Can Europe Make It?

Beyond hate: a call to explore the emotions of anti-minority protest

Activists’ initial involvement with the EDL was often associated with feelings of anger and outrage, but also with feelings of excitement and with feelings of possibility. 

Joel Busher
3 September 2014

English Defence League co-Leader Kevin Carrol during an attempted march into Tower Hamlets. Demotix/Paul Davey. All rights reserved.

If we want to enhance our understanding of far right and anti-minority protest, it is not enough to examine what activists involved with these group think and why; we also have to get to grips with what they feel.

Since the 1980s, emotions have become a major focus for research in the social and political sciences: in part a product of a general shift in the social sciences towards more person-centred ways of explaining and understanding social action; in part a product of dramatic advances in neuroscience and our ability to investigate the biological processes of emotions. One area where scholars have taken particular advantage of these developments has been in research on social movements – or more precisely, research on what might loosely be referred to as “progressive” social movements. Here, placing emotions at the centre of analysis has offered rich rewards.

It has enabled scholars to develop better explanations for behaviours that had previously been hard to account for, such as why people continue to give up their time and energy to participate in what, from an external point of view, might appear to be chronically failing organisations. More generally, it has given us a far richer understanding of the inner-workings of social movements. As James Jasper observes, engaging with emotions has provided social movement scholars with an integral part of what is so often missing from more structuralist accounts of social action: a theory of human behaviour itself. It is far from a trite or facile remark when we say that we have behaved in a certain way because we felt like doing so.

Yet with a few notable exceptions – such as Kathleen Blee’s account of women’s participation in organised racism in the US; Pete Simi and Robert Futrell’s description of how hate groups in the US cultivate and sustain membership; or Fabian Virchow’s detailed analysis of the creation of “collectives of emotion” in the German far right – there has to date been relatively little research and analysis of far right or anti-minority activism that has followed suit. Research on activists in these groups continues for the most part to be dominated by studies that focus primarily on documenting activists’ attitudes and beliefs, their interpretive frames or the rhetorical devices that they use.  

There are likely to be a number of broad factors that have contributed to this state of affairs. In part, it is a product of methodological and disciplinary traditions in this field of study. Ethnographers and micro-sociologists have not yet had the same degree of prominence or influence here as they have in other fields of social research. There has also often been a certain squeamishness about undertaking research that entails empathising (which is not the same as sympathising) with people in these groups.

What has also stymied a genuine engagement with the emotional experiences of activists in far right and anti-minority groups has been the fact that when researchers have discussed emotions in relation to activists in these groups, there has tended to be an overwhelming focus on hate and on questions about why these activists come to hate. To some extent, this is hardly surprising. If we want to seek ways of promoting more harmonious societies, understanding how feelings of hatred emerge and are sustained is clearly an important task. It has also often been the intensity of their hatred that has been seen to be what differentiates these groups from “mainstream” politics.

The problem with the usually overwhelming focus on hatred and anger however, is that it gives us only a very narrow picture of the emotional dynamics of these groups, and one that might not be the most helpful if we want to understand how and why these kinds of social movements work.

For example, in my own research – comprising among other things a 16-month ethnography of anti-Muslim activism under the banner of the English Defence League (EDL) – while emotions of hatred and anger undoubtedly emerged as significant themes at some moments, particularly during demonstrations or when activists were doing their “own research” into “Muslim extremism”, they were only part of a much wider patchwork of emotions. Activists’ initial involvement with the EDL was often associated with feelings of anger and outrage, but also with feelings of excitement and, if not exactly hope, with feelings of possibility.

Similarly, while hatred of the Muslim Other may have played an important role in sustaining some activists’ commitment to the cause, so too did feelings of a love of and duty towards fellow activists and the imagined beneficiaries of their activism (such as their children, grand-children etc). Indeed, and following the work of people like Thomas Scheff, I would go so far as to propose that in terms of sustaining commitment to EDL activism, at least, if not more important than generating and sustaining feelings of hate, has been another process of emotional alchemy: the transformation of what were often initially somewhat nebulous feelings of anxiety and injustice into feelings of pride – personal pride, pride in the group, and in the wider national/cultural collective that they imagined their group to represent.

Allowing ourselves to explore this wider patchwork of emotions, and how different emotions interact with one another in different groups and under different conditions, might help us develop a far deeper understanding of what generates, sustains and can most effectively undermine anti-minority protest. 

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