Democracy for Impertinent Citizens

It is 2010 when the Wutbürger (a newly coined German word meaning something akin to an outraged citizen) enters the political arena. The “Stuttgart 21” project, designed to make Stuttgart’s main station fit for high-speed trains and thus also for the twenty-first century, erupts in a lengthy political protest. This protest unites people from different social classes and generations, yet is predominantly led by older, wealthier, more conservative citizens. What is surprising is not only the tenacity of this civil disorder, but also the occasion. The protest is essentially about preserving an old building or, in more general terms, preserving the present from the tearing pace of change.

The established political parties and media have finally begun to show some understanding for this impulse to protest. Albeit in an often paternalistic tone, there has been a slow but sure recognition that the economic-technical-cultural movement answering to the name of “globalisation” since the 1990s, and described – sometimes optimistically, sometimes resignedly – as a given, is now displaying its flip-side: an apparently unstoppable upheaval which is tearing its way through all that is traditional without any emotion whatsoever. Either one adapts, or one is adapted: this is the simple and hard-hitting choice. The Wutbürger has, however, refused just to roll over and accept this. And with success. Both the notion itself and its concomitant political gestures have spread like wildfire and at the speed of the digital media. And now, as we are currently forced to ascertain with Donald Trump, the Wutbürger has even reached the White House in Washington.1

It must be said, however, that the expression Wutbürger oscillates between having a positive and a negative touch. Sometimes it is used with respect, and sometimes defamatorily. This surely has to do with the fact that rage is generally viewed, on the one hand, as a negative, aggressive and socially dangerous emotion, while, on the other hand, we also speak of righteous anger and holy rage. Is the Wutbürger then not rather a Mutbürger (Supp 2010), another newly coined word, meaning something akin to a courageous citizen, refusing to cower before the entire weight of police authority? Are rage, courage and – my topic –impertinence not just as much political-democratic virtues? Is impertinence in speech and action not just democratically acceptable, but in fact necessary?

Impertinence: an initial approach

Impertinence is a type of behaviour. It can emerge in an action or a remark. A typical reaction would be: “How impertinent to do that!” or “to say that!” And by “that” we mean something unashamed, cheeky, brazen. “And then he was so impertinent” – and here well brought-up female speakers hesitate at first, but then continue because they are at home with famous German literature: “as to speak aloud the Swabian greeting, the Götz quotation, ‘lick my arse!’”2 English-speakers have the famous f…-word instead. The historical background to the Götz quotation is a dishonourable gesture from the Middle Ages made to enemies passing by, often from high up in the castle walls: a showing of one’s naked behind. Nowadays, football fans or anti-police demonstrators sometimes make the same gesture. People who have the words above thrown at them usually react with consternation – they feel affronted – and perplexity, but also with anger and, in its superlative form, rage. The impertinent individual – but also the unashamed individual – does something which they should be ashamed of and yet is not ashamed of. Everyday judgemental language does concede shades of meaning, however. ‘Brazen’ refers to someone who is presumptuous, for example, but also to someone who is bold or, in American English, sassy. And ‘cheeky’ refers to someone who is naughty, but also carefree, forward, even plucky or audacious. All of which are certainly acceptable, even positive characteristics.

Let us start by addressing the impertinent character in his clearly negative variant. The present philosophical discussion allows us to draw upon a gripping, but also modest book, namely Aaron James’ Assholes. A Theory (James 2012, 5, 23, 27).We should pause to remember that this little book was preceded by two others, namely On Bullshit (2005) by Harry Frankfurt, in which the respected philosopher describes bullshit, the nonsense which we are confronted with in our everyday lives and also in philosophy, as something closely related to fake and bluff; and The No Asshole Rule (2007) by Robert Sutton, a bestseller in which the Stanford Professor of Management Science describes the way in which harassment of employees, usually practised by men abusing their power, is detrimental to morale and productivity.3 Along these lines, James describes a character whom we all know very well. He is usually male; he walks past a queue with his nose in the air, one could even say walks past regally; he interrupts discussions with high-handed gestures; with his shiny bicycle he nearly knocks down pedestrians attempting to cross the street on a green light; and if angrily chastised, he coolly sticks out his middle finger; on the motorway he changes lanes like a racing driver on the run, squeezing into gaps between cars and then impatiently flashing his lights.

This type of person also exists, as we should say here to avoid an obvious misunderstanding, in a non-everyday sphere, namely that ruled by art. “Many people think you are – excuse me! – an arsehole”, a female journalist once said, for example, to famous German theatre director Claus Peymann, to which he merely replied: “I would agree with that.” Not only have he and the no-less-famous actors Bernhard Minetti or Traugott Buhre repeatedly screamed at each other during rehearsals – art is about the “existential” after all – but Peymann has been “often aggressive”, as he himself freely admits, “especially to young actors” (Dössel & Peymann 2017). The writer Thomas Bernhard, who had very few friends, one of them being Peymann, was also remarkable for his clear yearning for status and money. The tricks he played on the Suhrkamp publisher, Siegfried Unseld, some of which were shameless, are well documented, even though the publishing house ultimately reaped its reward for so many years of financial support. It was as if Bernhard had attempted to honour the self-description of another Austrian author, Heimito von Doderer’s: “The writer is a disgusting fellow” (Hintermeier 2015)..

According to James, what unites these people as a type and makes them an object of theoretical interest, is a concurrence of three traits: they claim special advantages; they are immune to criticism; and they are immune to criticism because they believe themselves to have a claim to these advantages. They are therefore presumptuous by conviction, in other words they believe they have good – moral – reasons for their presumptuousness. The key concept for James is that of absent recognition. The type of person that we call an arsehole or idiot or jerk or, in my semi-abstract use of the language: the impertinent self, is incapable of recognising others, incapable of viewing them as equal to himself. At the very least, he is the self-appointed first among equals (as in the case of Peymann and Minetti, or Peymann and Buhre). In this sense, he is incapable of seeing others at all. Shame means being seen – being exposed; there is no shame without (at least imagined) onlookers. Impertinence or shamelessness means consciously not seeing, consciously ignoring those who see you.

