Drydyk, Jay (2017). 'Political Emotions for (and against) Social Change' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Understanding of social change is not complete without some understanding of how emotions are mobilized to make change happen. Speakers on this panel examine ways in which emotions can be mobilized to advance or to impede the kinds of social change that are called for by the human development and capability approaches, and in this respect the panel speaks directly to the conference theme, capabilities and social change. Their findings draw not only from social science but also from philosophical analysis, responding in different ways to the work of Martha Nussbaum.

We owe much to Martha Nussbaum for bringing emotions more centrally into ethical and philosophical discussion of justice, and, in particular, for discussing love and compassion as conducive to seeking justice and for discussing anger and disgust as impeding justice or indeed fuelling injustice. The central idea of this panel is that, in order to carry Nussbaum’s remarkable work forward, we should be careful not to oversimplify. In particular, there are two traps or pitfalls that we must avoid.

One is essentialism concerning justice-seeking emotions. This trap was laid by Aristotle, whose account of moral virtues identifies characteristic emotions required of each one: for instance, a courageous person is neither timidly fearful nor recklessly fearless. If being a justice-seeking person is a moral virtue, then the virtue of justice, like the other virtues, should involve some characteristic emotions. But what are they? There seems to be no satisfactory answer, either for Aristotle’s purposes or for our own. Does the virtue of justice involve feeling indignation that some people have too much while others have too little? While there may indeed be moments when ‘Justice thunders condemnation’, other more pro-social emotions including hope (‘a new world is in birth’) are surely needed to promote solidarity around justice and progressive social change.

To be clear, we are not claiming that Nussbaum has fallen into this trap; on the contrary, we find that she navigates carefully around it. What she has argued is that compassion is the pre-eminent pro-social emotion and that a political culture that cultivates compassion will be conducive to achieving and sustaining progressive (justice-oriented) social change that respects, protects and supports the dignity of each person.

Nevertheless, even if compassion does have a pre-eminent role, it may be the case that other emotions also have roles to play, including even dangerous emotions such as anger, disgust, and shame, which may also be mobilized in reactionary ways to condone or encourage injustices. Two of the papers in this panel explore this complexity, specifically concerning anger and shame.

Lori Keleher revisits the question of what role anger should play in struggles for justice. In her book Anger and Forgiveness Nussbaum argues that far from being useful in efforts to achieve justice or social change, anger is morally dangerous. Responding directly to this claim, Keleher explores the alternative view that can be taken from Aristotle, that anger itself is morally neutral, neither good nor bad. Whereas Nussbaum points to Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela as examples of people who “got rid of anger” and were (only) then able to effectively bring about positive social change, Keleher argues that the task demanded in struggles for justice is not getting rid of anger, but properly managing and directing it.

Mitu Sengupta discusses the tactic of political shaming, noting that, while in past it may have been used predominantly by more powerful groups against the less powerful, now, in the digital age, this balance may have shifted. When used by the less powerful, shaming the more powerful may serve to mitigate or overcome what Miranda Fricker has called ‘testimonial injustice’ – a tendency to diminish the credibility of the less powerful. Even so, Sengupta argues, there are good reasons to remain wary of shaming, even when it is used by the weak against the strong.

A second trap is laid by ideal theory, the approach to social (or global) justice that aims to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for a fully just society (or world). One such condition is that the society (or world) must be structured so as to cultivate and sustain the allegiance and loyalty of its citizens. This question is especially prominent in social contract approaches – why agree to a social (or global) structure that will not last? Thus John Rawls gave considerable attention to this kind of stability as a necessary condition for a just society. The problem is, the repertoire of emotions required for sustaining a just society (or world) may not be exactly the same as those required for creating one. Quite simply, struggling for justice may have different emotional requirements than preserving or sustaining it.

Jay Drydyk considers some philosophical implications that can be drawn from empirical studies in political sociology, specifically on social movements. These studies find that social movements (including those that can be identified as movements for social justice) are not guided by any single paramount emotion; rather, they mobilize many emotions. The task of promoting social change requires reducing attachment to the status quo and replacing it with commitment to change. Where loyalty, anger, shame, hope, and fear are already at play in support of the status quo, movements for social change must counter-mobilize those emotions along with compassion in order to succeed.

This panel has been endorsed by the Ethics and Development Thematic Group.

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