Category Archives: emotions

Understanding protest

James Jasper’s book Protest provides a valuable introduction to a type of activity around us all the time.

Rally in Baghdad, 2008

I recently read James M. Jasper’s book Protest: A Cultural Introduction to Social Movements. It is written to be used as a textbook, but in an engaging style. I found it a useful refresher covering issues I’ve studied for many years.

Reading about any topic can make you more likely to notice relevant examples, and so it was for me in reading about protest. On the day I finished reading Protest I received an email from Antoon De Baets of the Network of Concerned Historians: PEN International Writers in Prison Committee reported on the 30-month prison sentence received by a Paraguayan writer, Nelson Aguilera. His crime: alleged plagiarism! According to the PEN Committee, experts say no plagiarism was involved, so obviously there must be some other factor involved – a connection between the complainant and the prosecutor. Recipients of the appeal were invited to write to the president of Paraguay. It is a type of protest, along the lines of the efforts of Amnesty International.

Nelson Aguilera

            Then there was an appeal from my union, the National Tertiary Education Union, to send letters to politicians to stop passage of legislation to deregulate fees at Australian universities. It is a typical pressure technique.

I also had just finished providing assessments concerning the Navco database of nonviolent challenges to governments. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan carried out a path-breaking study comparing nonviolent and violent challenges to repressive regimes (as well as secession and anti-occupation struggles). They compiled a database of 323 struggles between 1900 and 2006. In their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works, they showed that anti-regime struggles were far more likely to be successful if they relied primarily on nonviolent methods such as rallies, strikes and boycotts. Furthermore, this conclusion held up regardless of how repressive the regime was: nonviolent action is just as effective against the most ruthless governments.

Erica is now updating and augmenting the database. She sent me and various others a list of over 100 additional nonviolent anti-regime struggles, some in the years since 2006 and some from earlier years that were not included in the original database. There were cases from Algeria and Armenia through to Western Sahara and Yemen.

Landless Workers’ Movement, Brazil, 2005

I had to try to judge whether each struggle was maximalist (seeking to change the government), constituted a campaign, was nonviolent (rather than violent), was successful or unsuccessful, and warranted being in the database. This was a challenging exercise, because quite a few of the cases did not fit neatly into the target categories and because online information was less than ideal. The exercise certainly made me aware of the remarkable capacity of citizens to organise for major political change, using an eye-opening variety of techniques with amazing courage against brutal governments. And in many of the cases, these brutal governments lost the struggle.

Jasper’s book

covers a standard set of topics: defining social movements, the role of meanings in their operation and presence, the wider social context, recruitment, maintaining operations and momentum, making decisions, interactions with other players, and winning/losing. Jasper’s cultural approach has a couple distinctive features. He emphasises the roles of meanings for participants, such as how they see themselves; these meanings draw on beliefs and images in the surrounding culture. Associated with this, he emphasises the role of emotions in social movement dynamics, an area in which he is a pioneering researcher.

James M Jasper

            Jasper also brings to his treatment his special interest in dilemmas: choices that movement activists need to make that involve difficult trade-offs. An example is the organisation dilemma:

Protesters face many choices about how much to formalize their operations through rules, fundraising, paid staff, and offices. Formalities like these help sustain activities over time, but they can also change those activities. The goal of sustaining and protecting the organization appears alongside its original mission, and more time is devoted to raising funds and expanding staffs. In some cases, the survival of the organization becomes the primary goal. Members may then grow cynical about staff salaries, the paid trips leaders take on official business, large and lavish offices. Laws governing the operation of officially incorporated organizations – especially their tax-exempt status – constrain their tactical choices. Organizations are like other strategic means: they always have the potential to become ends in themselves … (p. 82)

One thing that comes across strongly in the book is that activism isn’t all that easy. Movements don’t start or continue by accident: lots of committed people work to bring an issue to public attention, pressure governments or directly implement solutions.