I shall address these two points – shame and being seen, shame and equality – in more detail in the following. And I would like to do so by differentiating levels of meaning within the concept of impertinence.

Social and moral impertinence

Impertinence, I have said, means consciously not “seeing” the others who see you and who could thus expose you in public, it means consciously ignoring them, consciously disregarding them. The same is true of shamelessness. Shame is inextricably linked to the moral-practical principle of recognition. But the impertinent being belongs in more of a social context, the shameless being in more of a moral context. Shameless (or a “disgrace”) is our word, for example, for that group of rich people who continually and disproportionately grow richer at the expense of others, disproportionately because they could not possibly spend all the money they have “if they lived to be a thousand”, and because they contribute to a world in which it is possible for the eight richest people – yes: 8 – to own more than is owned by 50% of the world’s entire population, i.e. 3.6 billion people (Sanders 2016, 185; 2017, 45).4 It is shameless that they get excessively rich, and impertinent how they do so. People who upload photos and videos of injured, dead or dying people from their smartphones to the Internet in “car crash compilations” in order to get “likes” and “dislikes” are shameless. A behaviour is shameless which falls below basic moral standards, while it is impertinent to display such behaviour publicly. An impertinent creature and his bad actions know no guilt. Why, he asks himself self-confidently, should I wait in a queue when waiting is for the masses (in the deprecatory sociological meaning of the word), for losers and underdogs, and I am the top dog? I am not like all those others, I am better. The impertinent self would only feel ashamed in the way others do in front of people he in fact recognises as equals, people whose opinions matter.

In other words: he who is not ashamed – it is important to add: in that impertinent way – can or will not imagine how others see him, how others perceive him and value him. He is lacking that external perspective which could teach him where his limitations lie. To this extent and in moral terms, shame can be a salutary emotion. Only he who has learnt to see with the eyes of others, as we have known since George H. Mead if not before, can embrace the expectations of others and gear his behaviour towards them.

Psychologically and philosophically, a broad consensus generally exists that shame only emerges on the basis of intersubjective and social relationships (Demmerling & Landwehr 2007, 223).5 Sartre’s corresponding analysis in Being and Nothingness(1943) is the predominant and most famous philosophical contribution. In the years which he spent as a young lecturer in Jena, culminating in his Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), Hegel was early to theorise on a battle between subjects for mutual recognition. Sartre referred to this theory and yet turned it on its head: by recognising each other (as entities recognising each other), two subjects laid not (only) the foundations for true freedom, but also (and at the same time) for “unfreedom”. The moment I see that another subject sees me, I understand that the subject is doing with me what I am doing with it, or have previously done with it: this subject objectifies me in the same way I objectify it. In this very objectivity, however, a freedom is lost, namely the freedom to be different from one’s definition as an object. Sartre describes situations of shame as specific occasions dramatising this phenomenological-ontological situation of being noticed. In shame, the seeing look of the other person catches me out and plunges me into a plight from which I cannot escape. I am, so to speak, a naked fact, removed from my possibilities. To this extent, shame is not just a social and a moral, but also an ontological reaction, particularly for Sartre (Sartre 1976, 338ff.; Honneth 1988; Butler 2003).

John Rawls positions the phenomenon in a narrower, namely moral, yet still social, framework. He defines shame as “the emotion evoked by shocks to our self-respect”, and self-respect seems to him to be the “most important primary good”, for without self-respect “all desire and activity becomes empty and vain” and “we sink into apathy and cynicism” (Rawls 1999, 386 & 388). Shame is a feeling which lends expression to the  isolating effect of injured self-respect, rendering it passive. The antisocial tendency is characteristic of this feeling. To this extent, shame is a necessary emotion in the negative sense, an emotion which necessarily has to be avoided if we do not wish – morally – to offend others in their self-respect; if we are interested – socially – in participating individuals; and if, finally, we are interested – politically – in participating fellow citizens. The emotion of shame is an obstacle to compassion (Nussbaum 2003, 342ff., Nussbaum 2004) and, in quite general terms, to being (together) with others. It isolates, even destroys our relationship to the world, we lower our eyes, avoid the gaze of others, indeed we want the ground to swallow us up, so to speak. In other words, we want to bury ourselves, to become invisible, to remove ourselves from all contact with others, which in turn has the negative effect of our being unable to communicate what was so shaming, being unable to share it with others (Cavell 1976, 286; Cyrulnik 2010). Shame is one of the most private and privatising of emotions.

Cultural and culture-critical impertinence

The social and moral levels of meaning form the inevitable background to that level of meaning which is key to my representation: namely the cultural and culture-critical level. Here it becomes clear why impertinence has acquired such a conspicuous status in today’s societal and concomitantly political self-conception. It becomes clear why impertinence has become an unavoidable Modern problem, why impertinence is necessarily part of Modernity.

By cultural level of meaning I do not primarily refer to the fact that culture often occurs in the plural when meant in a descriptive sense, i.e. as a way of life, yet always in the singular in the normative sense (for example in the exclamation: “This person has no culture!”). In the descriptive sense there are many cultures which are distinguished by their value convictions. And this is also true, of course, for attitudes towards shame: they differ depending on historical epoch and geographical region.6 By cultural level of meaning, I refer far more to sociological and culture-historical circumstances, and the foremost theorist in this context is Georg Simmel.

Simmel is one of those theorists who in their sociological, philosophical and culture-critical studies describe Modernity as a highly ambivalent epoch. On the one hand, Modernity permits greater subjective freedom; on the other hand, it leads to a weakening of social ties. On the one hand, it permits the individual to unfold his or her individuality on the general basis of formal equality and the particular basis of urban anonymity; on the other hand, it makes this unfolding difficult precisely because all individuals can in principle unfold.

