Bringing Emotions into Understanding Revolutions

  • 2011•04•12

    Ainius Lašas

    The Jasmine revolutions of North Africa and the Middle East have caught the international community off guard. While people were demanding changes in Tunisia, French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie offered her country’s help to quell the uprising against Ben Ali’s crooked regime. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked out of touch with the thousands gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, as they talked about the need for regional stability and order. Only with the spread of protests and violence to Libya did the rhetoric and actions of the political leaders of the democratic world finally catch up with the sentiments held by “Arab Street”.

    Everyone, including the dictatorial regimes themselves, seemed to have discounted the importance of one self-sacrificial act that moved millions. So why did it happen? How did the self-immolation of a 26 year old Tunisian vegetable seller, who had lost the means to provide for his family, spark such a massive regional change?

    In trying to piece together the puzzle of the Arab uprisings, many foreign journalists turned to online social media sites as the key component of this political change. Twitter, facebook and Google became the heroes, along with young and tech-savvy protesters. Other journalists emphasized the role of labor unions as the key enabler of pro-democratic forces.  But while all of these forces played important roles, they were not the initial cause for the uprisings.

    Waves of emotions

    I would argue that self-conscious emotions underlie the North African and Middle East revolutions. Often overlooked by analysts, and especially by political scientists, factors such as collective humiliation, frustration and anger are the fuel for fundamental transformations in our societies. It only needs a spark to cause an explosion of social activism.

    The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi was the spark that ignited the feelings, suppressed for decades, of millions to stand up for their right to dignity, respect and freedom. Bouazizi’s sacrifice was the ultimate act of overcoming fears of retribution and death. That’s why it became the mobilizing event. Only then did social media and local organizations kick in to enable the protests.

    Still, I acknowledge that popular anger and frustration are not enough to explain the dynamics of popular revolutions. The likelihood of success, which I define as regime change, depends both on the mobilization of the people and on the reaction of authorities. To the extent that people swiftly come out for protest, they stand a better chance to claim the public political space for themselves. If governmental institutions tolerate or simply overlook the first protests, they concede the space and legitimacy to the protesters.

    This dynamic creates a rapid cascade wherein people can use the opening to bring more protesters onto the streets and to expand their political presence. With rising stakes and demands, the government faces ever-growing pressure to concede its grip on power. At this point, it has two basic options to reclaim control. The government can either use military force or mobilize its own supporters, if there are enough of them, to contest the ownership of this political space.

    Even though they appear to be unstoppable waves of people power, popular revolutions are in fact fragile and do not always roll over under-fire regimes. While self-conscious emotions propel people to revolt, they do not guarantee success — as the 2009 anti-government protests in Iran demonstrate. There are many previous instances when governments managed to quell such protests. In my own country, Lithuania, which in 1972 was still an integral part of the Soviet Union, a young man named Romas Kalanta set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet regime. That act of self-immolation sparked a wave of popular protests, but authorities quickly suppressed them. It took almost two more decades for Lithuania to complete its revolution and reclaim its independence.

    A revolution in political science

    With its focus on strategic interests, institutions and norms, political science has swept the role of emotions under the carpet. Since inner feelings are inherently difficult to measure, the discipline has largely ignored their role. Often perceived as temporary distortions of rational behaviour or tools for crowd manipulation, emotions are at best presented as misperceptions in political decision making. At worst, they are simply ignored.

    However, recent findings in affective neuroscience have challenged the notion of human beings as just cognitive maximizers of their interests. The works of Antonio Damasio, Jaak Panksepp and many others have demonstrated that emotions are fundamental to our decision-making and belief formation. They argue that emotions are not only by-products of our cognition, but also ingredients of it. Whether as cueing or motivating factors, emotions shape our “rationality”.

    Up to this point, relatively few political scientists have taken the role of emotions seriously. Among them are Ned Lebow from Dartmouth College and Neta Crawford from Boston University. Perhaps the most systematic approach to the study of emotions has been completed by Jonathan Mercer of the University of Washington. Mercer argues that stripping concepts such as nationalism, justice, trust and credibility of their emotional content makes them unrecognizable.

    I would also add popular revolutions to this list. It is impossible to explain recent political upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East without taking into account the underlying frustration, humiliation and anger that have been experienced by these populations for decades. After all, self-immolation is the ultimate act of frustration and anger. It is an attempt to restore one’s dignity through death. Feeling exactly the same way, people in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — and more recently in Bahrain and even Syria —have defied their fears and stepped out into the public political space to say “enough is enough” to these dictatorial regimes.

    Whatever the actual outcomes of the ongoing revolutions, it is clear that they have fundamentally transformed the region and how we think about it. I hope that these revolutions will also become an impetus to revolutionize the discipline of political science.