Youths, Spittle, and Reflections on “Emotion in Motion”

By Ron Eyerman

I followed a post-workout routine yesterday. I sat in an atrium café in a local downtown mall to eat a sandwich and look over notes from the morning’s writing. The café is on the ground floor beneath an open second tier walkway, where shoppers promenade by store windows. A group of young boys ran along the walkway shouting down at those, like myself, sitting below. Then two gobs of spittle cascaded down, aimed at me but hitting the cushion of the chair I was seated in. The boys ran off laughing gleefully. While I said nothing I was furious. I put down my pen and reflected on what just happened, why I was angry, but did nothing to show it. Most pointedly, I reflected about who those boys where and what might explain their behavior, I am after all a sociologist! The boys were strangers to me and I to them. Besides the difference in age, what marked the obvious differences between us and which helped me interpret their behavior was that they were dark-skinned and in a group and I was light-skinned and alone. We were representative symbols to each other. Their shouts indicated a heavily-accented Swedish with an Arabic inflection. To me they represented immigrant kids, probably second generation from somewhere in the Middle East. To them, since they had no way of hearing my equally accented Swedish, I was a typical Swede of a disposition that posed little threat of physical retaliation. Their actions, I reckoned, were an expression of their anger and alienation, an outcome of feelings of marginalization, directed at a fairly safe target. From my theory-infused perspective theirs was group behavior, alienated, marginalized youth, expressing their feelings in typical young male fashion. I was their not-so -random target, a representative figure standing in for all they felt distanced and excluded from, yet were expected to act part of. At another age and another time and place, their actions could well have been otherwise.

But I was angry, at least for a moment, yet did nothing. Why didn’t my emotions, strongly felt at the time, transform into action. Why didn’t I run after them, lecture them on proper behavior, tell them that civil society builds around a respect for others no matter what the perceived differences. I could have called the authorities. Or, I could have used the occasion to say to them or others like them that I understood their anger, knew its root causes and suggested means we could work together to change the conditions which created it. But I did nothing, and after these few reflections returned to my editing. The boys also moved on to other things and so normality, as different as it may have been for us, was restored.

This incident took on new meaning as I again read through the insightful comments in the posts by Nancy Whittier, Kari Norgaard, Helena Flam, Jim Jasper, Christopher Bail and Eric Groenendyk. Whittier drew a distinction between emotional engagement and indifference as it’s opposite. Activists she implied face the problem of getting people involved, of transforming indifference into emotional engagement. Norgaard suggested that emotional engagement could as well prevent action as encourage it. Jasper, arguing against rational choice models posed that deep-seated feelings underpin actions, while Groenendyk, arguing for a modified rational choice approach, suggested that calculations plus emotions ground actions. Helena Flam posed that people talking together about dissatisfaction and anger can find common ground for action. Reflecting about the emotions and mobilization surrounding Muslims in the United States, Bail suggests that media debates inflame already existing emotions and distort public discussion.

So, with these insights in mind, why didn’t I get involved? How were my emotions understood and channeled, were deep-seated feelings involved, did I feel and reason and then decide to do nothing? Would things have been different had I not been alone and talked to others about my dissatisfaction? What role did the European discussion about immigrants, especially those Muslims from the Middle-East, play in my (in) action?

Taking the (Jasper and Groenendyk) individual point of view first, I would explain my reaction and inaction as rooted in deep-seated feelings of anger-management and rationalization, in the Freudian rather than Weberian sense. Most well-socialized individuals channel anger and other strong emotions into socially acceptable forms. I was moved by the occasion but rationalized it into a well-oiled framework of meaning that permitted inaction. Like Norgaard’s Norwegians reacting to a changing climate I found a way to accept a disquieting situation without doing anything about it. I wasn’t indifferent, but could channel my emotions in a socially acceptable way, one which not only permitted but even encouraged inaction. Had I the opportunity to speak about my dissatisfaction, say to others seated nearby, I’m sure they would have supported both my anger and inaction. Scandinavians after all avoid conflict at all cost! There might have been a different outcome perhaps had I been surrounded by immigrants, though ones with a different path to Sweden than my own. These deep-seated cultural structures are something that Whittier does not mention when she suggests that activists must encourage emotional engagement to mobilize collective action. As part of these cultural structures I would include ideologies, ready-made explanations that naturalize (and neutralize) a distasteful situation. Phrases like ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘immigrants are like that’, come to mind. Activists seeking to mobilize and re-channel emotion would have to expose those ready-mades and offer equally compelling counter explanations. Emotional engagement may well be present, but what those emotions are and how they are routinely channeled (as Norgaard notes) is thus something activists need to think about and engage.

Another essential part of existing cultural structures in which an emotional reaction to a situation, like the one I described, is filtered are those ongoing public discussions mentioned by Bail. This is especially the case for an academic like me, but every European and American appears to have an emotion-laden opinion about Islam and Muslims. These opinions come from somewhere. In part they come from those deep-seated feelings Jasper mentions, but they also come from things one has heard or read about, those emotion-laden media discourses to which Bail refers. Such discourses of course are not unconnected to those deep-seated thinking/feelings which concern Jasper. At this level too, activists must get engaged, for here one can engage emotions and offer explanations that encourage mobilization of the sort Bail would like to see. Actually, it here, at this level, that I personally feel most comfortable acting and it is here that I will channel my own emotions and react to the situation I described above.

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Filed under Emotion in Motion, Essay Dialogues

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