Like other theorists, Simmel addresses the contradiction between the two ideals of freedom and equality, named by the French Revolution in the same breath (alongside fraternity, or solidarity). According to Simmel, these two ideals have a certain analogy to two different forms of individualism, namely “qualitative” and “quantitative” individualism. The ideal of equality and a corresponding quantitative individualism crystallised gradually with Christianity (the idea of God having created all men as equal), and especially with Protestantism, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the ethical socialism of the nineteenth century. The ideal of freedom and corresponding qualitative individualism (at least in one sense) has its antecedents in Ancient Greece and aristocratic design. According to Simmel, it occurs exemplarily in the personalities represented by Shakespeare and Rembrandt, before finally developing to completion in Goethe and Romanticism, through to Nietzsche: the individual emerges in all its particularity, incomparability, exceptionality, and ingenuity. From Simmel’s point of view, then, Modernity is that epoch in which striving for qualitative individualism becomes a universal problem on the basis of realised quantitative individualism. Once all people have become equal legally and democratically, in law and as voters, there emerges both a general inclination and a specific necessity to make distinctions. Modern realisation of the contradiction between quantitative and qualitative individualism is concentrated in the phenomenon of visualisation. In public one has to appear – in both senses of the word: to seem to be, and to step forward – as an individual.

Simmel is aware that the framework of a politically egalitarian society increases the differentiation effort required by the individual. And, within this framework, differentiation can only be achieved by the mass of individuals at the level of perception, in the Ancient Greek aisthesis, in other words at the level of aesthetic appearance. Modernity, which emerged from a battle for the fundamental rights of the individual, now instigates a battle for sophisticated recognition, fought primarily at an aesthetic-visual level. Only at this level, not at the level of politics and the law, can socially non-dangerous differentiation now again take place. To be sure, it can also take place at the level of economic success and social achievement, in the sense of political and economic liberalism, but a democratic-egalitarian society is endangered by each further gain in economic and social power. In contrast, the aesthetic-cultural level permits unlimited differentiation in the manner of self-representation. In his study “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), still exemplary today, Simmel describes all the “extravagances of mannerism, caprice, and preciousness” paid homage to by the people of Modernity, the dialectic masterpiece being the “blasé” individual. According to Simmel, a person is blasé who feels the constant striving for difference and craving for distinction to be “insubstantial” – only to distinguish himself from others by having precisely this attitude (Simmel 1995, 49-56, 121, 128).

Walter Benjamin gave this theory of Modernity a decidedly Marxist-political and film-aesthetic twist in his famous essay from the mid-1930s entitled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Here Benjamin presents the theory that the aura surrounding works of art, their seeming uniqueness and unapproachability, falls away as soon as they can be mechanically reproduced. While the aura of art thrives on its “cult value”, its origins in magic and religious ritual, mechanical reproduction brings forth an art which has “exhibition value”. Art should not be totally unapproachable for human beings, but visible, eye to eye with its recipients (Benjamin 2003, 256). For Benjamin, the contemporary medium for this democratic to communistic levelling is film. With film, the relationship of the audience to the work changes from observational passivity to participative activity. According to Benjamin, anyone can “lay claim to being filmed”, in other words himself become an actor, even if it is only as an extra (Benjamin 2003, 262). This claim must, of course, be taken within the historical context of the 1920s, in which Benjamin, like many other intellectuals of the time, initially paints his own picture of the Soviet Union pugnaciously and expectantly. In particular, he focusses on the films at that time – again Soviet cinema, but also Fritz Lang and King Vidor – which portray the proletarian masses and their everyday heroes and heroines. But it is obvious that this theory of art and film is also prognostic in character. By establishing a culture of everyday aesthetics, of self-presentation, of self-exhibition, of self-portrayal, Modernity fulfils the political agenda of asserting both freedom and equality.

And where self-presentation is triumphal, impertinence is not far off. Display or exposure of the other is at the core of shaming; being displayed or exposed against one’s will is, vice versa, at the core of shame.7 In contrast, voluntarily displaying oneself in an embarrassing,8 shaming or socially awkward situation, consciously presenting oneself for others to look at, exhibiting oneself like a dummy in a shop window, means an inversion of shame and the mechanism of shaming. One’s own display becomes the core of impertinence, being moreover a display or exhibition which takes place in front of an audience frequently despised by the self-exhibitor. But one has to add immediately that impertinence can have diverse, at least two faces: a more narcissistic or a liberating face, the latter, for example, if people voluntarily display themselves in the so-called social media as someone who does not fulfil the fashion and body norms of a society fixated on super-slim female models, or masculinity on the cover of a body-building magazine.

Nevertheless, from here it is only one step to scathing cultural criticism. In a society in which individuals en masse take pleasure in exhibiting themselves, this obsession must become paradoxical, the illusion of a mass of individualists. “In many people”, as Theodor W. Adorno expressed it, “it is already an impertinence to say ‘I’”. Adorno wrote this aphorism in his Minima Moralia in 1944 and repeated it during an argument with Rolf Hochhuth in the mid-1960s. He is provided with one example by American philistines or babbitts who think it is acceptable to evaluate a great work of art with the words: “I like it” (Adorno 1978, 50; 1992, 244).9 A thoroughly banal statement, which effectively insults the work of art in all its conceptual inexhaustibility.

However we subject this impertinence culture to a critical and sociotheoretical evaluation, whether more negatively with Adorno or more positively with Benjamin and Simmel, it remains constitutively Modern. Against this background, the excessive desire for visualisation made possible by the digital media of our time, from video and YouTube to selfies and a productive pleasure in the interactivity of the Internet, can come as no surprise. It forms part of the specific, in Simmel’s sense, bipolar individuality culture of Modernity. Historical shifts can naturally be observed. Sociologists, for example, have been describing a double erosion of culture since the mid-twentieth century, starting as a “bourgeois” erosion in the nineteenth century, progressing through sociopolitical left-wing protest movements in combination with rock and pop music since the 1970s, and then undergoing a cultural proletarianisation or rather proletisation since the 1980s, ultimately unfolding before our collective eyes and ears in the soap operas, talk shows, casting shows, reality TV shows and event culture to be found on the private TV and radio channels (Bell 1976; Bella 1985; Schulze 1993; Maase 1997; Neumann-Braun 1999). And one of the features of the new prole culture is that it even speaks to intellectuals.

Impertinence is not just constitutively Modern, however. We can go a step further and claim it to be a democratic virtue. And this brings me to my final point.

