By Helena Flam
To account for the emergence of social movements one rarely starts with these movements themselves but instead with their context and/or creators – treated as explanations for mobilization. In terms of context, for example, differing economic and/or political resources, favorable political opportunity structures, developing protest cycles or networking have served to explain movement mobilization. In terms of creators, successful movement organizing or mobilizing have been explained by, for example, the “right” decisions of the “movement entrepreneurs” to invest limited movement resources, the capacity of “movement intellectuals” to produce and disseminate new knowledge, the ability of the leaders to “frame” reality to fit that of the potential movement members while emphasizing the urgency and the efficacy of collective action, etc.
From the emotions perspective the context is constituted by the relations of domination and their emotional underpinnings. Let me illustrate. Many states have legitimated themselves as the protectors of specific nations and their territories. They have demanded loyalty and love for these nations – expressed not only in many solidarity rituals or symbols of unity, but also by paying taxes or going to war for these nation-protecting states. Between the end of WWII and roughly the mid-1970s, industrial firms did something similar: they offered fatherly love in the form of stable jobs, income, promises of security and/or career, and they expected hard work, and also loyalty and devotion. In gender relations something akin was the case: men worked, brought income home, and loved their little wives, while the little wives had to love and cherish them in return. All three were hierarchical relationships in which one party has dominated and exploited the other, but all three have been portrayed and understood as a fair exchange relationship.
Social movements from the emotions perspective are about the failure of the emotional underpinnings of these hierarchical relationships to sustain these. My favorite examples in the post-WWII period are the first gays and the first women in the US who got together to talk to each other. They were not sure why they did so. In the course of their conversations they discovered their own emotional disagreement and disaffection from the world as they knew it – the world of a heterosexual, white male that reserved for them only minor and inferior roles. I want to stress this moment of emotional disagreement and disaffection that at first has no or very fragmented or weak articulation. It signals the possibility of emotional and cognitive liberation, but much more has to happen before these two forms of liberation actually take place.
People communicating with each other – whether via their body language or in words – is a good yet uncertain start of slowly, perhaps even painfully and with hits and misses, working oneself together towards the conclusion that emotional disaffection from the world-as it is is in fact justified. Much of this communication is about shared experiences in the world as it is. When people who just got together do not disperse again because of experiencing various types of disappointments with or antipathies towards each other, this communication consists of attempts to make an emotional and reflective sense of these shared experiences, and of seeing whether or not oneself and the others are ready to reject (at least parts of) the world as it is and/or work for a change.
Some classical texts on social movements, revolutions, lower classes and by feminists stress the role anger at the world plays in mobilizing people to come together in protest actions. Indeed, anger is a potent mobilizer for action. Displays of anger, however, have become a taboo in the West in the past hundred years. Anger should not be displayed towards public officials, bosses or spouses. Usually one depends on these, so displays of anger are not only normatively proscribed but also costly. Still anger is a steady, usually suppressed, companion of a sense of humiliation that those relegated to the marginalized and inferiorized positions in a society feel. Migrant, minority or working class boys pay dearly for their displays of solo or group anger in school. By virtue of their legitimate claims to equal citizenship rights those grownups who come together in anger have a better fighting chance – at least in democracies. But as I said earlier, emotional disagreement and disaffection from the world as it is just as well as anger may bring people together and result in protest.
The role of those who brave speaking up for the others within a larger collective is crucial. Whether they know it or not, they do not just propose how to cast/frame (fragments of) the world, formulate issues, impart a sense of urgency and efficacy. They also propose to others how to transfer loyalties, re-direct love and anger or manage fear of retaliation – how in fact to become movement members.
The post-WWII women’s movement, for example, asked for anger to be directed at men, and love and solidarity be reserved for women/sisters only; the anti-war movement asks that love of one’s nation – and the anti-racist movement that the love of one’s “race” – be forsaken for the sake of love for all human beings; in the same vein the working class movement puts hatred of the exploiting capitalist, on the one hand, and the solidarity for the other members of the working class, on the other, on the emotional agenda; finally, those allied in the War against Impunity call for indignation and possibly hatred directed towards the political and military elites causing massive atrocities, while they call for solidarity with/compassion for those who become their victims.
If the calls for solidarity towards and love for one’s own movement collective suppress and thus come at the (perceived) expense of specific interests, issues and emotions that sub-groups within this collective would like to raise/experience, this quite certainly is bound to lead to conflicts and, if these remain unresolved, to those sub-groups quitting the movement. For this reason paying attention to the interweaving of issues with sensibilities and emotions is so crucial to building up a unified movement or a movement coalition. Very basic unity is necessary to better deal with governments and authorities which gladly engage in divide et impera strategies meant to split and pit movements against each other, thus weakening their thrust. Even in democratic contexts and regimes reforms are hard to achieve, and even harder to sustain. Keeping a combination of professionalized and activist pressure on the governments and authorities seems to accomplish the wonder: yet here again antipathies often hinder what could constitute an efficacious alliance.
To overcome the fear of retaliation from the opponent when staging public collective action which makes participants vulnerable to retaliation, groups may spontaneously engage in courage-bestowing pep-talks, singing, making noise, marching/sitting closely together, etc. or train in the techniques of civil disobedience which entail (i) expressing fears, anxieties and hopes related to the particular, planned action, (ii) practicing the planned civil disobedience form and learning to trust each other, and (iii) discussing long term goals/strategies to avoid an emotional letdown after just a few unsuccessful actions.
In repressive contexts or regimes those mobilized often employ sabotage or subterfuge or assume pronouncedly respected, innocent or ironic roles, such as that of “grieving mothers” or “mere clowns” or “ironic satirists,” to question the status quo. They may let puppets demonstrate, cross repeatedly and insistently on the green lights, keep crisscrossing the town, while taking their pets – including cage birds, fish in aquarium or a horse – for a walk, they may stage street theaters or ballets – as was the case in Belgrade during the anti-government demonstrations in 1996/1997. Or they may demonstrate together, write and recite poems or write their testaments, as did the protesting students on the Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Such protest forms help conquer fears and sustain the hope that one will come away with no damage to life, limb and personal freedoms.
Only in the long run and after proving to the world/oneself/authorities that one is willing to suffer and continue protests despite repressive measures, brutality and even arrests/deaths/disappearances in one’s own ranks, can such protests be expected to bring results: the change of government or the wished-for regime reforms. Linking up with external, powerful allies willing to show solidarity often helps, but is not sufficient on its own. Courage and endurance are the keys.