nick_owen_smaller_sqPlease send me a message.

Name: (required)

Email address: (required)

Message:

Emotions, we learn from recent social movement theory, bind social movements together.

In my research project Other People’s Struggles, I differentiate between constituents, whose participation is motivated by standing to benefit themselves if the movement achieves its goal; and adherents, who participate despite not being motivated as beneficiaries.

So one important question to consider is whether constituents and adherents are bound together by emotion, or whether their emotional registers differ. Here are a few ways – there are more in the longer version of this paper – in which they might be thought to differ.

1. Consider adherents and constituents in a movement concerned with expressive work. There are, let us suppose, constituents who share a well-established identity, grounded in certain common experiences, and adherents who do not. The constituents will tend to think in the indicative mode (‘I am, I will be, I was’). Adherents, in such a case, lack the relevant identity and experiences. They will, at most, be able to think in the potential mode (‘I can be, I may be, I might have been’).

The emotional registers of those thinking in the indicative mode will differ from those thinking in the potential mode. There are, for example, the differences between the emotions associated with suffering and those associated with the contemplation of suffering. To feel for someone as they suffer is not exactly the same as to share their feeling as they suffer. As Adam Smith argued in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, imaginative sympathy for suffering is briefer, more intermittent and less acute than suffering itself. ‘Mankind’, he wrote, ‘though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another, that degree of passion which naturally animates the person principally concerned’.

2. The emotions experienced by adherents and constituents may vary not just in intensity or duration, but also in fundamental character. We can distinguish, for example, between indignation (a negative belief concerning the unjust subordination of others) and resentment (a negative belief concerning the unjust subordination of oneself or one’s own social group).

3. Social psychology has distinguished experimentally between moral outrage, triggered when one’s moral standard is violated; personal anger, felt when one’s own interests are thwarted; and empathic anger, felt when the interests of someone one cares for are thwarted. It seems likely that participants in social movements will experience a mixture of all these feelings, but we might expect that the feelings of constituents would contain a larger share of anger and resentment, and those of adherents a greater share of indignation and moral outrage.

4. There are also, among adherents thinking in the potential mode, important differences between someone who thinks in the potential present tense, ‘I can be a constituent (e.g. here and now)’, one who thinks in the potential future tense, ‘I may be a constituent (e.g. in the foreseeable future)’, and one who thinks in the potential past-perfect tense, ‘I might have been a constituent (e.g. had my life begun differently)’. In the first case, the adherent is very close to thinking and feeling as a constituent. The norm of reciprocity may be sufficient to motivate her to help and the consequent emotions may be those of sympathy and other strong forms of fellow-feeling. The adherent who thinks in the potential-future tense may also feel the same fears, anger and so on as the constituent, but diluted by the likelihood that she will experience the same state in the future. The adherent thinking in the potential past-perfect tense is likelier to experience pity, the more distant and distancing emotion in which ‘one holds oneself apart from the afflicted person and from their suffering, thinking of it as something that defines the person as fundamentally different from oneself’. Pity, unlike sympathy, is an emotion that can only be felt for those one regards as positionally, rather than just fortuitously, worse off. We feel sympathy for those whose experiences we think it possible or likely we might share, as they may do for us. Pity, though, is disjoint. We feel it for people whose shoes we do not expect to be in. It can even be accompanied by a peculiar sense of relief or pleasure that we are not in their shoes. The relevant norm for an adherent moved by pity is likely to be the disjoint norm of service.

5. Adherents may feel compassion but this also has its own difficulties. Hannah Arendt suggested that there can be ‘compassion’ between the sufferer and the sympathizer, in which the sympathizer is so affected by the plight of the sufferer that she experiences something very similar herself. Compassion, she proposes, is ‘to be stricken with the suffering of someone else as though it were contagious’. But such compassion is essentially private. Its ‘curious muteness or, at least, awkwardness with words’ is the sign of its authenticity. As soon as an attempt is made to speak of suffering in public, the voices necessarily diverge. Pity – ‘to be sorry without being touched in the flesh’ – expresses itself through a sort of ventriloquism, and thereby distances itself from inarticulate ‘co-feeling’ or compassion. The ‘eloquence’ of pity is the sign that it is not speaking for itself, and also grounds for suspicion, for such depersonalized pity is the language of assumed virtue, invoked by revolutionaries ever since the French Revolution to justify their actions.

6. If pity is eloquent but too distant, and compassion silences us, then we are left with empathy. This implies ‘being with’ the sufferer in her suffering, but not necessarily feeling the same thing. For Martha Nussbaum, it consists in an ‘imaginative reconstruction of the experience of the sufferer’, combined with a sense of distinctness, if not necessarily distance, from him. We can feel something for those whose sufferings we do not share because we have all experienced some suffering in life and probably expect to do so again. When we empathize we share common feelings with others, even if their suffering is much greater or of a different character. This may all reduce the gap between constituent and adherent, but a gap remains and there are perhaps dangers in trying to reduce it to nothing in the hope of conjointness. As we noted in the last chapter, at least some constituents are likely to feel that attempts to share what they feel is intrusive and disrespectful. It is to attempt to share what cannot be shared.

7. These differences of exposure to suffering mark one important distinction between the emotional registers of constituent and adherent. But there are other disjointnesses to consider too. For example, some emotions are prompted by people’s capacity to alter their own situation. Constituents may not just be typically angrier and more resentful. They may also experience ressentiment, the form of anger that emerges specifically from a position of powerlessness, sometimes compounded by the inability to express this anger. By contrast, adherents may not feel disempowered at all. Their strong sense of personal efficacy may be precisely what has drawn them to other people’s struggles. If so, they will not feel ressentiment, though they may feel indignation at the disempowerment of others.

