On Backlash: Emotion and the Politicisation of Security.
In recent years security studies has become increasingly concerned with the depoliticising effects of popular fears over security issues such as terrorism. Often framed in the "idiom of exception", (1) this argument treats security as an autonomous realm of sovereign authority which sits apart from so-called normal politics. The exclusivity of this realm is guaranteed by a popular fear that subjecting security decisions to political debate can weaken, delay, or obstruct urgent countermeasures. In these situations, debate is construed as dithering, and political opposition is seen as undermining the unity required for decisive action. Dissent becomes stigmatised as critics are labeled as 'soft on terror' or failing to 'support the troops'. Fear is a force for depoliticisation because it narrows the space for controversy and debate, a shift which effectively empties security of its democratic content.
This image of fear's depoliticising potential is often powerful and persuasive, but it is at best a partial picture. Beyond this narrow preoccupation with fear, security has always been a site of diverse emotional experiences. When the Trump administration issued a travel ban for Muslim-majority countries it provoked widespread anger and outrage, mobilising protests at airports and fuelling a battery of legal challenges. (2) In the Canadian context the Conservative government's push for enhanced surveillance powers under the pretext of combatting child pornography was denounced as an embarrassing failure. (3) In other contexts, claims about the threat of climate change often face incredulity, derision, and even laughter. (4) These diverse responses are poignant reminders that simply conflating security with the politics of fear can risk major oversimplification.
Taking this widened range of emotional experience as an entry point, this essay examines how emotions contribute to the politicisation of security. The discussion focuses on the understudied phenomena of 'backlash': situations where security claims provoke hostile emotional reactions. A backlash is not the same thing as a failed securitising move. Security claims can often fail because they are met with apathy--as is the case of esoteric threats such as declining biodiversity or the emergence of artificial intelligence. In other cases, audiences may be sympathetic to a security claim even if they ultimately reject it--as is the case of residents who refuse mandatory evacuations when faced with natural disasters. The concept of backlash denotes something different: it is not a matter of security claims failing to resonate, but a situation where claims resonate in a way that provokes hostility and contention. It signals a visceral and reactionary episode where security claims are adamantly rejected, speakers are rebuked, and the subject of 'security' becomes intensely controversial. In sum, backlash represents a distinctive kind of politicisation of security.
At the core of this reading of backlash is an epistemic view of emotion. Stretching back to the work of James and Durkheim, there is a thread of argument which stresses how emotions arising from social interaction create certainty over the symbols and values of social order. From classic moments of collective effervescence in religious life, to more modern secular encounters like talk radio and Twitter feeds, different repertoires of interaction give rise to emotional intensities which suppress ambiguity and make us certain of possibilities for future action. Belief turns to conviction, doubt into deference, and interpretive horizons become narrowed. Emotions have an epistemic role in this sense because they distribute confidence--the subjective experience of certainty--over different claims in security discourse. In episodes of backlash this takes the form of hostile emotions creating certainty that a security claim is suspect and therefore open to contestation. Widespread anger and outrage at the Trump administration's Muslim travel ban, for example, was more than expressive; it signalled a deeper confidence that the claims behind the ban were glaringly fraudulent. Whether the specific reaction is one of anger, disgust, or simply laughter, backlash emotions render security claims as exceedingly dubious and thus demanding contention and forceful deliberation.
The argument proceeds in four sections. The first section deepens the recent move to study politicisation by outlining an epistemic view of emotion. While emotion can always be a factor in politicisation, episodes of backlash standout by virtue of their intensity leading to security claims being adamantly and vigorously rejected. The second section lays the foundation for a better understanding of these episodes by reviewing how backlash is understood in other fields. The third section outlines a definition of backlash tailored for security studies and organised around four constitutive features--reaction, hostility, emotion, and contagion. The final section focuses on the politicising effects of backlash. In the conclusion I offer a brief reflection on the significance of backlash politics and a research agenda for the way forward.
Emotion and Politicisation: Coming in From the Cold
For more than two decades the problem of depoliticisation has both fascinated and unnerved security scholars. As the editors of this special issue argue:
"Contemporary security analysis often links security to strategies of depoliticisation. Depoliticisation essentially refers to processes that seek to deny the political character of a topic and move the issue out of the realm of contingent and controversial discussion... Though security has always been political, it is often seen as placing a constraint on democratic politics that closes down public debate and political contestation and limits the range of legitimate arenas, actors and arguments." (5)
The premise is not that security is somehow devoid of politics, but that it is a departure from politics as usual. (6) Executive prerogative and secrecy, expert knowledge, and the increasing role of technology in security governance all function to remove security decisions from the realm of public contestation. Depoliticisation, in this generalised sense, can be understood as a process of democratic closure. It is against this backdrop that the editors call for a novel and intriguing focus on 'politicisation'. Confronted with evidence of activist parliaments, probing journalists, and mediasavvy NGOs all openly contesting security decisions, the depoliticising trends once identified by security research appear challenged or, in some cases, even subject to reversal.
The turn towards studying politicisation then, marks an important resurfacing of the role of controversy and debate in security analysis. At the same time however, the role of emotion in the recent studies of politicisation remains underdeveloped. (7) For example, much of the literature cites the 'intensity' of public debates as an important empirical indicator of politicisation. (8) But the role of emotion as part of this politicising intensity is unclear. This is problematic from an empirical and analytical perspective because many of the examples of the most highly politicised issues appear as intense debates precisely because they are deeply emotional. The debate over Brexit stands as the exemplar of the politicisation of EU integration, but at the same time commentators have stressed that properly appreciating Brexit requires understanding the emotions of disaffected voters. (9) Thus, the empirical and analytical connections between emotion and politicisation have yet to be fully explored.
Correcting for this lacuna requires thinking about politicisation in a way which foregrounds the role of emotion. One way to approach this task is to conceptualise emotions as embodied judgements. Drawn from Jesse Prinz's perceptual theory of emotion, this view sees emotions first and foremost as embodied experiences. (10) It is this visceral, felt quality of emotions which most distinguishes them from classic instances of 'cold cognition'. (11) At the same time, these embodied experiences are more than random impulses; they alert us to what's important in the world. They help us detect insufferable loss and triumphant gain. They are the alarm for when we have been transgressed. They help us judge the world. In Prinz's pithy phrasing, "emotions are gut reactions; they use our bodies to tell us how we are faring in the world". (12)
These embodied judgments are significant because they can function as a powerful source of certainty. In informationally dense environments, emotions can cut through the blooming, buzzing confusion and give us confidence in our interpretation of events. One way this occurs is through convictions. Writing at the turn of the 20th century, William James argued that emotions of religious experience helped create especially strong beliefs--what he referred to as convictions--in the existence of God. (13) Today, modern psychologists argue moral convictions are deeply tied to emotional experience. (14) Another way this occurs is through dispositions. Even mild emotional reactions towards objects and events can suppress conscious reflection and promote unthinking forms of action. (15) American officials who felt distrust towards Iran, for example, were disposed to accept the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program despite ambiguous evidence. (16) Whether through unconscious dispositions or more outwardly visible moral convictions, emotions can dramatically reduce the ambiguity of the world and make us certain that one interpretation is 'true', while others are decisively 'false'.
For social theorists however, the links between emotion and certainty have always needed to be appreciated in a broader social context. For Durkheim religious rituals were important not only because they led to episodes of collective effervescence, but because these emotional experiences play a key role in imbuing confidence and solidifying moral beliefs. As Durkheim argued, "[t]he man who has obeyed his god and who, for this reason, believes god is with him, approaches the world with confidence and with the feeling of an increased energy". (17) Building on Durkheim, Randall Collins's theory of interaction rituals focuses on the emotional energy generated by social interactions. (18) From cheering at a football game to marching in a protest, the quotidian social rituals of everyday life suffuse emotional energy and imbue participants with a sense of social solidarity and confidence. (19) The claim in this line of argument is not that all emotional experiences imbue certainty. Feelings of anxiety surrounding the threat of terrorism, for example, are commonly cited as a major source of uncertainty in western societies. (20) More generally, emotional experience in politics is often mixed and this can leave people with ambiguous impressions of the world. (21) Instead, what these theorists share is a view of certainty as less a matter of individualised perception, and more as a social resource to be developed and distributed through interactions where emotion plays a central role.
