I recently completed a manuscript about the role of what I call “feeling-thinking processes” in protest. These are the many tiny ways that we register the world around us through our bodies, ranging from sensory input to the dozens of neurotransmitters we constantly produce (dopamine, adrenaline, etc.), to muscle contractions (including facial expressions), on up through the verbal labels (emotions proper) that we sometimes apply to bundles of these feeling-thinking processes. Emotions such as love, trust, or happiness are conscious acknowledgement of many unconscious feeling-thinking processes.
I find the term emotions useful, because once we do become aware of our feelings, and apply these labels, they in turn affect all the underlying feeling-thinking processes. Once we decide we are angry, say, we begin to shut down some of the processes that we do not associate with anger, and reinforce those we do. Emotions vary somewhat (although not enormously) across cultures because those labels differ.
Some emotions are immediate reactions, especially fear and anger but also joy or disappointment, and disgust. Others are medium-term moods, which we can carry with us from one situation to the next. Moods influence our energy levels, making us more eager for political action or taking us out of the game through resignation or depression. Then there are long-term emotional commitments, to both particular people, places, and ideas and to moral intuitions such as compassion, shame or pride, and feelings of injustice. These long-run emotions are the ultimate bedrock of political action, and form the background expectations for the shorter-run moods and reflex emotions. Through them we orient ourselves to the world in fundamental ways.
Seasoned activists know how to affect all these types: how to create an enthusiastic mood, how to control the jitters that could develop into panic, how to replace despair with hope, to inspire trust in the group, movement, and its leaders, to craft slogans and proposals that reflect hitherto inchoate moral intuitions.
Recognition of emotions promises to solve a number of questions at the core of cultural approaches to protest, especially the question: What creates meaning? Resonance is what makes frames work, why people like narratives, what gives collective identities their impact, and so on. They resonate because we care about them emotionally, and not simple because they are intelligible. (A “feeling brain” model can replace the “calculating brain” model that cognitive science has imposed on us, in which our brains process 0s and 1s just like a calculator.) Once we understand meaning better, we will have a better theory of action, which begins from the actors’ point of view but models those actors from the beginning as in interaction with their environments. Only individuals have emotions, but their emotions are how they relate to the world around them, both physical and social.
With an improved theory of action, we can move on to rethink the central entities of standard theories of protest: what goes on inside formal organizations, how social networks help people attend events together, whether those events succeed or fail, how other players react to protestors’ claims, why resources flow to one use rather than another, how people decide whether to follow or to break laws and other rules. We feel our way to decisions; we do not make them like mathematical calculations on a piece of paper.
Skeptics ask what emotions, and the point of view of the actor (or player, in more strategic language), can tell us about the constraints that protestors face: the laws that jail them, the money that corporations use to discredit them, the enormous inequalities of wealth and income that distort political systems and buy off politicians, the constant encroachment of markets on all human activities. These represent enormous questions, both politically and analytically. They are the most urgent questions we face.
Our best hope for answering them lies in starting small and working up. Decisions are made in rooms, to which we sometimes have access. Information passes through individuals, even if (via mass media) it goes to millions of individuals at the same time. Some individuals have more influence over organizational decisions than others, whether or not they are formally acknowledged as leaders. Claims are made on other people one poster, speech, and advertisement at a time. And some small group or individual crafts those messages, sometimes dully and sometimes cleverly. And we can’t understand all these individuals without understanding the emotions that animate them.
Scholars have asymmetric access to these kinds of processes: we easily participate in and observe the minutiae of protest groups; we are shut out of the corresponding meetings of diplomats, presidential advisors, panels of judges, and corporate boards. As a result all that stuff becomes “the environment” for protestors and their choices, as though it were structured and inevitable rather than a series of choices and strategies. Diplomats and CEOs have moral allegiances and short-run emotional reactions too. We should not develop different theories for them just because we are forced to use different methods for studying them.
What kind of world do we hope for? This is both a normative question for researchers, and an explanatory question when we transform it into, “What kind of world do protestors want?” Hope is a package of emotions, partly a good mood and partly an enthusiasm for an action or cause, that is central to change. We had better learn more about hope and other feelings, if we wish to transform or merely to understand the world.