8. Constituents may feel fear or uncertainty as they challenge the existing order; where adherents, placed more securely, often do not. More positively, constituents may be able to experience pride from what they do to achieve their own empowerment, through transcending their own subordination. Adherents may be proud of what they themselves do too: indeed, adherents may feel pride precisely from having adhered to other people’s struggles. But they cannot share this pride with the constituents; and for the achievements of the constituents, they cannot feel pride at all, but only admiration.

9. A further register of emotion concerns culpability. An actor who feels responsible for injustice may experience feelings of shame and guilt. Within this register, there are two dimensions to consider. The first is the degree to which personal culpability is felt for an injustice. If adherents and constituents agree that the injustice is the fault of a third party or a common enemy, they may share the same feelings about culpability. But if they disagree on the degree to which the adherents, or the groups to which they belong or with which they maintain links, are complicit in the injustice, differences of feeling may result. ‘Social conscience’ is the term usually used to describe the emotion of guilt-without-personal-culpability. It is felt when those with whom one is associated are believed culpable for a wrong. It is not unusual for constituents to feel it is insufficient, or that its relief is not their affair, or, simply that it is not an emotion they can share.

10. The second dimension of culpability concerns the identity of those who are entitled to judge. Shame is characteristically felt as a consequence of the contempt of others at the violation of a social norm, and guilt as a consequence of a violation of one’s own moral or quasi-moral norms. Shame is therefore often believed to be the more ‘social’ emotion, resting on others’ opinions and our internalization of them; and guilt the more ‘individual’ emotion, a product of the reflective self. An adherent who accepts that she is herself responsible for injustice to members of a subordinated group may therefore feel guilty about it as a breach of her own moral code. But her guilty emotions are prompted by her judgment of herself as having unjustly harmed them, rather than by any judgment of theirs. She will feel shame only if she experiences, and feels to be valid, the contempt of others.

11. Shame arguably has the greater potential to bond adherents and constituents, because it derives from communal judgments based on shared conceptions of what is shameworthy. As Bernard Williams observes, in a shame culture, people share a common conception of honour, and hence the same sentiments when the honour of any one of them is violated. Guilt can ‘direct one towards those who have been wronged or damaged, and demand reparation in the name, simply, of what has happened to them’. But only shame, because it ‘embodies conceptions of what one is and how one relates to others’, can ‘help one to understand one’s relationship to those happenings, or to rebuild the self that has done those things and the world in which that self has to live’. For shame to do so, however, requires the adherent to accept that others are not only right to condemn her, but also entitled to do so. The ‘other’ who shames me has to be someone, real or imaginary, whom I respect. The unchivalrous knight is made to feel shame by other knights, not unentitled peasants whom he doesn’t respect. If constituents are not included among those so respected, it seems quite possible that they will feel resentment or direct their anger at the adherent.

12. Sympathy, empathic anger and indignation, finally, are qualified by cognitive knowledge of the cause of the other’s suffering, thwarted interest, or subordination, and a judgment as to whether or not it is deserved. Full sympathy, Adam Smith suggests, arises only when we approve of the passions of the other person. We do not readily sympathize with someone whose suffering was deserved, even if we can fully imagine what the suffering is like. We have to judge whether the other person is an appropriate object of our sympathy. For someone who has brought their suffering on themselves, we can feel some emotion, such as a kind of cold pity, but not the same emotion as we feel when we do not believe this to be so. This judgment introduces a further asymmetry into the relationship between constituent and adherent. Judgment places the adherent at a critical distance, sufficient to judge the reasonableness of the constituent’s feelings, but not vice versa. In short, these asymmetric judgments introduce disjointness into the movement, not the conjointness needed for solidarity.

13. Why should it matter if constituents and adherents do not feel quite the same way? One reason is that emotions have also characteristic ‘action tendencies’. They are linked to specific urges or impulses to action, to end negative emotions and prolong positive ones. Differences of emotions may therefore not remain invisible but may be expressed outwardly. Sometimes these action tendencies can combine productively. The anger of the constituent and the indignation of the adherent, for example, may mix satisfactorily in retaliation against an offending third party. But other action tendencies may not be so easily combined, at least within a single organization. For example, the action tendency of shame is to seek forgiveness, but an adherent who demands this may be asking too much of constituents whose greater need is to express their anger. Constituents who experience fear may be reluctant to engage in confrontational actions that more securely placed adherents welcome. Sympathy and guilt will incline adherents to offer help, but the constituents’ desire to experience pride through self-reliance may incline them to refuse it. An adherent’s feeling of guilt is triggered by a breach of her moral code, which requires her to put things right with herself; whereas shame, triggered by a breach of a shared social norm, requires her to put things right interactively with other people. Adherents who act out of a sense of historical guilt are a case in point. It is one thing for them to take upon themselves voluntarily the obligation to make restitution, and quite another for them to be placed under such an obligation by a wider social code made in part by the victims of historical injustices. The former is a familiar, disjoint relationship, the latter a more conjoint social obligation.

IMAGE CREDIT: JOSEPH WRIGHT (‘WRIGHT OF DERBY’, 1734-97), AN EXPERIMENT ON A BIRD IN THE AIR PUMP (DETAIL) (OIL ON CANVAS, 1768) THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON.