“WE SHOULD DEVELOP AN EXPERIENTIAL CULTURE WHICH TAKES EMOTIONS SERIOUSLY”, SAYS CHRISTINE UNRAU

Foto Christine Unrau

The importance of emotional experience among the creators of the Global Justice Movement, a network of global movements which defends an equal distribution of resources, is the center of the studies of the researcher Christine Unrau, from Duisburg-Essen University, in Germany. Through the premise of the North-American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, which says that nothing important was ever reached without enthusiasm, Christine believes that emotional experience can motivate political commitment in a global level – the case of the Global Justice Movement. In the interview she granted to this blog, she talked about the presence of emotional experience at the recent “Occupies”, how emotions can change global injustices and how a sentimental education can lead us to feel compassion for others.

Read the interview below >

TRANSNATIONAL JUSTICE’S BLOG – In your opinion, what’s the importance of emotions for worldwide politics?

CHRISTINE UNRAU – Emotions can have a variety of consequences for politics: Indignation or compassion can lead to commitment for change, but at the same time, fear of the “other” can lead to aggression and violence; resentment, often based on a feeling of powerlessness, can make us withdraw from any kind of participation in politics. In a globalized world, causes and effects of emotions are not limited to the nation state: Through faster and better communication technologies, what is happening around the world can be transmitted to the average internet user and events in different angles of the world can – at least potentially – arouse us just like events in our own city. At the same time, many people realize that important political decisions are no longer taken by their respective governments and therefore turn to the global level to address the grievances which cause their indignation or compassion.

TRANSNATIONAL JUSTICE’S BLOG – Your research brings the example of the Global Justice Movement to show how emotional experiences can motivate political commitment at a global level. How is this movement linked with emotional experiences?

CHRISTINE UNRAU – There are primarily three emotions that play a central role in this context: Love, compassion and indignation. All of them are interpreted as motivational forces of commitment for a different kind of globalization. For example, the indignation felt in view of an unjust global order is seen as a motivation for political action taken to change that order. Secondly, emotion is seen as an important aspect of the forms which political commitment can take: Parades, manifestations, and political actions in day-to-day life can be felt as sources of joy and love and therefore as potentially successful, as opposed to actions taken merely out of duty. On a third level, the arousal of certain emotions is an aim of political commitment in itself. However, the Global Justice Movement is not a movement based on emotions only. Other dimensions of experience also play a central role, not least rational experience, and – in many cases – religious experience.

TRANSNATIONAL JUSTICE’S BLOG – Do you have any other example of a global movement motivated by emotional experiences?

CHRISTINE UNRAU – Another example would be a movement which refers to emotion in its very name: The indignados (or indignants). Although they originated in Spain in 2011, they are part of a bigger movement, which in this year initiated a new cycle of mobilization, namely the various strands of “Occupy”. Many of its protagonists were already active in the Global Justice Movement around the turn of the millennium.

TRANSNATIONAL JUSTICE’S BLOG – These movements defend different forms of globalization, according to your explanation. What are these new forms of globalization? How do are them?

CHRISTINE UNRAU – The movement which I have been studying and which had its “peak” around the turn of the millennium – with the “battle of Seattle” in 1999, the Anti-G8 in Genoa in 2001 and the foundation of the World Social Forum in the same year – has often been labeled “anti-globalization”. However, most of its participants do endorse many aspects of globalization, above all the interconnectedness, the use of information technology, the relative easiness of traveling. What they oppose is a certain form of globalization, usually termed “neoliberal” or “globalization from above”. It is characterized by the fact that actors who are not democratically legitimized hold an enormous amount of power at the global level. At the same time, profit seems to be the single most important criterium for all policy measures taken and enforced. Very broadly speaking, the forms of globalization they are committed toare forms in which people come first and decisions are taken by those who are affected by them, or by their legitimate representatives. However, there is a huge variety as to ideas how this is to be reached.

TRANSNATIONAL JUSTICE’S BLOG – You use three authors from three different fields (Philosophy, Theology and Sociology) to analyze contemporary global emotions. Can you explain each of these visions?

CHRISTINE UNRAU – I take these three disciplines – Philosophy, Theology and Sociology – as criteria to categorize different thinkers associated with the Global Justice Movement. In their reasoning about globalization and political commitment the authors I have studied draw on these three realms of knowledge. I would not say that each of these groups has a clearly defined “vision” of alternative globalization. What I find interesting is that thinkers from these very different disciplinary backgrounds converge in certain points. One of them is precisely the importance attributed to emotions like indignation.

TRANSNATIONAL JUSTICE’S BLOG – How could we create a world where all the people would have feelings as compassion and love towards each other? Do we need a process of sentimental education?

CHRISTINE UNRAU – There are strong advocates of this idea. For example Leonardo Boff calls for a world ethics based on the principle of compassion. And he has good arguments, e.g. that most religions and philosophical traditions attribute a high value to compassion. As Judith Shklar point out, to be “deaf” to the suffering of others is to be unjust. She illustrates this with reference to “L’ingiustizia”, a painting by Giotto from the beginning of the 14th century which shows the personification of injustice: It is someone who remains completely unmoved by the suffering that is going on right in front of his eyes.

However, I think we should also be aware that the compassion or love we can possibly feel for strangers is not the same what we experience with our family and friends.If we felt compassion for everyone at every single moment we would no longer be able to live our lives nor – as Hannah Arendt reminds us – to do politics, that is, to come together, to argue, to convince, to persuade, to compromise. So this wall that we have built to protect us against the “misery of the world” is to a certain extent necessary.

However, what we do need to develop is a sense of the immensity of suffering which we are constantly preventing from arousing our emotions. Theologians within the Global Justice Movement attribute this task to the religions. Another way of “sentimental education” is through narration, a process of focusing on individuals, learning about their stories and becoming able to imagine their future. Therefore, Richard Rorty explicitly calls for “sad sentimental stories” to be told in order to retrieve our compassion, citing as examples the Aeschylos’ drama “The Persians”, the novel “Oncle Tom´s Cabin” and TV programmes about atrocities.However, the fact that this is actually a technique, which can be used for manipulation, also shows that sometimes, our compassion might not always be a reliable indicator of what needs to be done politically. Also, “education” always leads to the question: Who is entitled to educate whom?

In my view, we should develop an experiential culture which takes emotions seriously and sees them as indicators of what is going wrong, but at the same time takes other dimensions of experience into account – reason, for example.