electoral preferences that they resent, we look in detail at how hostility develops. Maybe there are differences that you can accept in others' political views but others which you feel are simply non-negotiable. Perhaps you are ok disagreeing once or twice but when it's "all the time" you don't want to bother with the person any more. In our model, we consider that hostility is, in fact, a sliding scale of increasingly negative psychological reactions to those we see as opposite voters. First there is misunderstanding and the sense that we don't get how on earth they cannot see something we believe to be obvious. Then this may morph into distrust, and also into frustration. Then comes anger as negative emotions become "mobilising" for the first time. Then as we withdraw from any effort to build bridges any more, things change into contempt or even disgust. And finally, the ultimate stage of hostility is enmity, just as those birds who will reach the progressive conclusion that they don't really belong together. Those feelings escalate and we try to understand why, what prompts them, what conditions may make them more or less likely to occur, and how it can be expressed from people unfriending political nemeses on social media to those family dinners everyone has come to fear. Importantly, however, we also try and work out what can stop the seemingly ominous process of enmity building when there is still time and see what can make birds disagree without hating each other.
Chapter 1 ▾
The Age of Hostility is a project financed by the European Research Council and in which my colleague Sarah Harrison, myself, and the Electoral Psychology Observatory which I have created as part of the project analyse how citizens increasingly tend to develop negative feelings towards one another because of the way they vote.
The phenomenon is noteworthy because for a long time, citizens have started to develop negative feelings towards their politicians and elites, but the extent to which they turn on each other – as well as the violence that this involves – are new and scary. Our project uses very novel methods including visual and physiological experiments, election diaries, and long term panel study surveys to understand what can cause, worsen, or resolve this phenomenon of electoral hostility, who tends to be affected by it, and what are its “stages” from the inability to understand each other to frustration, anger, and ultimately contempt, disgust, and seeing the other as the absolute enemy.
Together with ERC Comics and Tuono Pettinato, we chose to illustrate the phenomenon of electoral hostility using birds. The project has been very exciting and collaborative. Andrea (Tuono) had the great idea of using anthropomorphic animals and originally proposed to explore electoral hostility amongst cats, but cats are the one animal I actually really dislike so we agreed on using birds instead which can be so diverse and convey such an array of complex and often contradictory emotions, just like humans.
One of the key concept that Sarah and I study as part of the project is that of “electoral atmosphere” which we try to define and capture rigorously, and again, birds – which you can almost “hear” when you look at Andrea’s drawings also convey this sense of an atmosphere slowly building up throughout the electoral context. It is that atmosphere – sometimes solemn and exciting, but other times tense, fractious, and febrile, which will progressively sour the way in which our voting birds will progressively see each other, no longer as a random fellow bird, a friend, or a brother, but as an increasingly hateable supporter of what birds who did not even realise they even cared about politics in the first place will progressively consider as unacceptable as they see the eggs of electoral hostility hatch all over their avian society.