“The speaker … is consciously and emphatically emotional as part of his technique. He reiterates on many occasions that he “almost cried” when he got a contribution of fifty cents from that poor old widow. Whereas his whole personal build-up is that of the leader, the conspicuously refrains from any attitude of “dignity.” Just this abandonment of dignity is apparently one of the effective stimuli of fascist propaganda everywhere. Hitler himself was always prone to ostentatious, hysterical outbreaks, and one of his favorite phrases was “I should rather shoot myself than …” In Thomas’ speeches the “emotional release” device is derived from his religious attitude, his evangelistic, revivalistic penchant, in contrast to official Presbyterianism.
You know I thank God that I’m kind of turning loose of my heart the last three years. You know for a Presbyterian who has been reared in the suppression of the outward manifestation of the heart, you know it is a great thing. Listen, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, and all those schools of stoicism: turn loose of your heart! Oh, I know how hard it is. You kind of feel like I do. You are afraid of fanaticism.[Footnote 2: Hitler often spoke about his own “fanatical love of Germany.”] There is a rightful place for the expression of love for God. You needn’t be fanatic. Remember what St. Augustine said one day: “If you let your heart loose, you will toddle off to God.” Clap your hands just a little bit. Remember over yonder in the Old Testament, remember where it says that the trees have clapped their hands for joy. All nature praised the Creator! That wonderful flower as it blooms and nods in the sun, no human eye will ever see it. No animal will ever notice it. It is praising and smiling for its God. All of the earth is filled with glory. The prophets cried the earth is filled with the glory of the Lord. My, it is wonderful to know God, isn’t it? It is wonderful to know Christ.[Footnote 3: July 9, 1935.]
In such passages as this Thomas involuntarily reveals his true intentions. His own emotionalism serves only as a model for the behavior that he wishes his listeners to develop by imitation. He wants them to cry, to gesticulate, to give way to their feelings. They should not behave so well and be so civilized. Under the cloak of Christian ecstasy, there is the encouragement to paganism, to the orgiastic release of one’s emotional drives, to regression towards inaccurate nature, which worked so successfully in Nazi propaganda. The ultimate aim of the “emotional release” device is the encouragement and endorsement of excess and violence. As soon as the barriers against crying and self-pity are broken down, one may express unchecked one’s suppressed feelings of hatred and fury as well, and the collective religious wantonness of the Holy Rollers may be consummated by the pogrom. Moreover, the more the barriers of self-control within the listeners are broken down by the orator’s encouragement, the more easily they are subjected to his will rather than to their own, and to following him blindly wherever he wants them to go.
It has often been pointed out that fascism feeds upon the lack of emotional gratification in an industrial society and that it grants to the people that irrational satisfaction which is denied them by today’s social and economic setup. The “emotional release” device primarily corroborates this assumption. The conception ought to be qualified, however, in other respects in order to fit it with reality.
First, ideology and reality must not be confused. The irrational gratification which fascism offers are themselves planned and handled in an utterly rational way. Such manipulation results in a kind of psycho-techniques, borrowed from the modern factory and applied to the population as a whole. It is an extremely pragmatic irrationality, and it is highly characteristic that this irrationality is expressly advertised by Thomas as well as by the German agitators as if it were a kind of a pill which makes life more agreeable. It is important to bear this in mind since this rational aspect of fascist irrational propaganda (as well as, for example, the “escapist” presentations of modern mass culture) is so obvious that it must produce a certain resistance against the permanent insincerity, a resistance which could be used by counterpropaganda. The latter might point out the shrewd soberness behind the drunken works. Such an attack would place the fascists in an inescapable dilemma, for fascist propaganda cannot avoid this rationalism within the sphere of emotional release. The fascist agitator has to reckon with people as they are, sober and practical, and can induce them to irrational attitudes only if he makes them appear as “sensible” according to the psychological economy of their own lives.
Second, the manipulated irrational gratifications are spurious. Manipulations itself is intrinsically opposed to that “release” which it sets in motion. Moreover, fascist propaganda for its own purposes does not touch upon the roots of emotional frustration in our society but rather encourages emotionalism by words. There is no real pleasure or joy, but only the release of the feeling of one’s own unhappiness and the achievement of a retrogressive gratification out of the submergence of the self into the community. In short, the emotional release presented by fascism is a here substitute for the fulfillment of desires. The most drastic example is Father Divine’s device of applying an enthusiastic “it’s wonderful” to everything – and therewith to nothing. When Thomas dwells on the marvelous weather, the beautiful Southern California landscape and the blossoming flowers, his trick is not unlike that of the Negro evangelist, for the beautiful things that he praises and offers as objects of unchecked emotions have little to do with the social world of his listeners, and even less to do with his own objectives.[Footnote 4. Some examples: “Our father, we thank you this afternoon for this wonderful day. We thank thee for this beautiful Southern land.” (July 14, 1935) – “Good morning, everybody, everywhere. We are happy to be with you upon this beautiful day with the sunshine pouring out upon your yards.” (July 3, 1935)] One may suspect that any reference to the emotional resources of nature is part of a scheme to distract the audience from actual problems.
Third, the switching on of the emotionalism is not altogether a device superimposed upon the listeners. It presupposes a certain disposition within them, and so the shrewdness of a successful agitator actually consists in sensing dispositions which he can use as bait for his own purposes. A strong basis for the desire to escape the rigidity of psychological self-control must exist in the listeners themselves, and hence an adequate idea of this “basis” must be developed. It is in itself a result of the very same process of rationalization from which people want to get away. People want to “give in,” to cease to be individuals in the traditional self of a self-sustaining and self-controlled unity, because they must. Thomas’ negative references to stoicism and to the self-control requires by the established denominations are not accidental. This stoicism is part of the attitude of the independent individual of the liberal era of free competition. The strength to control oneself reflects the strength to compete with others and to determine economically and thus also psychologically one’s own fate. Today, when this independence begins more and more to dwindle, self-control begins to disappear too. The social forces to which each individual is subject are so tremendous that he has to yield to them not only economically by becoming an employee (rather than remaining a self-sustaining social unit), but also psychologically under the social and cultural pressure put upon him, a pressure which he can bear only by making it his own cause. He must act in terms of adequate conformist behavior rather than in the terms of a unified, integrated personality. The individual becomes not only harder insofar as he is taught to think more and more pragmatically. He also becomes softer insofar as his resistance to the impact of the social world as a whole and industrial technology in particular becomes weaker. The more he cease to be an ego, a “self,” the less he is capable and willing to fulfill the requirements of self-control. Hysteria is an extreme expression of a psychological configuration spreading rapidly over the whole of society. It is this particular disposition which is met by the “emotional release” device. Stoicism is derided because the individuals neither can nor will be stoical any longer, that is to say, because the final compensation for emotional self-control – an existence firmly established in itself and secure – no longer prevails. The effect of the emotional release device is not so much that it evinces the reactions to which it refers, but rather that it makes them socially acceptable and lifts an already tottering taboo so that people may have the feeling of doing the socially correct thing if they abandon their self-control. The mechanism of a “social affirmation” of attitudes which already operate within the subjects but which they still vaguely feel to be at variance with the rules that they were taught in their youth is an intrinsic element of all fascist and anti-Semitic propaganda.
Adorno, Theodor W. 2000. The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. [From the sub-section “Emotional release” device.]