The Role of Emotions in Reproducing the Culture of Violence
Elsewhere, I have described how the particular historical, social and political context of El Salvador permeated the young people's consciousness, sense of security, and ways of being in and feeling about the world (Van Wijnendaele 2011). I have written about the young people's emotions of fear, distrust and rage (particularly for young men) as long-term emotional dispositions being profoundly embedded in their everyday lives. Understanding emotions as socially and culturally produced and as productive of subjects and the power relations that constitute them (Harding and Pribram 2002), the young people's rage, distrust and fear are not just private and individual phenomena, but have to be understood as generated by, and expressive of, the particular socio-cultural context in which they live (see also Abu-Lughod and Lutz 2009; Lutz and White 1986). Their emotions tell us something not only about themselves, but also about their social worlds, their relationships with others, and the social rules and structures that enable or prevent them from feeling in particular ways. Recognizing that particular cultural, social and historical contexts affect what people feel and how they manage their emotions (Bondi 2005), the young participants’ feelings of anger, fear and distrust are to be understood in the light of a multiplicity of mutually reinforcing socio-cultural factors: a long bloody history of dictatorship, civil war and authoritarian regimes; a historically polarized society; poverty in the face of abundance; machismo informed by aggressive notions of masculinity; a hierarchical educational system pursuing repetition and obedience rather than autonomous critical thinking; increasingly mediatized discourses of dangerous poor youth; and repressive zero-tolerance policies. In short, a deeply entrenched, enduring culture of violence resulting in social disintegration, paralyzing any form of protest and functioning to confirm the power of a small elite over the majority of the poor (Van Wijnendaele 2011).
The Role of Emotions in Challenging the Culture of Violence and Constructing a Culture of Peace
Evaluating the empowering impact of the PAR and taking into account the particular context and the culture of violence in which they live, noticeably, the young people's accounts of empowerment and change accentuate the importance of self-confidence, trust, connectedness and calmness as important emotion-related attitudes that were stimulated during the process and through which they felt empowered individually and collectively as a group. All the young participants mentioned they felt more self-confident, had learned to overcome feelings of shame and now felt better about themselves. Cecilia, one of the girls participating in the process, said: “I have been thinking that I feel much surer about myself now. I learned that I have valid opinions and that I deserve respect and that others have to take me into account” (participatory evaluation workshop, individual questionnaire, 28 October 2007). Cecilia refers to the fact that she now feels less embarrassed to talk to others, also in other spaces beyond the PAR process. As the other young participants, she increasingly believed in her own ideas and capacities and gradually started to claim the right to be listened to and to be taken into account.
All young participants also said they now trust others more. For most of them this was one of the most significant results of the research process. Throughout the process they shared their experiences and listened to each other's hopes and fears and this had brought them closer. Liliana, a 13-year-old girl from La Bolivar, for example, talked about how young people in her neighborhood used to be divided because of various conflicts and gossips in the neighborhood and about the changes she noticed in herself and other participants:
“I feel I have changed. Before I didn't have any friends, and now I have. I have lived here [in this community], but I only knew them [other young people] by face, I did not talk to them. Yes, but now we get on along well. There is more trust … Young people have changed [in that] they trust each other more, and before this was not the case” (individual interview, 10 February 2008).
For most young people from both communities, getting to know each other better and feeling more connected with the young people in their neighborhoods was an important condition for a growing solidarity among them as opposed to the indifference before. This, in turn, facilitated a learning process of cooperating together, strengthening their capacity to organize and take action together. Yet, also by bringing both groups from different neighborhoods together for some activities, they also felt they learned to trust, to some degree at least, young people from other neighborhoods. Given the general atmosphere of (gang) violence, fear and distrust in which they grew up, they felt that being able to connect and build bonds with other young people from other neighborhoods was very important. Noticeably, the young people did not just say that they started to trust others they got to know better; they also seemed to refer to a more open and trusting attitude towards “others” and “the world” in general. Ronaldo, for example, talked about the many new people he had met through the PAR process: people from other neighborhoods and from different countries and cultures, people with very different backgrounds, histories and convictions (artists, people from other organizations such as, among others a gay organization and a women's organization):
“Ronaldo: Well, as for me, I learned more in the workshops and I analyze more what I do. I feel bad because some people say CFO is just taking us out to have fun, but thanks to the workshops I have learned to value different people” (participatory evaluation workshop, 28 October 2007).
