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Political embarrassment

February 16, 2018

Watching politics, it's often difficult not to cringe.


Perhaps our most common political emotion is contempt or disgust--but embarrassment is familiar.


I wrote about this for the Canberra Times: 'Being embarrassed about Australian politics is a sign we care'.


There are many emotions that nations can evoke: pride, anger, disgust, perhaps even arousal. These happen at varying levels of abstraction, from vague stereotypes to specific policies. They can be prompted by leaders, cuisines, literature – from Putin's shirtless machismo, to Japan's twitching squid noodles, to Greece's Freedom and Death, by Nikos Kazantzakis.


I want to discuss political embarrassment at Australia. Not because this is the only, or most important, feeling my country provokes. Instead, it is because embarrassment is so rarely examined: a common but often taken-for-granted emotion.


Our political embarrassment might arise from a leader's cultural cringe – being a begging lapdog for the United States, for example – but it need not. It comes from a public transgression of custom, decorum, propriety and so on. To feel embarrassed is not be shamed – which is a moral emotion – but suffer a kind of public awkwardness.


Witness: it is shameful to become a voice of privileged xenophobic reaction; merely embarrassing to collapse a patio chair. It is shameful to back out of an emissions-trading scheme; merely embarrassing to get caught cry-ranting on video.

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© 2017 - Damon Young -