Of special interest are social movement organisations (SMOs). Some well-known examples are Greenpeace and Amnesty International, and there are thousands of others. SMOs are not the same as social movements, which typically incorporate multiple SMOs, independent activists and supporters, and occasional participants. Movements are also more than people and organisations. They involve knowledge, beliefs, assumptions, symbols and many other intangibles.

Occasionally I read a letter to the editor saying, “Where are the protests about X?” where X might be street violence, discrimination or aggression in a foreign country. The letter writers are often decrying what they see as double standards: if environmentalists are protesting about whaling, why aren’t they protesting about land degradation? I assume few of these letter-writers have ever tried to organise a rally. If they had, they would realise how much effort it requires – especially the effort to convince people to attend – and even then a rally does not automatically translate into media coverage.

People who have been involved in social movements often have a deep understanding of how they operate and what they are up against. So what is there for them to learn from Jasper’s book? The advantage of a straightforward, well-written text is putting personal experiences in context. After all, there are hundreds of different social movements, with quite a few commonalities but also a number of differences.

Personally, I found it useful to go through Protest as a refresher about the basics, and an update concerning theoretical developments that might offer insight into movements.

Nonviolent action

On only one point would I differ significantly in emphasis. Jasper distinguishes between two categories of protest methods, calling them “nice” and “naughty.” Nice protest methods operate within the system and accepted by authorities, for example lobbying, voting and petitions. Naughty methods include wildcat strikes, massive rallies and assaulting police: they transgress norms about normal or proper political behaviour, and are seen as threatening.

What this distinction misses is the expanding body of research on nonviolent action, which refers to non-standard methods of social action that do not involve physical violence against opponents. (Nonviolent protesters often suffer violence from police and others.) Methods of nonviolent action include rallies, strikes, boycotts, fasts, sit-ins and setting up alternative political institutions, among others. The dynamics of nonviolent action have been studied in some depth, and diverge in significant ways from the dynamics of violence. For example, police violence against peaceful protesters is likely to generate public outrage, whereas police violence against violent protests is not – even if the police violence is much greater. The choice is not just between naughty and nice but also between violence and nonviolent action.


In the late 1970s, I was active in the Australian anti-uranium movement, and after a number of years started reading social analyses of the movement, and was most disappointed: there was nothing I felt I didn’t already know. This convinced me that there’s nothing quite like being in a movement to understand movement dynamics. However, that was a long time ago, and research into social movements was far less developed than it is today, and I don’t recollect any overview with many insights such as Protest.

Social movements are central to many of the advances that we take for granted today, including overcoming slavery, preventing nuclear war, and challenging racial discrimination and the subjugation of women. I recommend Jasper’s Protest both for movement participants to get a broader view of what they are part of and for outsiders who want a sense of what really goes on in movements.

Brian Martin

Feeling good when others suffer

The emotion of schadenfreude — joy in the pain of others — is widespread but has some dangerous associations.


Imagine that your favourite team is about to play a crucial match, and you hear the news that the other team’s star player has suffered a serious injury during training. You might feel sorry for the player but you also might initially feel a surge of pleasure about the improved prospects for your team.

Another scenario: you have been striving hard at work to be chosen for an important assignment, but are frustrated by a talented rival. Your rival suffers a setback due to a family crisis. You are outwardly concerned but may feel some satisfaction in the turn of events.

Your next-door neighbour is outwardly successful, with a prestigious high-paying job, a large house, fancy car and immaculately presented family. By comparison, you are not nearly so well off. Imagine your feeling when a news report reveals that your neighbour has been the victim of a swindle and will have to downsize.

These are examples of the emotion called schadenfreude, a German word meaning pleasure resulting from someone else’s pain. To learn more about it, I recommend Richard H. Smith’s book The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2013). Smith describes, in an accessible manner, research on schadenfreude, providing everyday examples drawn from popular culture, for example The Simpsons.


Although schadenfreude is often experienced, it is seldom acknowledged publicly or even privately. It is not seen as proper to gloat over someone else’s pain, so in many cases this is a secret emotion. However, there are some circumstances in which schadenfreude is more acceptable and freely expressed: when the other person seems to deserve their suffering.

Smith describes the US television programme To Catch a Predator in which men were enticed, through online conversations, to visit a house where they expected to meet an underage person, possibly for sex. The house was rigged with numerous cameras and the men were filmed as they were informed that their activities and responses were being recorded for broadcast on television. For the men, this was close to the ultimate in humiliation: they were being exposed on national television as likely paedophiles.


Smith notes that paedophilia is so universally reviled that it seems acceptable to revel in the acute agony of these men. They are suffering and many audience members feel it is only fair. Yet the background to each man’s visit was omitted from the program. Some of them may have been victims of child sexual abuse, and there was no explanation of what led up to their visit, nor any proof that they were guilty of paedophilia. The program was set up to enable viewers to enjoy the men’s humiliation, a spectacle called humilitainment.

The example of To Catch a Predator is just one example of what Smith calls the dark side of human nature. Humans are constantly comparing themselves to others, and improve their self-esteem when they come out on top. Studies show that when assessments of personal qualities are subjective, most people think they are better than average. For example, nearly everyone thinks their sense of humour is above average.

Social comparison is almost universal, and when people peg their self-image by comparisons, it is a short step to envy, a toxic emotion. Envy is the resentment and ill will felt when observing that someone has something — money, possessions, talent, good looks, fame — that you don’t. Few people like to feel inferior. Envy often includes a wish for the envied person to suffer or be brought down. This sets the stage for schadenfreude.


It is one thing to be secretly pleased when someone else suffers, because you feel better about yourself, and another to take action to bring about another person’s suffering. Smith, to probe the darkest aspect of these emotions, considers the actions and emotions of Germans during the Nazi occupation of Europe, in particular their attitudes towards the Jews. At the time, many Jews were highly successful, disproportionately filling the ranks of doctors, lawyers and media proprietors, so it is plausible that their high social standing evoked envy. However, few people like to admit to envy, so Hitler and other Nazis instead devalued the Jews — including with furious condemnations — thereby providing a pretext for harming them. Smith provides some telling bits of evidence suggesting that schadenfreude was one of the emotions involved in the genocide of the Jews.

He is also careful to note that in ordinary circumstances, envy is held in check and does not lead to actions to hurt others. To provide a more positive note, Smith gives some examples of individuals who have learned how to rise above any suggestion of schadenfreude. He tells of a man he knew, widely esteemed by others, who never said an ill word about anyone.


In psychology, the “fundamental error of attribution” refers to a widespread mental process of assuming that the behaviour of others reflects their inner purpose. If someone makes some nasty comments, we may assume they have a hostile personality. Yet there are often explanations for behaviour based on circumstance. The other person may be physically ill or suffering extreme stress, which could help to explain their comments.

When our own poor behaviour is involved, we readily blame it on external factors. The fundamental error of attribution involves interpreting actions by others differently than our own.

This is pertinent to schadenfreude. Our own misfortunes, we may feel, are unfair or due to circumstances beyond our control, but the misfortunes of others are attributed to their own flaws. To overcome the tendency to think this way, it is useful to try to think of possible external causes for others’ behaviour. The man who Smith knew learned to do this, and hence did not join in the usual gossiping about the foibles and misfortunes of others.

Smith offers as an exemplar Abraham Lincoln, who early in his career learned the wisdom of not condemning others and subsequently showed amazing restraint in his comments to them. After General George Meade won the battle of Gettysburg but failed to follow up by pursuing the Robert E. Lee’s army and thereby winning the civil war then and there, Lincoln was immensely frustrated, especially because he had futilely appealed to Meade to pursue Lee’s army. Lincoln wrote a letter to Meade expressing his distress at his shortcoming — but he never sent it, and it was found in Lincoln’s papers subsequently. To have sent the letter would have pained Meade but to no purpose.


The Joy of Pain is valuable because it tackles a topic seldom probed outside the scholarly literature. Without being pointed, it can encourage the reader to reflect on emotions and behaviour in a new light, taking into account social comparisons and the toxic consequences of envy.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Sharon Crozier-De Rosa and Roger Patulny for useful comments.