The Emotions of Protest, by James M. Jasper

Book of the Week: Emma Rees on the key role of feelings in spurring individuals to political action

August 30, 2018
Trump Baby balloon
Source: Getty
Extraordinary times: the Trump Baby blimp floating above protesters’ heads during the US president’s recent visit to the UK exemplifies the current geopolitical clusterfuck

In July 2018, the Greater London Authority granted permission for a 6m-high “Trump Baby” blimp to be floated over demonstrators’ heads during the US president’s visit to the UK. The constituent elements that make up that sentence – the idea of a US president’s visit being a rallying call for protesters; the notion that he could be caricatured so brazenly; and the fact that the mayor of London wholeheartedly supported the blimp pilots’ application – speak volumes about just how bizarre the geopolitical moment is.

On the same day that Inflatable Trump was bobbing along cheerily, and in an inimitably British way, in the capital, James Jasper’s new book arrived on my desk. Its index entry “Trump, Donald, as demagogue” is one that’s absolutely in tune with the political zeitgeist.

Jasper has been writing on protest since the 1990s, when he published the influential Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements (1997). His core hypothesis – that social movements have often been examined without nearly enough attention being paid to their psychological aspects – gained traction there, and The Emotions of Protest, as the title suggests, revisits this theme some 20 years later.

What Jasper terms “feeling-thinking processes” are at the heart of the book, as part of his persuasive premise that political conviction cannot be understood without understanding human emotions. “We have come far from a model of emotions as necessarily short-run eruptions and distractions,” he writes, before taking the idea even further: “The political battles that really count are those over these moral feelings.”

The place of emotion in political protest is hotly debated, subject to the vagaries of academic fashion. Jasper navigates these extremes of attitude compellingly. He tells the reader, for example, that while “earlier crowd theorists had portrayed protestors as emotional to demonstrate their irrationality, the new structuralists [such as political scientist Herbert Kitschelt] demonstrated protestors’ rationality by denying their emotions” in the 1980s.

For such a short book (its main body comes in at well under 200 pages), The Emotions of Protest has a vast scope, both chronologically and in terms of fitting various theoretical moments and turns into an overarching narrative. This moves smoothly between and across academic disciplines, too, from political philosophy to sociology and psychology. Jasper is broadly successful in terms of steering a route through the maelstrom of politics, action, motivation and emotions.

Part of this steering is to go back to the start. Familiar terms such as “political structures” and “social movements” are revisited, and human beings are put firmly back into the picture, along with those feelings – scrappy, complex and unquantifiable emotions – that motivate them to take action. It’s a bold claim Jasper makes, that understanding the politics of emotion (and, for that matter, the emotion of politics) “is our only hope for unraveling the mystery of social action”. Democracy itself pivots on emotions, he argues, and one has only to look to the continuing calamities of Brexit to see what an irrefutable claim that is.

When we talk about “emotions” on a day-to-day basis, Jasper suggests, we’re probably talking only about “reflex emotions”, those sudden, strong, unprocessed responses (anger, perhaps, or excitement, or disgust) that are both disruptive and – mercifully – transitory. “How long could you walk around with a surprised or angry look on your face?” he asks rhetorically (although this did give me pause – I know a philosophy lecturer who can do it for days). Jasper spends much of the book finding nuances in and subsets of this umbrella idea of “emotion”.

Political analysis has often overlooked the role of urges such as hunger or lust, for example, dismissing them as merely bodily. Jasper situates the somatic in networks of social interactions and cultural images because urges are both formed by and responses to a wider political arena. His work on hunger strikes and anorexia as sites where the personal becomes inextricably imbricated with the political is very powerful indeed. Moods, too, are rethought in Jasper’s book, and later he explains how “affective commitments” – the coalescence of like-minded people – work, by using British colonialism as an example. Colonialism was in large part predicated on a dualism of rationality versus emotional incontinence, with the British actively creating a narrative that established them as the only solution to the “problem” of the irrational and infantile mob mentality of the Indians.