Many young participants also argued that they have become more open and tolerant. They felt better able to listen to others and are more sensitive for how others feel: empathy. By sharing experiences and listening to others most young participants became more in touch with their own feelings and with those of others. They felt increasingly connected to others and better able to communicate. Marcos, an 18-year-old boy from the group of La Uruguay, told me: “Aha! (When you are) with other people. And little by little the feeling of shame was taken away and we learned how to express ourselves. And (we learned) also to understand how others feel” (Marcos, individual interview, 8 January 2008). Marcos referred in particular to the many conflicts in his group during the PAR process and how they had learned to put themselves in the position of others and to imagine how they feel and why. Many boys of La Uruguay and some boys from La Bolivar also said that they had learned to deal differently with conflict. In particular, these were the boys who were (becoming) close to the gang. During informal moments a lot of them had told me that very often they feel overwhelmed by anger and that, in those moments, it seems to them that entering the gang (officially and with no way back) is the only option to canalize their rage.3 They said that the sharing of experiences and the support of others during the PAR process had helped them, to a certain degree, to learn to manage their anger in a different, calmer, way.
“Marcos: I have changed and I understand others better. I am happier with myself because I am calmer. I am happier with my relations with the people around me and I thank them for understanding and helping me. I have changed and I do not want to go back (as I was earlier) … I have changed. I am different now with people. Before, I solved everything by blows and fights, but not anymore. I communicate better with people and I express myself in a different, calmer way” (participatory evaluation workshop, 28 October 2007).
A certain level of calm also seemed to allow them to better engage with anger, channeling it for more constructive purposes, for example, claiming more public spaces for young people.
As such, throughout the PAR process, the young participants learned to trust and cooperate with each other, and to be more open for new people and new ideas despite the general atmosphere of hate, fear and distrust; they learned to express who they are and defend their ideas in public despite an authoritarian hierarchical system; and they started to resolve conflict in more calm and peaceful ways despite the prevailing culture of machismo and violence. The PAR process, then, offered the young participants the opportunity to negotiate and experiment with different ways of being and can be understood as a process of reflexive self-construction (a technology of the self) aiming at empowerment (though always partial and often contradictory) through the cultivation of new subjectivities. It can be understood as being about the micro-politics of personal transformation or the “politics of ourselves” (Foucault and Blasius 1993:199); a politics concerned with the social and political consequences of “who I am” (Foucault and Blasius 1993:199) in terms not only of “what I think”, but also, and equally important, of “how I feel”.
The Role of Mind and Body in Nurturing Empowering Emotions for Social Change
As stated in the introduction, emotions are cognitive and constructed through discourses and social and cultural processes and, at the same time, deeply rooted bodily sensations (Bennett 2004). I have focused on emotions as cognitive and socio-culturally constructed, arguing that, in El Salvador, emotions of fear, distrust and rage are produced by and reproductive of a culture of violence, and that, within this particular context, nurturing self-esteem, trust, empathy and a certain level of inner tranquility are important elements in challenging the culture of violence and cultivating a culture of peace. In what follows, I reflect on the role of emotions in the young people's PAR, not just as socio-culturally constructed, but also as pre-conscious and deeply embodied knowledges (sometimes also called “affective” knowledges) that can be worked with to facilitate transformation and change.
As argued above, critical reflection and critical discourse are the main “techniques of self” in most participatory research and practice. Gaining critical insight is considered to be the first and principal step in the process of cultivating new subjectivities. While some participatory researchers explicitly recognize emotion as part of subjectivity, they still seem to assume that we govern and change our emotions principally through analysis and understanding, rather than the other way around. Caitlin Cahill, for example, in her inspiring work (2004, 2007a) with young women of color, describes the PAR process as saturated with emotion, anger in particular, and as an often painful process of coming to terms with these emotions through reflection and action upon the world (Cahill 2007a). She writes that “putting into words complicated feelings about experiences of racisms is not only to release, but a way to make sense of experiences and emotions that are confusing and personalised” (Cahill 2007a:280, my emphasis). Implicitly, then, she gives the impression that the act of conscious articulation is the first step towards emotional healing and personal transformation, which then has to be reinforced by action (Cahill 2007a). As such, participatory researchers seem to strongly follow cognitive philosophers in their idea that only “understanding” can set us free and transform our emotional lives. Cognitive theories about emotion hold that beliefs are an essential element of emotions and that a change in the belief will typically alter the emotion (Calhoun and Solomon 1984; Van Reijen 2005). They are convinced that understanding the (socio-cultural) beliefs underlying our emotions is a first step (Calhoun and Solomon 1984) and that realizing that a certain belief is “false” will automatically change the emotion.
However, during the PAR process in El Salvador a few young participants had changed their ideas and beliefs about important aspects of their lives and about themselves and were quite able to critically analyze their situation. However, this did not necessarily result in empowered behavior and actions. The following example shows that, despite critical consciousness, there sometimes seems to exist some kind of “unconscious” resistance to change that cannot be located in the mind, but in the body and in emotions:
Through working on concrete examples in their daily lives, most young boys have learned something about discrimination against women. They start to think a bit differently about the girls in their group and in their community. Two of them did some additional participatory workshops on masculinities with another organization and they now look differently at what it means to be a man or a woman. They made a lot of progress. They are convinced about the need for change and the need for equal rights. They absolutely agree that men do not know better than women. However, Karla [the other female facilitator] and I often notice that when we reprimand them they [these boys] still get very upset, while they do not mind at all when Larry or Walberto [the male facilitators] do so. They would never admit that it has something to do with the fact that we are women, on the contrary, they agree it does not matter. But, still they just, instantaneously, get upset and feel angry. Karla and me we also notice (and regularly get a bit angry about it) that when Larry or Walberto are talking they all [all the boys] pay attention naturally. But, when we start talking, on the contrary, suddenly they change their bodily postures: they go and sit more comfortably, like hanging lazy in their chairs, some start to look at the ceiling, others suddenly receive a message on their mobile phone, at least one of them goes outside to smoke, others move closer to each other and eventually start whispering and talking among each other. They do not do this intentionally or consciously; it seems more like an intuitive spontaneous reaction, a long lasting habit (fieldnotes, 23 June 2007).
The example above demonstrates that people may change the beliefs that underlie their emotions, but continue to have the same emotions nonetheless. This is particularly true for the beliefs that are laid down in childhood in connection with attachment relations of deep intensity (Nussbaum 2001). Most often, such durable emotional and embodied dispositions are hardly conscious or controllable, reminding us of the fact that, though subjectivities are formed through discourses and social and cultural processes, they do become like a second nature to us. They imply more than just discourse and knowledge repertoires; they are embodied. Bourdieu (1984) developed the notion of habitus to emphasize this corporeal sedimentation of social identity beyond consciousness and discourse. Bourdieu defines habitus as the ability to function effectively within a given social field; an ability that cannot necessarily be articulated as conscious knowledge, but that is indicated in the bearing of the body and in deeply ingrained habits of behavior, feeling and thought: “in durable embodied dispositions such as ways of walking and talking, taste, and the ‘feel for the game’” (Lovell 2000:17). The schemes of habitus owe their efficacy to the fact that they function below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by the will (Bourdieu 1984). Similarly, emotions are not mere discursive phenomena or socio-cultural constructs. Emotions are also deeply rooted bodily sensations: “[They] derive from the depths and fleshiness of bodies as people respond to scenarios before the brain seems to have time to process or consciously think through the event” (Bennett 2004:415).
A focus on habitus and unconscious emotional, embodied dispositions might seem to lead to political pessimism concluding that transformation and change is simply impossible, however, this is not necessarily so. During the PAR with young people in El Salvador, learning and change often seemed to occur without the intermediation of critical reflection and representation, but through methods directly involving the body and emotions. The young participants clearly preferred those methods that involved them in doing, experiencing and feeling, such as drama, cooperative games, drawing and painting. In the PAR process methods such as drawing/painting, drama and games were used with the aim of stimulating critical reflection. However, very often, the young people were only interested in acting and playing. The young participants actively participated in the “doing” part (playing, drawing, acting, improvising) yet, during the moments of “critical reflection”, most of them did not say much, and some systematically left because they did not like the “thinking and talking” part. Over time, however, also just by playing, acting and improvising, the young participants changed, without them always critically reflecting on what they did. The young participants changed by participating in methods (and cooperative games were particularly successful) that allowed them to “do” and “feel” things differently; by offering them a direct embodied experience/experiment of how things can be/feel different. Through these methods new forms of subjectivities were cultivated, not at the level of discourse, but by directly engaging emotional registers and tapping into precognitive states. New subjectivities emerged through unexpected shifts in the affective registers freeing embodied practices from their usual sedimented patterns (see also Cameron and Gibson 2005).
For a few participants, unexpected shifts in affective registers also seemed to create more openness at the level of thinking. Experimenting with different ways of “doing” and “feeling” seemed to result in new ways of “thinking” and “understanding”, rather than the other way around. This implies that new subjectivities cannot only be cultivated through the introduction of alternative discourses, but also by triggering or intensifying certain unconventional (see also Jaggar 2009) emotions creating a affective “openness” that only then paves the way for accepting new discourses. Or, as Connolly argues: “changes in thinking affect, over time, the shape and quality of the ethical sensibility from which one acts. Yet, tactical interventions into sensibilities instilled at several layers of being can, in turn, also make a significant difference to the quality of thought and action” (Connolly 1999 cited in McCormack 2003:496).
In the young people's PAR process, then, empowerment and transformation happened, not so much through the technique of critical analysis and understanding, but by working with the body and with embodied emotional knowledges. Recent discussions in human geography around non-representational theory (eg Latham 2003, Lorimer 2005; McCormack 2003; Thrift 1996, 2004) have foregrounded affective4 and embodied (non-verbal, precognitive) knowledges, insisting that they can be channeled for political purposes. Writing about the politics of affect, Thrift (2004) argues that the discovery of new means of channeling and using affect is also the discovery of new means of manipulation by the powerful. By contrast, he argues, the conscious engineering of affect does not have to be abusive as affect may also be worked on to brew new collectivities which are potentially progressive (Thrift 2004). As such, non-representational theories of affect might encourage us to experiment with alternative approaches to empowerment and change. McCormack (2003), for example, looks at dance movement therapy. This therapy is founded on the principle that there is a relationship between motion and emotion and that by exploring a more varied vocabulary of movement people experience the possibility of becoming more securely balanced yet increasingly spontaneous and adaptable. Dance movement therapy uses movement experimentation to explore new ways of being and feeling and to gain access to feelings that cannot be verbalized. “Dance movement therapy engages directly with the productive force of the unconscious in ways that can, but do not necessarily need to be brought into a relation of verbal or linguistic specification” (McCormack 2003:492).
Similarly, in the PAR process, by participating in cooperative games, corporeal expression, improvization theatre and drama, the young participants were able to explore and experiment with different ways of being and feeling. These methods provided important moments for the young people to attend to their own emotional wellbeing. They allowed the participants to immerse themselves completely in the world of emotional geographies and to experience what it means to be part of that world in positive and life-enhancing ways (see also Wood and Smith 2004). Such methods tapped directly into the power of emotions to shape social life. Certainly, these methods did not result in direct structural changes; they did not make the poor young people rich, or their risky environments safe, but they did give the young people clues about what emotional wellbeing is, what happiness, contentment, trust, calm etc. feel like (Wood and Smith 2004). For many young people this was a first step towards questioning existing social norms; accepting and interiorizing new critical discourses; and towards imagining and creating a different world from which new actions (individual and collective) emerged. This is not to underestimate the fundamental importance of changing the material conditions of the poor and challenging structural inequality at the macro-level, but to give full recognition to the fact that individual empowerment and social change are just as much about emotions and embodied knowledges as about analytical knowledge and “objective”, broad-scale policies.