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Getting Emotional About Advocacy

When advocates plan a campaign they typically try to think rationally about strategies and tactics for reaching their goals. But have change agents neglected the emotional side of social movements? As part of the AdvocacyLabs initiative, 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee talks with James Jasper, professor of sociology at City University of New York and author of The Emotions of Protest, about how advocates channel emotions and stories to power their movements.

Porter Magee: A big thread running through your work is the push to bring emotions back into the research on social movements and advocacy. Where did that come from?

Jasper: It was really just about getting out there into the world, participating in protests, talking to people, and looking at the decisions they made. It made me think that emotions were a big part of it all but they were largely missing from the literature on social movements. So I started reading the research on emotions and quickly realized that psychologists actually know a lot about emotions, but sociologists and political scientists just weren’t applying that knowledge to their work on social movements.

And often times when academics wrote about the psychology of emotions it was pretty one dimensional.  

Yes, and that goes back to the 1950s and earlier. You have these crowd theories in which otherwise sensible and respected scholars said, “People just turn into this unthinking mass when they get in crowds.” Emotions were seen simply as irrational.

In the 1990s, things started to shift and you saw scholars writing about the positive emotions that drive social movements: the joy and solidarity of a collective identity. They put a big emphasis on the pleasures of marching, for example.

And we are just starting to get to a place where we can say: “Emotions aren't good or bad. Emotions are just normal.” They're going to be a part of good actions. They're going to be a part of bad actions. They're going to be a part of rational actions. They're going to be a part of mistaken actions.

How does this apply to two social movements in the news: climate change and Black Lives Matter?

The emotion that Black Lives Matter is channeling is anger, which is a crucial emotion in social movements. It seems that climate change activists are trying to channel people’s frustration, which is a lot harder to do.

The thing you want to do as an advocate is to create a moral battery: pairing strong positive emotions with strong negative emotions. You need that negative charge at one end. People needed to be pissed off and disgusted with something, just really angry. But if you want to change things, then you need to connect that negative feeling to the positive as well: This is how the world could be, here is a hopeful picture of where we want to go.

If you have one without the other, the movement isn’t going to go anywhere. And frankly, climate change is, yes, a really important issue, but it can also feel hopeless. That is not the emotion you want people to be feeling if your goal is for them to take action.

What can leaders do in these situations? Do we need heroes? Do we need enemies? 

So heroes reassure us, give us confidence. They'll protect us. We admire them because they're strong and moral. Villains motivate us because we're afraid of them: they're evil, they're always plotting, they're always looking for our weaknesses. We also need victims in our stories: They are sympathetic, we have compassion for them, we want to help them.

Characters are why we care about the plots. Characters are why we read novels. Characters are why we feel things when we read stories or hear people's stories. And all of these different kinds of characters play an important role in the political rhetoric of a movement. They tell us what emotions we're supposed to feel and often, through that, tell us how we are supposed to act. We are supposed to hate the villains, join the triumphant hero, and save the victims.

Where does someone like Rosa Parks fit into this typology?

She was really the perfect person to rally behind against the police and the forces of white supremacy.

At first, she looks like a classic victim, right? She is small, well-mannered, quiet. But then there is this almost miraculous transformation into a hero. She's not going to take it anymore. She draws on this almost divine power that changes her. And suddenly she is driven by such moral confidence that she faces down all of the forces arrayed against her.

There is a line in Jeanne Theoharis’ book The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, where one of Parks’ neighbors was asked why the community was rallying behind her. And the response was: “She's quiet—like steel is quiet.”

Yes, that captures it perfectly.

A lot the figures in the civil rights movement were deeply religious, which seems to have armed them with a strong moral sense of purpose. Is that missing from American movements today?

I do think that the left, at least, in America is less religious and perhaps approaches the world with maybe a bit more of an ironic distance from the moral language of right and wrong than is helpful to power a movement.

A lot of my friends are Marxists and they have this elaborate scientific critique of capitalism and none of that has ever really mobilized anybody in America. They don’t really know what to do with strong emotions.

What advice would you give to the aspiring advocate looking to put emotions to work for their cause?

The world is kind of a tragic place. It is full of strategic dilemmas. You can play by the rules. You can be nice. People admire you for that. Or you can be rough. You can be aggressive. You can be disruptive and you get some things that way.

If you want to use emotions, start with shock and anger. Let people express genuine indignation about something. And then move them towards the positive. Be ready to say at the right moment: Here's the hope.

And be explicit about the characters in your story. Do we have a villain here? If not, go find them. Maybe you are uncomfortable singling out one police chief or one superintendent of education. But if you don’t have any villains—if not a specific person at least a category of people—you aren’t going to get very far.

Remember that culture does nothing by itself. It operates largely through emotions. Symbols resonate because they create certain feelings inside us: good and bad, attraction and repulsion, approval and disapproval. Morality operates the same way. It arouses feelings of pride or shame inside us. It arouses compassion or indignation. We tend to emphasize the positive emotions in social movements: the joy and solidarity of a collective identity. And we’ve forgotten about the negative emotions, which often lead us to action.