The Abominable Traffic: The Abolition Movement and Emotions
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It is obvious that emotions play an important role in social movement campaigns. Strangely enough, however, studies of social movements do not pay much attention to emotions nor do they give them an appropriate place in social movement theory. As Hunt and Benford contend, this overly rationalistic theory urgently needs a 'dramaturgical infusion'. In this paper we follow their lead. In it we explore historical studies of the first public campaign of the eighteenth-century abolition movement in Great Britain to shed light on the role of emotions in movement discourses. Following Hochschild we assume that each society and each culture has its unique emotional dictionary, which defines what is and isn't, and its emotional bible, which defines what one should and should not feel in a given context." In social movement campaigns, actors employ the emotional repertoires of their society in order to express their indignation, to evoke emotional feelings in the audiences they address and thus put pressure on authorities to change their policies. The analysis of the first public campaign of the British abolition movement shows that the feelings about the abolition of the slave trade often ran high. Both the abolitionists and their opponents used a great variety of emotion signs as means to communicate with the world of politics and with society at large. The analysis reveals that four variables determined the degree of emotionality in the abolition discourse. First, the nature of the cause, i.e., abolition of the slave trade. Particularly, the degree of inequality involved in slavery determined the level of moral indignation that fueled the abolition campaign. Second, the strategic-instrumental choices of the leading movement actors when to use emotional arguments and when to revert to more 'business-like' pleas. Third, the cultural climate in which a campaign takes place. In this case the cultural climate of the late eighteenth century contributed much to the emotionality of the abolition discourse. Fourth, the emotional tone of the discourses in extant critical communities, i.e., in the debates initiated by critical thinkers about a topic. In the case of abolition, the pre-dominantly emotional debate that took place within religious, particularly Evangelical, circles did much to make the abolition discourse a heated one. The analysis shows that emotions are essential to get a movement started and to keep it going. They therefore deserve scholarly attention in their own right and must not be taken granted as folklore of movement campaigns.
- slave trade
- emotion signs
- abolition campaign