Political-democratic impertinence

Rhetorical shaming strategies are well known to play a role in parliamentary and civil societal democracy. Some say we should be ashamed of a Minister who is first smugly triumphant and then cowardly evasive.10 Policemen and women who use violence against peaceful protesters are shouted at: “You ought to be ashamed! You’re a disgrace!” In the broad public discussion, the tabloids and also increasingly the so-called social media fulfil the function of individually apportioning blame and shame. Then a shitstorm breaks, followed by a hate speech.11 But wider sociopolitical campaigns also use the strategy of shaming: a film which shows men beating seals, those trusting creatures, and in particular “seal babies” – a cleverly selected expression – with blunt weapons; or another which shows dolphins, those intelligent and communicative creatures – and anyone who was a child in the 1960s or the 1990s will know the famous US-American television series and cinema films Flipper our “best friend” – getting caught up in tuna fish drag nets and dying; such films pillory the hunters, as well as the greed for profit and luxury which drives them. The awarding of Fair Trade certificates to numerous goods to date, from coffee to clothing, is a result of the same strategy.

If we shift our attention from the empirical to the normative level, Rawls and Nussbaum remind us that self-respect is a necessary condition for participating in social and political life, and that shame, the losing of self-respect, is therefore dangerous for democratic-participative forms of society, and for socially and morally relevant compassion altogether.

This danger exists not only at the individual, but also at the collective level. Democracy needs citizens who are certainly able to feel ashamed, but who do not feel deeply ashamed of their traditions. There are occasions and reasons for feeling collectively ashamed. In more recent German history we are all too aware of this as “guilt and shame in the light of the crimes of National Socialism”. The latest reminder for the USA is disturbing pictures of humiliation and torture from Abu Ghuraib, the Baghdad military prison. But a community is just as unable to live with an excess preponderance of shame as an individual is to live with an excess preponderance of self-disrespect. We do not necessarily have to call individual and collective self-esteem “pride” and “national pride” (or “patriotism”). But Richard Rorty is right, in my opinion, when he says that national self-esteem or national pride is the same thing for a country as self-respect for an individual: “a necessary condition for self-improvement”, and that includes with Aristotelian emphasis – that to a measured extent “pride outweighs shame” (Rorty 1999, 3) – and of course collective self-esteem is not restricted to the nation; it takes place in every big social or political group (like “class”, “feminism”, “Black Power”) that forms an identity.12

But what if we are confronted not with pride, the compensatory opposing pole to shame, but with impertinence and shamelessness, its sociomorally challenging antagonists?

First of all, here too we have to ascertain in a narrower political context that talk of an end to shame, of an increase in rude and uncivilised behaviour, is a reaction to increasing egalitarianism, and this is meant sociologically: namely to an increasing inclusion of social groups in the societal-representative whole who were previously excluded. The anxieties which find expression in this lamentation are especially directed at the lower social classes, to whom democratic rights have been extended in stages over the centuries. The basic tone of this lamentation is thus nostalgic: a yearning for a time in which shame guaranteed that life was ruled and regulated across all social differences, or so it is believed (Locke 2016, 5, 9, 11, 20).

From this critical perspective, impertinent behaviour is not just a cause for complaint, but rather a plea for caution regarding political standards and standardised ways of thinking. The socially excluded often have no other option but to proceed using forms of protest which cut across boundaries and provoke, thus having a tendency to be impertinent. Non-violent campaigns of civil disobedience have been orchestrated since the 1960s as conscious symbolic violations of legal norms, symbolic because legally nobody is allowed to suffer physical harm or material damage as a result, but also because these violations make a point which is graphic and indicates a deeper import. In contrast, the slap in the face which in 1968 Beate Klarsfeld gave Georg Kiesinger, the then Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, was impertinent in every sense of the word (presumptuous, brash, rude, wanton, plucky, even violent). In 1984, the heckling by MP Joschka Fischer during a parliamentary debate was also impertinent: “With respect, Mr. President, you are an arsehole!” More recently, the diatribe in verse form directed at Turkish autocratic President Erdogan by German satirist and TV presenter Jan Böhmermann was impertinent. These are all demonstrative actions in both senses of the word: actions intended to demonstrate (to show) something demonstratively (graphically, conspicuously). Impertinence, as this context once again makes clear, is a primarily social trait, and not, like shamelessness, a primarily moral one.

The impertinent citizen – and this includes likewise the shameless and unashamed citizen13 – is, accordingly, an ambivalent figure. Democratically, he seems to be as necessary as he is dangerous. He presents himself on both the progressive and the conservative/reactionary side, in sophisticatedly provocative political actions and in yelled abuse against the establishment, in demonstrative demands and in demonstrative contesting of minority rights, in the courageous defence of civil society against autocrats, and in the vulgarity of political-cultural proles. Impertinence is a part of democracy like the citizen who has come of age politically, is able to speak for himself and who now demands admission to the halls of power.

Emotional Democracy in Practice

Annoyance. – Usually it starts with annoyance, certainly when it is about politics. A feeling of anger that comes up because someone or something (in everyday life it may be the famous ‘perversity of the thing’) is bothering you. It comes along with the experience that something or someone is impairing you (in English you also can say in a more emotional way: ‘affecting’ you). There is an obstacle to the actions you are used to doing, and you are used to them because they express what you stand for. Annoyance (or hassle, or trouble) per se does not form a real problem, one that must be solved immediately or with a great deal of effort. It is like a fly buzzing around your head, crawling upon your skin, tickling your nose. You try to chase it off, once, twice, several times. And finally you either give up because you are too busy with other things, too tired, or absolutely serene (in the German sense of ‘gelassen’ that leaves everything the way it is). Or you get angry, really angry, and you try to catch that ‘damned dirty bastard’, to strike it dead, or even to shoot it. (A famous example for a funny way in between is offered by the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West when one of the gunmen – performed by Jack Elam in his best ever unshaven and crumpled face – catches a fly in the barrel of his pistol, and then listens tenderly to its desperate buzzing.) Annoyance at that moment has transformed into anger. The slight feeling of anger has increased and has become real anger. Repetition has intensified a feeble emotion and has turned it into one that demands action. Anger cannot sit still. It has to start acting against the source of anger. If it doesn’t, if people go on stomaching the anger, they transform a psychological into a physical fact and sooner or later get sick.