Affective commitments, then, form and are formed by our identities, and they galvanise our political proclivities. These emotions are quite literally a matter of life and death. The same might be said of “moral commitments”, the judgements we pass on others and – perhaps with the least mercy – on ourselves, driven by concern for reputation, altruism and justice. “Moral emotions are the core of political rhetoric,” Jasper writes, and “Indignation is the hottest of the hot cognitions; as a moral form of anger, it encourages action”.

The success of The Emotions of Protest lies in its relatability. We know (or, at least, we think we know) our own emotions and what provokes them, and so it’s perhaps inevitable that readers will identify with a thesis that celebrates and moves them to centre-stage. Jasper’s knowledge of the field is breathtaking, and intellectual debts are graciously acknowledged. He writes vividly about, for example, Martha Nussbaum’s work on the role of emotions and subjectivity. He treads again the well-trodden phenomenological paths of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s embodied subjectivity; takes in Humean moral philosophy; and moves effortlessly from Paul Ekman’s biologically grounded affect programme theory to Erving Goffman and on to Kant. My favourite moment is when he situates sociologist Verta Taylor’s brilliant work on feminism and affect into a wider discussion of the role of anger in political mobilisation, arguing that “cognitive liberation” is completely stymied without an accompanying emotional dynamic.

Despite these frequent and welcome nods to intellectual tradition, or perhaps because of it, Jasper is a big fan of pithy phrases. These come thick and fast, although the more useful examples are in danger of losing their way in a tangle of “moral batteries” and “the extension dilemma”. It’s a relief, then, to read in Jasper’s preface that he rejected a sociologist colleague’s suggestion that he coin the new words “finkings” or “theelings” to convey the “feeling-thinking processes” central to the book. That said, he can write beautifully, too. “Protestors have emotions, like everyone else,” he states at one point, “but theirs are ‘thinking hearts,’ not bleeding hearts. Brains can feel, and hearts can think.”

“Culture matters because it can tap into our deepest moral convictions via emotions,” Jasper argues. “A collective identity or boundary does not motivate us to act simply because we understand it; we must care about it. It means something to us.” My favourite placard from those same anti-Trump gatherings in the UK in July read: “Super callous fragile racist sexist Nazi POTUS”. It’s a playful response to desperate times, its intertextual levity being so effective precisely because of its ability to stir up a range of emotions. And emotions are surely key to surviving our current geopolitical clusterfuck.

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.


The Emotions of Protest
By James M. Jasper
University of Chicago Press, 304pp, £68.00 and £23.00
ISBN 9780226561646 and 1783
Published 23 July 2018


The author

James Jasper, who teaches sociology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, was born in Takoma Park, Maryland – close to the heart of American politics, since it is right on the border with Washington DC. After 11 years, he and his mother moved west to Frederick, still in Maryland. “Being raised by a single mom”, he says now, “was, honestly, the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Studying at Harvard University was, for Jasper, “thrilling both intellectually and politically”. It also radically transformed his outlook: “The introductory economics course included an excerpt from Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Marxist tract, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order, and it made so much sense of the world that I almost immediately swung from the right to the left politically.”

Much of Jasper’s research career has been devoted to protest movements. These have obviously taken different forms in different times, but although “social media have made mobilisation quicker, easier and more focused”, we can “never replace street gatherings with online petitions and other virtual tactics. We continue to use protest movements as we always have: as ways to articulate our moral intuitions and commitments.”

In order for such protest to make an impact in times of political crisis such as today’s, Jasper suggests that “we need the emotional power that comes from defining villains, victims and heroes. They help us allocate blame, arouse compassion and get people involved. We need to build long-run orientations, but we also need to take advantage of the outrage that comes from immediate events.”

Matthew Reisz

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Print headline: Thinking hearts, fighting stances

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