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Love, Anger, and Social Change


Emotions matter to social movement activists—including social movement lawyers. Emotions motivate activism and emotions sustain the long hard work of social change. Movement activists and lawyers know that from their own lived experiences. Further, when we listen to movement activists talk about their work, we hear them speak commonly about two emotions in particular—love and anger. To be a social movement activist (whether lawyer or non-lawyer) means to have passion about one’s cause, and to have a fire in the belly to keep going despite setbacks and slow progress. We hear activists and movement lawyers talk about how the love for their cause gets them out into the street to protest or keeps them resilient in the face of a hostile legal system. We also hear them talk about how angry they are about the wrongs they experience. 

What is missing is a clearer, more nuanced understanding and articulation of the role of emotions, particularly love and anger, in social movement work. This Article pulls together social science research studying emotions in social activism and political philosophy that considers the role of anger in society to challenge assumptions that we make about love, anger, and social activism. The Article demonstrates that we oversubscribe to love and anger in their reflexive, hot forms—the raised voice and rough gesticulations of anger, or the ardent loyalty of love that stridently demarcates “us” from “them.” Because we oversubscribe to the hot forms of emotion, when we intend to express emotion in its moral form (i.e., “I feel injustice.”), we mistakenly believe that form of emotion must also be expressed in a hot way. In other words, we discredit an activist, and activists discredit each other and themselves, as not really believing in the justness of the cause unless it is shown with hot emotions.

This Article explores the problematic consequences of that oversubscription to hot, reflexive emotions. First, it is not clear empirically that hot emotions produce more social change or faster social change. Next, it is normatively fraught to base social change on anger. A constitutive feature of anger is its “payback wish.” As political philosopher Martha Nussbaum has articulated, anger’s payback wish means that change happens by one side denigrating the other rather than all sides finding a way to improve everyone’s lot. Dignity is better enhanced when all sides rise. The Article concludes that the better way forward for social movement activists and lawyers is to frame the motivating and sustaining emotion for their work as “fierce love.” Using the historical example of the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the contemporary example of “radical dharma,” the Article demonstrates how “fierce love” can generate dignity-enhancing, yet truly transformative, social change. The Article concludes by considering why and how fierce love is relevant to social change lawyers.