Shame and the Challenges of Postwar Western Democracies

As the Second World War approached its end, Saul K. Padover worked as an intelligence officer for the US Army’s Psychological Warfare Division. In this capacity, he interviewed inhabitants of the first US occupied German cities about their relationship to the National Socialist regime that was about to collapse. After the war, he published a report about this time in a book entitled Experiment in Germany. His descriptions of the different German characters he encountered and their reactions to his questions testify to his astute capacity of observation and his psychological sensibility. Whereas Padover was mostly interested in assessing the political views of the Germans he had interviewed, this rich material also offers a unique insight into Germans’ varied emotional responses to the end of the war in their confrontation with a representative of the new political power.

Regularly, Padover would ask Germans at some point during an interview what they knew about the German crimes during the war. In response his interlocutors displayed the full range of typical reactions: denial, banalization, rationalization, callousness, the defense of alleged ignorance, and occasionally a strong moral indignation about what was sometimes explicitly called the national “shame” (Padover 1946, 66-68; 192). Most strikingly, however, one small group reacted differently from all of those mentioned above. They stopped talking, averted their eyes and started shivering, crying or praying. Padover’s question triggered an emotional reaction in them that showed all the characteristics of shame (Padover 1946, 68, 136, 145). These Germans did not only accept the reality of the German crimes but also the fact that they were themselves connected to them. Thus, those who used the term “shame” were not necessarily those who showed the signs of shame. Both groups nevertheless expressed the same moral convictions regarding the German atrocities. They differed, however, in the way they positioned themselves towards those crimes. Those who seemed to feel shame accepted a collective responsibility, those who were outspoken about the German disgrace tended to disavow their own connection to it.1

Shame is experienced as the strongest possible attack on a person’s self-worth. It is a self-reflexive emotion which is intimately tied to the social norms an individual consciously or unconsciously subscribes to, and at the same time it makes these connections discernible. When shame is triggered, there is a breakdown of the self and the usual social interactions are incapacitated. Because of this, shame demands to be acted upon, to find a way out of it. This is also the reason why shame, when it is directly spoken about, has already lost its power over the individual who speaks, either because the cause for shame was only temporal, or because it was transformed into something else by adjusting the individual’s, or the group’s, normative convictions and forms of identity. The latter can be observed in the case of postwar Germans who stopped thinking of themselves as Germans because being German itself was experienced as shameful (Moses 2009; Parkinson 2015). Padover’s book illustrates the intricacies of shame in one of the twentieth century’s most crucial moments of rupture. In what follows we want to argue that because of shame’s specific and complex character a systematic focus on this emotion can alter our understanding of the most fundamental historical shifts and challenges within western democracies since the Second World War. (On the history of emotions see Rosenwein 2002; Frevert 2013; with respect to deep political change Reddy 2001).

Various scholars have elaborated on shame’s social and emotional complexity. Jennifer Manion defines shame as a “self-reflective emotion of negative global assessment, [which] involves a painful, sudden awareness of the self as less good than hoped for and expected, precipitated by the identification […] of a seemingly significant character shortcoming” (quoted in Locke 2007, 149). In experiencing shame, the individual interacts with the opinions and views of external actors through the emotion’s inherent self-reflection. This dynamic makes shame a fundamental emotion in the formation of identities of both individuals and groups (Jasper 2011, 5-6). Thomas Scheff therefore calls shame the “master emotion” designating “a large family of emotions and feelings that arise through seeing the self negatively, if even only slightly negatively, through the eyes of others, or only anticipating such a reaction.” Shame, then, regulates other more basic emotions such as anger, fear, or despair (Scheff 2003, 247, 254).

The specific way in which shame is connected to the individual’s relationship with itself and the social world means that, as Elspeth Probyn has emphasized, experiencing shame can bring about a heightened consciousness of one’s interests, insecurities, values, and aspirations. Feeling shame, in other words, always involves experiencing crucial aspects of one’s identity and one’s dependence on others. Shame therefore constitutes a vital bridge between the self and society (Probyn 2005, ix-x and 30). But shame is not only a social emotion that connects us back to our own values, it is also a heteronomous emotion. We feel shame as a result of “a failure to live up to norms, ideals, and standards that are primarily public”. Because of this focus on a (dominant) group’s norms, minorities, lower classes, and marginalized groups are more vulnerable to experiencing shame and to being victims of shame practices (Maibom 2010, 568 and 569).

This role of power relations in how shame operates plays a central role in the work of Cultural Studies scholar Sally Munt. Munt describes shame as “a socially constructed and historically contingent entity, system or psychic process that in turn constructs us as subjects” (Munt 2007, editor’s preface ix-x). She underlines that shame has a transformative potential and is in that sense performative. On the one hand, groups can be persistently stigmatized through shame within society. On the other, shame can be a powerful force in that it incites reactions against such shame practices. By turning the negative experience of shame into a positive feeling of uniting and coming into action, shame can provide groups with cultural and political agency. Munt connects shaming practices specifically to power structures when she asserts that “histories of violent domination and occupation are found frequently lurking behind these dynamics of shame, and the shame, although directly aimed at the minoritised group, also implicates the bestower” (Munt 2007, 2-3). The complexity of shame’s social dynamic can therefore only be fully understood if we acknowledge that shame is a relevant emotional factor on both the dominating and the marginalized side of exclusionary social mechanisms.

The rich body of literature on shame, then, gives us ample reasons to regard shame as a particularly strong force in history, a force that cannot only exert power over social groups but that can also make them aware of their own social attachments and normative attitudes, a force, furthermore, that connects those who are at the lower end of an established structure of domination with those who inhabit a superior position of (shaming) power. Munt also emphasizes the temporality of shame and comes up with a crucial distinction between short-term and long-term shame. Short-term shame is mostly individually experienced shame resulting from shameful behavior, for example, getting caught while doing something unjust and socially unaccepted can cause short-term shame. This kind of shame works correctively, as it triggers the subject of shame to change the shame-causing behavior. Because of this relatively easy solution, shame in these cases is only experienced briefly. Long-term shame is much more complex as it is the direct result of existing power structures and fundamentally questions the identity and moral standards of minority groups. Long-term shame, then, touches upon the foundation of human social existence. Because the behavior and actions of the group are disapproved of, the particular group becomes a social outcast and is placed outside of society. In that way, long-term shame can have far-reaching effects (Munt 2018, 4-8).

It is such long-term shame above all which should be taken seriously as a relevant factor in larger historical developments. Firstly, it points to strongly embedded power structures in society. Secondly, group stigmatization can be an extremely strong motivation for social action. Both aspects of long-term shame can expose, or give rise to, a strong desire for societal change. As long-term shame is persistent because of its deep embeddedness in society, a rigorous transformation is necessary to alter the status quo. If the shamed group takes matters into their own hands, comes into action against the shaming practice and succeeds, this can be accomplished. The new normative cultural framework arising from such successful social actions provides society with a new perspective on identity, culture, and morality. In that way, society can be fundamentally changed.

The role of shame in social action and historical change is certainly manifold, but two aspects in particular can be identified. On the one hand, shame functions as the key motivator for the shamed group to start political action. The collective consciousness of a shared experience of shame can produce a strong urge, as well as the means, to turn the imposed shame into pride. On the other hand, the contested group in power experiences a different kind of shame. If a substantial shift in the dominant normative framework happens, members of the dominant group can be accused of their – individual or collective – responsibility in stigmatizing the minority group in a way that starts to resonate with a broader public. As the criticized power structures tend to be deeply interwoven with a given culture, the shift in perspective necessary for members of the dominant group to acknowledge the “others’” viewpoint can itself trigger feelings of shame.2

The historical changes and accompanying waves of social movements and normative shifts that occurred from the middle of the twentieth century onwards in so-called Western societies could take on a different historical meaning if systematically viewed from this angle. As postcolonial thinkers such as Aimé Césaire have argued early on, the shock of the German colonial empire on European terrain entailed an, albeit immediately disavowed, recognition of similarly de-humanizing techniques underlying European colonialist policies in its respective overseas territories (Césaire 2000, 36f.). Maybe the reactions of postwar Germans as recorded by Saul Padover have to be seen as a specific variant of a moral and emotional reckoning that would ensue in many forms from both National Socialism and the postwar processes of decolonization. In his 1948 preface “Black Orpheus” to Léopold Senghor’s anthology of “new Negro and Malagasy poetry”, Jean-Paul Sartre evoked a collective white subject’s disconcerting shift in perspective when he wrote that “these poems give us shame […]. All those, colonist and accomplice, who open this book, will have the sensation of reading as though over another’s shoulder, words that were not intended for them” (quoted in Bewes 2011, 4).

Voices of the négritude movement, such as Césaire and Senghor, introduced a perspective to the European public which made it impossible for white readers to continue excluding the subjective experience of the formerly objectified Other. Sartre immediately grasped that a major consequence of such a shift would be the experience of shame connected with the realization of one’s position on the side of the oppressor. Meanwhile, black GIs’ participation in a war against Nazi Germany’s racist regime, and in the subsequent occupation of West-Germany, resulted in a different shift of perspective and heightened their consciousness of US society’s moral double standards when it came to race relations. In an ironic historical twist, African American soldiers came back from occupied Germany having experienced for the first time a “breath of freedom” compared with the racial segregation which would welcome them at home (Höhn and Klimke 2010).

The ensuing Civil Rights Movement demonstrates how the two different experiences of shame are intertwined in the way they can fuel fundamental societal change. From 1954 onwards, the Civil Rights Movement actively engaged in transforming what could be called an (externally imposed) African American “ancestral shame” (Probyn) – shame for one’s origin or descent – into pride. This process could build on decades of cultural work within the African American community that provided a different frame of reference for African American self-perception (Wall 2016). The transformation brought about by this movement ultimately influenced American society as a whole as well, since it provoked others to start acknowledging the African American experience and thus recognizing American racism as a shameful practice. The combination of the pride formed within the African American community and the shame about racist practices imposed on white Americans would eventually bring about significantly more equality and a new status quo.

The emotional dynamics of this strategy clearly inspired other social groups, such as, for instance, the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) – founded in 1963 to liberate French-speaking Québec (Koks 2017). In order to identify the Québécois cause with the Civil Rights Movement, the FLQ created a new Québécois identity around the figure of the so-called nègre blanc. Pierre Vallières, one of the founding members and leaders of the FLQ, declared that the Québécois were the “white niggers of America”, a statement he supported by explicitly comparing the Québécois movement to the Civil Rights Movement and French-African decolonization activism. The nègre blanc metaphor worked in three ways. First, it evoked collective shame and legitimized the struggle. The metaphor emphasized, dramatized and thereby emotionally intensified French-speaking Québecois’ collective experience of a structurally unjust political, economic, social and cultural position within British-Canada. This interpretation was then used to argue for the violent struggle of the FLQ and to help gain support within Québec society. Secondly, the metaphor also made it possible to refer to the Civil Rights Movement as a model for a successful revolution. Vallières requested the Québécois to follow the example of the Civil Rights Movement and to turn Québécois nègre blanc shame into pride. Thirdly, the metaphor helped to reveal specific British-Canadian practices (such as demanding that French Canadians “speak white”) as shameful.3 In all three ways the use of the metaphor invigorated a movement which ultimately achieved a better position of Québec within Canada. With the Charter of the French Language in 1975 and the informal status of independence, the struggle of the FLQ can justly be called successful.

The role of shame as a crucial emotional component driving collective human perceptions and actions, and thereby contributing to social change, cannot, of course, be empirically proven in the strict sense. Scholars interested in understanding the workings of modern democracies should nevertheless take the existing scholarship on shame seriously, not only to deepen their imagination of the human experience in the past, but also in order to systematically take the role of emotions into account in their analyses of political conflict and social change. This is particularly important in the context of the complex political struggles of twentieth-century democracies, which reverberate, and continue, to this day. As women, descendants of slaves, former colonial subjects, homosexuals and other marginalized groups entered the political and public arenas, they gave a voice and a language to both their experience of being dehumanized and their alternative view of their selves as politically active citizens. Shame, then, was collectively confronted and transformed by those new actors. This change, as a consequence, induced shame within many of those watching or listening from the perspective of the dominating social groups.

As Claude Lefort has emphasized, democracy opens the question of power without ever closing it again (Lefort 1988, 19). This also means that, as long as a liberal form of democracy exists, there can never be one group, one perspective, within unequal social relations, that exclusively occupies the political forum. The presence of radically different social experiences in the public arena is therefore a democratic necessity. This very presence, however, may inevitably produce reactions of shame in so far as it throws light on past or present acts of injustice, oppression, and violence that contradict the moral standards and self-images of those who, consciously or unconsciously, benefit from or participate in such acts. Saul Padover’s description of how Germans broke down as they looked into this kind of mirror is a stark reminder that it is not only the shame experienced by ostracized people which can be a threat to their existence, but that this can even be true for the shame of those exposed as having been complicit in the ostracism. One way to come out of this kind of shame is to disavow the past acts of exclusion and violence as part of one’s own collectivity.

In the introduction to the 1945 edition of her book Race, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict reminded her readers of how Nazi Germans used American segregation politics for their war propaganda by asking: “How could America object to her dogma when in her country Negroes even in the uniform of their country could be turned away from restaurants and from the movie houses?” Passionately arguing the case against racial discrimination, Benedict concludes her introduction by appealing directly to an exclusively white audience: “We of the White race, we of the Nordic race, must make it clear that we do not want the kind of cheap and arrogant superiority the racists promise us” (Benedict 1945, vii and xi).

The “we” Benedict addresses here in order to plead for an end of racist thinking is itself a racially defined we. Benedict apparently deemed it necessary to hold on to that racial “we” in her fight against the evil of a racism that legitimized oppression on the basis of the category of a “White” or “Nordic race” (and their Other). In doing so she proclaimed a new self-image of the “White race” itself as non-racist. In one and the same sentence she thus demanded an end of the racist paradigm by continuing to embrace the racial paradigm. This rhetorical strategy certainly illustrates the universal acceptance of the racial paradigm in 1945, the moment of publication (Guterl 2001). It could, however, also be read as an effect of the specter of shame. Benedict might have felt the need to explicitly position the “we” of the “White race” outside of the very paradigm of racial superiority that had constituted this “we”, precisely because the alternative would have been too shameful. The passage might thus serve as an early expression of what Gloria Wekker has called “white innocence” (Wekker 2017).

Shame can incite us to quickly assume a defensive position of moral purity or “innocence” and thus incite us to solely focus on protecting our self-image. Such a reaction is often accompanied by the denial of racism (or sexism etc.) as a shared experience of social groups. It thus blocks the necessary emotional work of opening up to others’ perspectives. In other words, shame can impede the difficult work of actually bringing the different experiences expressed in the democratic arena into conversation with each other instead of their mere articulation against each other. Studying up close the role of shame in the political struggles of twentieth-century democracies might therefore generate insights that can contribute directly to the quality of current political debates.

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’.