Education policy. – In education policy things started that way in the middle of the 1990s. At that time so-called neoliberalism – an economical theory elaborated at the University of Chicago in the 1960s – had already established itself successfully on the political level. What had begun under the regime of General Pinochet in Chile and his ‘Chicago Boys’ in the 1970s, was taken over by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the standard-bearer of conservatism in the 1980s, and they finally passed on the ideological banner in the 1990s to ambitious social-democrats like Tony Blair and a German chancellor called Gerhard Schröder (‘der Genosse der Bosse’, the comrade of the bosses). At that time neoliberalism – meanwhile a polemical term – started its attack on the universities in Europe. In 1999 the European Secretaries of Education signed the so-called Bologna Declaration that was intended to set up a unified European space of higher education. Essential, and meanwhile well-known elements, are two-stage degrees (BA and MA), the ECTS (European Credit Transfer System), and studies oriented towards employability.

The University of Amsterdam. – Already some years earlier, in 1995, the Dutch Government decided to transfer the ownership of and responsibility for public real estate to universities (and schools, hospitals and other public organizations). That decision had huge consequences. When the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA), in 1998, came up with the ambitious plan to reorganize the university along four ‘centres’ or campuses, a first main step into a slowly increasing disaster was taken. Summing it up in a few numbers: In 2008 – the year of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers – the UvA took out its first bullet loan of 55 million euros. For the first time in its history – established in 1632 during the famous Golden Age – this university became a net debtor. In 2011, total outstanding debt already had increased to 136 million euros, and it is expected to reach 400 million euros in 2018 (Engelen, etc. 2014: 1083).This caused a power shift in the management structures which becomes obvious by looking at the employees at the central administration building, the Maagdenhuis (House of Virgins, called that way because it once was an orphanage for catholic girls). There are 21 employees in the matter of Real Estate Management, 13 in the matter of Finance & Control, 8 in the matter of Strategy & Information, and finally 7 in the matter of Academic Affairs, which means teaching and research, thus the matter which was originally the core business of a university (when it did not yet think of itself in business terms).

This economic development brought about a drastic change of everyday work at the university. A change, however, that came in small steps which were difficult to immediately identify as pieces of a larger scheme: the redefinition and reshaping of academic life in terms of quantifiable economic efficiency, profitability and transparency. In the course of the protest movement the thinking pattern behind this change has received a new Dutch name: ‘rendementsdenken’ (rendement = return on investment). The process started out with baby steps, which were just annoying but – one by one – did not seem that dangerous. Yet the sum of those baby steps eventually led to a moral shock (Jasper 2011: 285-304). A huge number of students and teachers came to realize that the new management of the university had transformed academic life in such a way that it contradicts the core values which should guide academia.

Some examples. Teachers’ two main tasks – research and teaching – have been put under enormous pressure. As less research money is given directly to universities, academics have to spend an increasing amount of time – at the moment between 20 and 30 percent of their working hours – on writing research proposals submitted to research organizations. The time that remains for actual research and writing consequently decreases. But since the quality of research is measured increasingly by the quantity of publications, academics try to publish more while having less time to read the growing number of publications in their field of expertise. The distribution of research money on the basis of such a competitive system also produces the Matthew effect: those who have been successful once in receiving external research money, have increased chances to be successful a second and a third time. Those who have not been successful, have decreasing chances of ever being successful. As a consequence, the academic staff becomes more and more split into two groups: those who buy their way out for doing research and are highly valued by the management because of their work’s economic profitability, and those who do mostly teaching, many of them on precarious non-permanent contracts that enable the management to pursue a hire-and-fire policy depending on rising and falling student numbers.

As for teaching, the emphasis by both the Dutch education policy and the university management on ‘output numbers’ and ‘performance benchmarks’ has installed a system of quantification, control and bureaucratic transparency which makes it more and more difficult for teachers to put their energy into the highly creative, exciting, and inherently uncontrollable process of academic learning. The organization of teaching in the departments becomes dominated by the criterion of profitability: as many students as possible should get as many number of credit points as possible in order to receive a degree in as short a time as possible. These are the criteria that determine how much money faculties and departments receive from the Executive Board. Teachers and students are haunted by more and more tests according to more and more criteria (toetselementen). There are course manuals and examination files, feedback forms, standardization of working hours, ever more meetings to discuss these measures and ever more excel sheets to be filled in. The time that remains for preparing a seminar and talking to students diminishes and the thing that informs good teaching more than anything else – one’s own intellectual work – must be shifted to the evenings and weekends. A German colleague once mentioned that he feels like a jackass increasingly loaded by teaching, administration, committee, and fundraising tasks, and then sent into a race against the thoroughbred horses of elitist and often private universities like Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge.

All these performance benchmarks (prestatieafspraken) and achievement provisions (studiesuccesmaatregelen) end up in streamlining the purpose of teaching; it gets more and more reduced to fact-checking. And since all these benchmarks and provisions are always imperfect and can be better, there is a correction and reform year after year. At the University of Amsterdam the collective limit of acceptance was exceeded for the first time when the Executive Board decided to go for a teaching system called 8-8-4. Within a semester-term a course had to be given in 8 weeks, followed by another one of the same length, and finally by a course of 4 weeks. Such a restructuring – established mainly for the reason that the UvA wanted to merge with the VU, the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam, where this teaching system was already established, a fusion which in the end failed – necessitates a huge amount of work and respective energy, above all if the people who have to do it are convinced that the whole operation is counterproductive. What can you teach to students of the Humanities in a course of 8, let alone 4 weeks? Forget close reading, the detailed analysis of arguments, and reflections on the premises of a text. Fact-feeding is the purpose of such a teaching system.

Rebellion. – The limit of acceptance was definitely exceeded when only two years after the 8-8-4 system was introduced, a plan for a new restructuring came up at the Faculty of Humanities. This time the reason was not a planned merger but a financial problem. Through some Friday afternoon emails sent by the Dean – emails, which sweetened our weekends in a cynical way – staff members were told that there is a shortage in the faculty budget. First, the administration gave us the number of some hundred thousand euros, but quickly it increased to 3 million, then 8 million, and finally 12 million euros. Nobody could tell exactly, and nobody could give convincing reasons for these shortages. The communication turned out to be disastrous.

The administration repeated that the Faculty of Humanities has to deal with a decrease in student numbers and thus with a decrease in available money, forcing the administration to lay off 100 teachers. After the protest had already spread, the central administration admitted that the costs for the ambitious real-estate plans of four campuses forces every faculty to deal – some more, some less – with drastic financial cuts, especially the Faculty of Humanities and the Faculty of Law. At the Humanities the administration started the process of ‘restructuring’ by a so-called ‘Profile 2016’, a ‘vision’ (it’s always very dangerous when admins talk of visions) to make the faculty enduring (duurzaam) and viable (levensvatbaar) by the means of an efficiency-battle (efficiencyslag).

This was the moment when the political emotions exploded. A process of continued top-down politics compressing the freedom of action of teachers and students, and executed with incompetence, both in planning as in communication, had finally reached its limit. And it was the language of emotions that put the matter in a nutshell. Suddenly a letter written by a professor addressed to the Dean and the Heads of the Departments was circulating among the members of the whole faculty. Explicitly it expressed a ‘shock’, and obviously it was a shock many people of the faculty shared. Active students appeared on stage under the name ‘Humanities Rally’, and when they organized a ‘Night of Protest’ everybody – including the Dean and a member of the Executive Board – could experience how all that frustration and anger which had been held back for a long time now broke loose. The well-established game of civilized retention did not work any longer. And, at least for a large group of people, the pervasive fear of speaking up was trumped by the moral outrage. This first moment of anger and rebellion later on culminated in the occupation of the Bungehuis, the administration building of the Faculty of Humanities, and – after it was evicted – the occupation of the Maagdenhuis, the administration building of the university.

Anger. – Anger is a respected emotion in the Western canon. It starts already with the first documented Western poetry and one of the most famous heroes of our culture. ‘Sing the anger of Achilles’, so are the first lines of Homer’s Iliad, thus honouring ‘anger’ or ‘rancour’ (the old Greek word is ménis) with being at the very onset of our culture. In philosophy, as well, anger is an acknowledged subject because in contrast to other aggressive affects – affects that foster activity or violence – like hatred, envy, or jealousy, it expresses itself in the language of morality. Anger is seen as an affect reacting to injustice. Thus there is ‘rightful’ and even ‘holy anger’. In contrast to hatred, anger knows a proportion, it isn’t excessive, and it doesn’t imply hostility. It usually comes up when you are convinced that someone offends against a norm that is very important to you. It is not clear whether such an emotion – like the non-aggressive emotion of shame – is constitutive for morality, but it clearly works as an indicator. The fact that a certain moral norm is important for a subject arises with the respective emotions: no emotions, no importance. But although a certain moral norm may not be important for a subject, it nevertheless may be seen as justified. Reading in the newspaper that someone has robbed a bank may not cause any emotion inside my chest, nevertheless I agree that the moral norm ‘Thou shalt not steal!’ in principle is right. Philosophically seen, we have to deal with the well-known difference between theoretical and practical validity. If someone doesn’t react to a violation – by himself or others – of moral norms by showing anger and indignation, or shame, we are allowed to assume that the respective norm doesn’t have validity in a practical sense for that person (Demmerling and Landwehr 2007: 287, 302; Lorde 1981: 7; Hessel 2010; Bromell 2013: 285-311).

Compensation and balance. – Anger and indignation, however, do not determine the process of protest. They stand for an emotion ‘that gets you in’; they do have a mobilizing power, and often are ‘at the core’ of the emotional and political dynamics of protest movements (Jasper 2014: 208-213). But at some point they need to be balanced and compensated by other emotions and moral values or even principles. If this works out well, the mechanism of compensation, or better, the art of balancing, in fact takes place. Since this balancing is a rule that can be learned only in practice, there is no meta-rule that could control its application. Immanuel Kant in that context speaks about ‘judgement’ (Urteilskraft), and Ludwig Wittgenstein also thought about this problem in an insisting way. Practical knowledge is habitualized knowledge, knowledge that has become a set habit; it is knowing how instead of knowing that. Watching, then, how often so-called negative emotions, like anger and shame, turn into positive ones, like joy, self-respect, and solidarity, is one of the really wonderful moments in a protest movement. You can watch it when people raise their voice for the first time as they take a stand; when a student speaks up and formulates her point perspectively; when the face of a colleague lights up and changes from frustration to enthusiasm after he has joined the protest.

Fear. – The power of these positive emotions – positive for the individual and the collective – is so strong exactly because the countervailing powers, of course (because an emotion, like fear, doesn’t vanish once and for all), remain present. One of them, maybe the strongest one, is fear. The protest at the University of Amsterdam was going on already for some months. Nevertheless the buzzword ‘culture of fear’ hung hard-bitten over all assemblies. It was obvious that many colleagues did not dare to speak their mind as they were afraid of losing their job. The ‘silent majority’ in such a case is in fact a ‘silenced majority’.

Shame. – Another emotional countervailing power is shame. The British writer Marina Warner has put into words how the current university management of the UK – similar to, and even worse than the one in the Netherlands – works with that emotion. The managers count on shame – in others, of course, not in themselves (Warner 2015). Shame means the excruciating fear of being worthless because one does not fulfil a (moral or social) norm. It most commonly appears in the form of an inner voice which has two messages and smoothly switches back from one to the other. Either it says: ‘You are not good enough!’, or it says: ‘Who do you think you are?’ When people struggle to keep up with the output expectations in everything they do, they are quickly paralyzed by the thought: ‘You are not good enough!’ If they try to break out of it, stick true to what they passionately believe in, the ‘Who do you think you are?’ message will immediately step in to make them feel miserable and apathetic again.[i]

Respect. – Among the emotions and values that compensate and balance anger, fear, and shame, respect turns out to be a very important one. In philosophy it is, once again, controversial whether respect is an emotion at all. As an acute feeling respect has to be something that befalls us, and thus something that cannot be controlled by our will and moral intention. As an habitualized attitude, on the contrary, it is deeply moral but detached from emotion. Kant’s respect of human beings as purpose in themselves delivers the best example for this. There is a third possibility in between, and this is respect as an emotional disposition because one can have the disposition towards respect for somebody without having the respective emotion at every encounter, and without aiming respect in the Kantian sense at everybody. And, finally, there is another possibility called ‘civility’. It is within this context that Kant’s conception of respect as ‘intelligible’, as a feeling brought about by reason, gets some visual evidence.

Respect, civility, and self-care. – During the many days (and nights) of protest around the Maagdenhuis the students have demonstrated what being respectful of others means. The task of chairing debates, spontaneous meetings, and General Assemblies bringing together teachers and students was always delegated to a student. Although there were so many different people, i.e. incorporated experiences, present in the room, and although there was no guarantee at all that there would be an agreement in the end (though urgently needed), the crowd managed every time. When it is about the advantages of democracy, John Dewey talks about ‘pooled intelligence’ (1937: 457-67)[ii]. Here, at the Maagdenhuis, one could see it at work. The amazing result of consensus was not only brought about by people who are bound together by a shared political aim, and therefore have an instrumental reason for finding consensus. It was also the result of people who honour the emotional challenge such a situation means for everyone involved. It simply was touching to see students regularly taking the responsibility of reminding everyone in a soft voice that they should stick to the rules of discussion. They knew how quickly a debate can derail because human passions are running amok instead of being channelled into a productive form. They understood that we have to protect ourselves by carefully fostering our civility. They understood that people have to enact what they are striving for in order to achieve it: starting any discussion and any action with a genuine respect for everyone involved, including for ourselves. Thus there is also a kind of self-respect at stake here, a kind which is intermingled with self-care.

The elements of moral respect, civility, and self-care form a constellation that allows to zoom in on Kant’s very specific concept of respect as an intelligible feeling. In Kant such a feeling is effected by ‘pure’ (moral) reason, and therefore it implies that it is universal; directed towards everyone. A weaker reformulation in the sense of civility does not imply that such an intelligible feeling is effected purely by moral reason but that it is tied up with reason. Such a reformulation accepts our conditio humana, the fact that we make mistakes, but at the same time remains aware of something which is bigger than us; which is in a certain sense sublime. (And that is the reason why Kant connects respect very closely with the sublime). Civility is an habitualized attitude of respect which is neither restricted to single persons and acute feelings, nor extended to all persons in a universal and de-emotionalized way.[iii]

In the end respect as an acute feeling comes up, as well. Watching a situation when diverse emotions are channelled in a productive way by a diverse crowd; that is to say, when emotions are balanced and compensated by other emotions and moral values, cannot but lead to a feeling of respect for everyone involved, respect now in the French sense of ‘Chapeau!’ or in the German sense of ‘Alle Achtung!’ Respect here is directed towards an achievement which is not necessarily a moral one. The achievement is: handling a collective situation with moral respect and sensitivity, i.e. with civility. If, on top of that, wit and humour are added, the thing is not only impressive but positively enchanting. As a teacher you may ask yourself what you could teach these students anyway. Some expertise, certainly. But they do have already the skill for one of the most important things in life.

Theoretical backing. – If we want to have a theoretical backing for those observations, we can easily refer to Martha Nussbaum’s recent work. She has published widely on the role of emotions in moral philosophy. In her voluminous book Political Emotions. Why Love Matters for Justice she offers a broad discussion about the connection between politics and emotions, especially between politics and love. Somewhat too airily Nussbaum likes to make clear and oppositional distinctions between so-to-speak good and bad emotions. Thus she calls emotions like fear, envy, and shame ‘compassion’s enemies’, and she defines compassion as ‘a painful emotion directed at the serious suffering of another creature’, thus as an emotion that links us to others, be it humans or animals (Nussbaum 2013: 142, 314).[iv] In the case of fear this means that such a ‘narrowing emotion’ – an emotion ‘with a very narrow frame, initially at least: one’s own body, and perhaps by extension, one’s life’ – needs to be combined with ‘general concern’ or, in the language of the 18th century, with ‘sympathy’. Such a combination then leads to a ‘tempering’ of fear. One of the examples Nussbaum refers to is Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address from 1933, thus a political speech, with the most famous line: ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts …’ (Nussbaum 2013: 320, 326). In the case of envy, similarly, as an ‘antidote’ we need ‘a sense of a common fate, and a friendship that draws the advantaged and less advantaged into a single group, with a common task before it.’ Examples are delivered again by a Roosevelt speech, by Gandhi’s strategy to convince elites to adopt a simple lifestyle, and by building New York’s Central Park as a ‘People’s Park’. But in the case of envy it is evident as well that ‘much will have to be done by laws and institutions that make basic entitlements secure for all, and by educational and economic systems that make people feel they have constructive alternatives’ (Nussbaum 2013: 344, 345). Thus the political role and the public cultivation of emotions – essentially articulated by artists and poets as well – has to be supported by political, economic, social, and cultural institutions. And besides this it also has to be limited by the normative goals of a liberal society, among them the very well known goals of equal respect for persons and a commitment to equal liberties of speech, association, and conscience. The framework of liberalism remains sound in Nussbaum. The ‘challenge’ her new book takes up is to offer more than liberalism – the liberalism of Locke, Kant, and Rawls, not so much the version presented by Mill – without becoming illiberal and even dictatorial in the manner, for example, of Rousseau (Nussbaum 2013: 5).[v] It is that challenge, not the suggested solution, that makes Nussbaum’s book important.

Aesthetic transformation. – If we ask ourselves on a general theoretical level how to deal with emotions in politics, that is in the public arena of ethical conflicts, that is in an arena where conflicts about how one should live are discussed, negotiated, and – sometimes violently – solved, there are at least two answers. We were talking already about the first one under the heading ‘compensation’ and ‘balance’. The second answer popped up when we were talking about ‘the art’ of balancing and the ‘sublime’ aspect of respect. Whereas the first way of dealing with emotions in politics aims at a practical system of compensation and balance (it is a practical one because in the end you have to learn it by doing it), the second way aims at a transformation of emotions. And art, or in a broader sense, aesthetic experience, is an ideal means for this.

Like every protest movement, the protest around the Maagdenhuis made use of aesthetic forms of expression. Most prominently, of course, there is the use of language known from its Greek beginnings as rhetoric, in addition there is the use of images, and finally of body performance. When the ‘Night of Protest’, the first public event, took place at the Humanities, and one of the young active students gave a short speech finishing with: ‘I am Julia. I am human. I am Humanities’, the protest had found its first slogan. Posters quickly followed, each of them playing with the slogan. On one of them Van Gogh is looking at us in a famous self-portrait and gives us the message: ‘I am human. THINK. Humanities Amsterdam’. People changed the logo of the University of Amsterdam. The three St. Andrew’s crosses – the one in the middle enclosed by a ‘u’ for ‘university’ – in a vertical line were put in a horizontal line, thus symbolizing the anti-hierarchical, democratic, and – last but not least – emotional constitution of the new university (alluding to the three xxx symbolizing hugs at the end of a mail). With historical pathos and irony a protesting staff member offered grand comparisons on twitter between the events in Amsterdam in 2015 and in Paris in 1789: ‘We will stay here until we have a new Constitution’ was the famous oath at the Jeu de Paume, and it became an expression of the will to stay of the occupiers and their supporters in the Maagdenhuis combining a photograph of the General Assembly on the night of the occupation with a copy of the famous drawing by Jacques-Louis David.

Twitter is generally an important technical medium in that context. Tweets have to be short, and mostly they are meant to spread news, sometimes gossip, and to comment on current events, sometimes in hate-speech. (In general we should not deny that next to the regulars’ table and the stand in a football stadium, twitter is a legitimate form of unfiltered expression of opinion in a modern society.) But some of the tweets are formulated very finely, that is to say that they comment and insinuate with the means of rhetoric. But also classical posters can do the trick. After the Executive Board (College van Bestuur, CvB) had finally formulated a letter including ten points for further, and now constructive discussion, somebody hung a poster in the Maagdenhuis that was also tweeted. It showed a drawing of an astronaut with newspaper articles about the University of Amsterdam in the background. It stated ‘The #CvB proposal seems like a huge step for them, but it’s a small step for humanity #houstonwestillhaveaproblem’ alluding to the famous quotation of the first man on the moon in 1969. (‘That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.’) And since many people within the protest movement were still very sceptic about the real or good intentions of the CvB, they (intended to) remind them of this scepticism by referring to a song by Sting that itself plays with a slogan of the surveillance society (‘Big Brother is watching you!’) integrating it into a love song that sounds gentle but is sinister: ‘#CvB Every word you say, every game you play, we’ll be watching you.’ Of course, a classical rally makes equal use of aesthetic elements, from slogans for the crowd and banners via music – indispensible for many years: drums – and noise – indispensible for many years as well: whistles – to costumes. The rally that took place after the Maagdenhuis was evicted had an ironic aesthetic touch by the mere fact that many people – both staff members and students – decided to dress up nicely and even respectably by wearing a fashionable robe, a suit with tie (or a tie without a suit), or a toga (if they were professors). As always when students who usually do not look like bank employees do things that do not seem decent – like occupying a building –, a part of the published public opinion let their resentments run wild and bad-mouthed the students as long-haired, dirty, left-wing, lazy-bones. Since public opinion is massively influenced by images as well, the students and the larger protest movement simply can prove such resentment wrong by making it look silly. (Maybe this is the only realistic way to disprove a resentment.) So they dress up and deliver nice pictures to tv stations and the press.

Aesthetics helps us to take bad things seriously and not seriously at the same time.[vi] It can do so – but this is a thesis that needs to be defended in more detail – because it has a transformative power. The structural reason for this seems to be its status in between well-established oppositional relationships like those of reason (the realm of argumentation) and emotions, or the universal and the particular, or the abstract and the concrete. In his Critique of Judgment Kant has specified this status in a positive way by ascribing to aesthetics the capacity of exemplary presentation. A work of art, or a corresponding aesthetic experience, does not present itself as an abstract theory with a universal validity claim. But it is not a mere singular object or experience either. Instead it presents something in an exemplary manner. It is able to intensify the experience of a situation by concentrating it in a particular constellation of (visual, verbal, and auditive) signs. Thus, if we want to know what anger ‘is’, that is what this emotion actually means, including its unfolding nuances, we have to read Homer’s description of Achilles, or the Old Testament, or Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas. If we want to know what hatred is and love, envy and practical solidarity, we have to read novels, poems, listen to operas, and watch movies. Works of art baptise our emotions. Of course, we can look up a definition of anger, hatred, love, or solidarity in a dictionary, but this only provides us with a description that remains detached from our own experiences. A novel, a play, an opera, a movie does not provide us with a definition, but the way it presents a story lends that story a validity that goes beyond the particular case. This is also the reason why aesthetic ways of expression can elevate the emotions that are part of it above a mere private sphere. It is an individual who speaks up for something in public. But if she does it – aesthetically – right, she expresses a public opinion.

The power of exemplification, finally, is also the reason why aesthetic ways of expression can be very helpful in building up positive motivations during a political struggle. Once the members of a protest movement – in general a small one – think of themselves as fighting the whole world, in philosophical terms fighting society as a negative totality, because (almost) nobody is able to understand them, it needs a lot of humour, calmness, or intellectual narcissism not to get frustrated. In that context political action either opts for violence, or takes a back seat by sending a message in a bottle. Theodor W. Adorno wanted to send such a message. But his colleague Hanns Eisler rightly remarked that he already knew how the message would read, namely ‘I feel so lousy.’[vii] Adorno thought of art as being such a message. But the actions around the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam – once again – tell another story, one that is closer to another companion of Adorno, namely Herbert Marcuse. It is essentially by aesthetic experiences that – listening to the Rolling Stones – the ‘poor boys’ and girls and queer beings who are ‘fighting in the street’ keep on rollin’.