Emotion and sentiment – what’s the difference?

Reflections from Francois du Toit: CEO African Conservation Trust, husband, father, wildlife warrior, eco-crusader, custodian of open spaces, poor (injured) MTB enthusiast.

Dr Ian Player challenged me and the ACT team earlier this year. About 39 Rhinos ago.

He asked us to make a bold statement, to be quite clear where we stand, not to sit on the fence so to speak. So last week we reflected on “Making Friends with Reality” as the first part of a commentary and a statement from ACT and myself. The second part we promised as a follow on.The issue we must now confront is the difference between sentiment and emotion. As the death toll has mounted, and in particular in the past few months, sentiment is washing over us. We all are being bombarded by this Rhino issue.

To make sure I was on the right track, and to keep it simple, I looked these words up in my daughter’s Oxford School Dictionary.

Emotion (noun): a strong mental feeling, such as anger, love or hate

Emotional: (adjective) to do with emotions; synonyms: heartfelt (felt deeply and sincerely) , fervent (warm or strong feelings), passionate, impassioned, ardent (very enthusiastic, full of ardour)

Sentiment (noun): an opinion or mental attitude produced by your feeling about something

Sentimental (adjective): showing or affected by feelings of tenderness, sadness or nostalgia; synonyms: mawkish (sentimental in a feeble or sickly way) , maudlin (sentimental in silly or soppy way), soppy (wet, pathetic)

Interesting so far? Some strong direction here I thought.

So here’s what I think…Sentiment involves gnashing of teeth and wailing and never actually doing anything. Sentiment belongs to the “Shoulda-woulda-coulda” clan. Sentiment looks back and wonders what happened. Emotion looks forward and makes things happen. Emotions are change agents, and in the working world, Sentiments end up working for Emotions. Sentiments are only driven to action when they are physically threatened themselves, and then they run, or cry or whimper in a corner. Emotions are driven by the future they see, and the injustices they encounter. They are solution-oriented, they actually do what the Sentiments talk about around the braai fire or at the coffee shop.

Sentiments sit in secure flats in other countries or even in our own cities, (they live amongst us) and post ill-informed opinions seeking public acknowledgement via facebook, and other platforms from thousands of people they only ever meet virtually. They live virtual lives.

Emotions live in the reserves or in their buffer communities, they patrol the fences, they jump out of planes, they drive rallies, they cycle up a hill, they run a marathon, they take a collection at work, they post on the bulletin boards of the world, they start a cause marketing event and raise funding to address the problem, after they have spoken to experts who are in the field. They pick up the phone and ask from us what they can do, they do, they drive, they move. Once they’ve identified a problem, they attack it with zeal, with passion. Sentiments talk around the braai about how they envy Emotion: “I wish I had the time to do what Emotion does, boy, are they driven! “

Emotion drives, it empowers, it causes change.

Sentiment is disconnected emotion. It is distant, non-emotive. It is dislocated.

Sentiment looks at a dog wandering the streets, hungry and lost, and says” Shame I hope it’s alright, you know I cannot understand people that let their dogs roam like that, they should be locked up themselves” then by the time they’ve rounded the block In their air-conditioned SUV they’ve found the next cause to bemoan.

Emotion stops, spends half an hour stopping traffic and cajoling the frightened animal into their car, picks it up, takes it home, feeds it and baths it, de-fleas it, and puts up posters saying “Lost dog” until finally it becomes part of your family.

The dog growls at Sentiment who, if they ever got out of the car, would give up in a few minutes, the dog senses a fraud. The dog comes to Emotion because it senses safety and action.

Emotion is action.

Sentiment is talk.

Talk is cheap, money buys the whisky.

Do you get the picture? Sentiment is a cop-out, it’s the easy way. Sentiment wants to ban hunting, ban trade in Rhino horn, ban, stop, create inertia, because sentiment hates making a decision, it hates movement. Sentiment will debate while the guns cut down another rhino in the blazing African sun. Sentiment thrives in a bureaucracy, it grows in uncertainty, and without an answer Sentiment can continue to wring their hands and wail. Sentiment requires a vacuum of action in order to survive.

Emotion is what will save the rhinos. It will also save the open spaces we so desperately crave in our times of need. We go to the Wilderness to recharge, to rejuvenate our broken souls. Emotion is what saved St Lucia Wetland Park, it created Kruger Park, it created Mapungubwe, Hluhluwe Umfolozi, it created Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, it created millions of hectares under conservation. Emotion is good, is it an active force to be harnessed and driven until decision makers finally see the reasons.

Emotion will do this, because Emotion cares, and is genuinely concerned for our future. Emotion sees the future, and the future is one in which our generation will not have to hang our heads in shame and show our grandchildren pictures of Rhinos, and say we’re sorry.

So don’t just sit there, do something. This is our call to action. Become emotional about conserving our natural heritage. I am.

Francois du Toit, Pietermaritzburg, 7 February 2012.

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