One of the most common features of media accounts of the Arab Spring uprisings is the use of movement metaphors to describe both the nature of the protests and how they spread across the region. “Winds of change,” “ripples” of political upheaval, energies and frustrations being “unleashed” after having been pent up for decades – such descriptions, at this point, perhaps border on cliché. However, the sheer ubiquity of these kinds of descriptions do in fact point our attention to some key aspects of the uprisings that have been missed in most journalistic and academic accounts. Many studies rightly focus on such important issues as the role of political and economic grievances against authoritarian regimes, and the role of social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
Yet, given the complexity of not only the domestic politics within each state but also the multifaceted transnational processes involved in the spread of the uprisings, I suggest a shift of focus to dynamics that have been largely overlooked in most accounts. The politics of emotions were keenly on display during the protests, and I argue that emotions were crucial not only as causes of the protests, but also in their spread across the region. Emotions, in this sense, are crucial to more fully understanding the visceral felt experiences of those who put their well-being on the line to force political change.
But first: how exactly are emotions political? Emotions are typically seen as obstructing rational deliberation and the political process. The classic distinction between “emotion” and “rationality” is usually the unspoken assumption guiding discussions about the role of emotions and politics. “Being rational” and “keeping your emotions out of it” is the prevailing common sense when it comes to emotions and politics. Emotions are seen as disrupting rational calculation and introducing bias into democratic deliberation. Moreover, the legacy of early “crowd studies” in the 19th century still remains with us when we discuss crowds and protests as solely animated by the dark forces of fear, hate, or nationalism.
However, a wave of research across many fields over the last 20 years has put to rest the presumption that emotions are only dark disruptive forces. Instead, emotions have now been shown to have much more complex influences on human behavior. For example, the work of psychologist Antonio Damasio shows that emotion is in fact an inextricable part of how we make decisions – both consciously and unconsciously. “Emotion” is indistinguishable from “rationality” in the brain. As such, the classic distinction between the two no longer has much evidentiary basis. This, in turn, forces us to reconsider the relationship between emotions and politics.
The Arab Spring protests provide an excellent case through which to challenge some of these traditional, and now out-dated views. Research guided by strictly rationalist assumptions about what motivates people overestimate the role of “rationality” (as divorced from emotion) in human behaviour. While many protestors no doubt engaged in some level of rational calculation (over whether to engage in protest, whether to emulate protest tactics seen in other countries, etc.), such perspectives neglect the role of emotion as catalysts in both individual-level calculations over whether to participate in revolutionary behavior but also in collective-level effects in the spread of the movements.
Protesters were motivated by a range of emotions, such as fear, anger, and pride, among others. Emotions indeed played a crucial role in the protests. However, even research that acknowledges the central role of emotions tends to adopt a particular conceptualization of emotions as individual-level characteristics. Individuals here are not solely rational calculators, but are driven by complex mixes of emotion and rationality.
Yet some of the most interesting dynamics of the protests were not only how individuals’ own emotions motivated them to action, but also how emotions exceeded individuals. Emotions were not solely individualized experiences located within individual bodies (although they often are). In such collective events, we feel not only our own personal emotions, but often share emotions with those around us. We hear the same speeches, we see reactions of those around us, and hear chanting and protest songs together. Emotions come to be contagious in such contexts, and this contagion helps to shape both individual and collective experiences of the events.
Such dynamics are common – and key – to collective events such as political protests and uprisings. Sociologist Randall Collins, for example, discusses how emotional energy is both generated and spread during collective events. For him, public demonstrations are rich affective contexts where emotions pulse through crowds. During such events people often develop similar kinds of felt experiences and bodily sensations. They become caught up in the flow of interactions and bring their emotions into a loose synchronization with those around them. This often happens on a largely non-conscious register, and is a key way in which emotions spread and transform.
This view of contagious, collective emotions aptly characterizes many of the vital socio-political dynamics of the Arab Spring. Many of the participants themselves talk about their experiences of the protests in these terms – not only that they themselves experienced particular emotions, but that these were often part of the felt collective emotional atmospheres that comprised the uprisings. For example, in Voices of the Arab Spring, Asaad Al-Saleh collects stories and personal narratives from people involved in the uprisings from Tunisia, Egypt, and across the region. Collective chanting was one way in which people came to share a common emotional experience, which subsequently shaped the collective power of the protests. Chants of “the people demand the overthrow of the regime!” sounded across Tunisia before spreading to Egypt. In Collins’ terms, such chanting is an important way in which people become entrained to each others bodily reactions and affective dispositions.
Many people also pointed to the intensity of the emotional atmospheres of the uprisings. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof described Tahrir Square in Cairo as “the most exhilarating place in the world”; the “giddiness’ of the square was palpable to outsiders and locals alike.” One young Egyptian described his feeling that “Tahrir Square – the focus of the protests in Cairo – was like heaven.It was how you wanted Egypt to be.” A woman in Alexandria recalled that “the more I walked [during the demonstrations], the more I felt courage running through my veins.” Emotions were not merely incidental to the uprisings. They shaped the very experiences and senses of possibility and agency that people developed during the course of the events.
In sum, these accounts tell us not only that emotions shaped peoples’ experiences of the Arab uprisings in complex ways. More generally, they demonstrate that emotions are far from the anti-rational distractions that classic and prevailing views would have. Emotions mix indistinguishably with decision-making, constitute the felt visceral intensity of collective political events, and help to bring about new senses of agency that participants may have not felt before their collective emotional experience. Emotions, in this sense, are a major component of what has long been the core concept of political analysis – power – and as such, deserve to take center stage in how we understand politics.
Ty Solomon is Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. His research interests include international relations theory, American foreign policy, and critical security studies. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 2010. He recently published a book entitled The Politics of Subjectivity in American Foreign Policy Discourses (University of Michigan Press).
Can a State Have an Emotion? by Todd Hall