The value of this image of embodied judgment as generating certainty over the course of social interaction is in clarifying the role of emotion in politicisation. In this view emotion's primary role is epistemic. Before an issue can be pushed into the public realm for debate and deliberation there needs to be certainty that an alternative is at least possible, and that human agency matters. (22) Absent this certainty, there is no justification to commit the time and resources to politicise an issue which appears natural and unchanging. In short, those looking to politicise an issue need more than knowledge of an alternative; they need certainty that an alternative is possible. Emotions can overcome this key epistemic challenge by creating confidence that alternatives are viable and human agency is meaningful. In this reading the palpable anger and outrage surrounding the Trump administration's child separation policy for immigrant families is more than bodily impulse; it is a source of certainty that child separation is controversial and that an alternative imagining of migration is possible. Whether these emotional responses result in an intense conviction that the policy is morally unjust, or simply disposes audiences to unreflectively disregard the administration's justification, the result is a suffuse confidence that the child separation policy is suspect and thus open to politicisation.
Finally, while it is useful to see emotion as a generalisable feature of politicisation, it is important to be careful about scope. Not all politicising debates on security share the emotional intensity of the examples cited above. Moreover, the requirement for politicisation that there be certainty about an alternative can be supplied in different ways including social learning, reflexivity, and past institutional failures. Thus, emotion can always be a factor in politicisation, but it may not be the decisive factor. There is a class of cases however, where emotional reactions are intense, certainty is high, and security claims become vigorously and adamantly rejected. It is precisely these cases of 'backlash' where the role of emotion in politicisation is most acute, and which warrant closer examination.
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Backlash
Backlash is a concept rarely found within IR. This absence is puzzling given the term's increasing currency in contemporary politics, being used to describe everything from resistance to globalisation, to rising populist movements, to ebbing suspicions over how transnational companies manage private data. (23) To lay the foundation for a better appreciation of the concept this section offers a survey of how 'backlash' is used in other fields, as well as close cognate ideas like reactionary politics.
Beyond IR's narrow boundaries the idea of backlash holds widespread interest. For historians of race in the United States the concept is crucial in understanding the violent reaction to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. Discussing the significance of the Brown v. Board of Education, historian Michael Klarman argues the decision led to a backlash of "racial extremism" where Southern politicians came to see racial violence and brutalising civil rights activists as electorally popular. (24) The idea of white backlash gained renewed currency with the Obama presidency. Contrary to the myth of a 'post-racial' America, the election of America's first black president led to an increase in recruitment among hate groups and an energised white supremacist movement. (25) For historians and scholars of race the idea of backlash denotes a reactionary and mobilising anger at the erosion of racial hierarchy.
Gender studies and feminist theory are leading voices in the study of backlash. In her seminal 1991 book Susan Faludi details a resurgence of pervasive opposition to feminist politics in the United States. For Faludi this reactionary movement represents a "powerful counterassault on women's rights" and is "triggered by the perception--accurate or not--that women are making great strides" in society. (26) While this opposition may be prominent among certain political groups, such as religious conservatives, it has no central organisation. Instead, its potency comes from its diffusion across a variety of strata in popular culture. From the portrayal of feminists in magazines as anxious and depressed, to depictions of violence against women on TV, anti-feminist messaging is potent precisely because it appears apolitical. (27) Since Faludi's work the feminist study of backlash has advanced considerably to examine specific strategies, tactics, and variation across time and place. (28) Political scientists Mansbridge and Shames make the cases for a more versatile reading of backlash by arguing for decoupling it from strictly conservative movements. (29) Instead, they contend backlash should be seen as a reaction to a challenge to the status quo where threatened incumbents use their "coercive power" to regain their position and thwart future challengers. (30)
While scholarly interest in backlash is historically concentrated in the United States, the concept is gaining traction in broader western debates on migration and multiculturalism. Here scholars of multiculturalism point to a growing hostility towards multicultural policies across Europe since the early 2000s. (31) Drawing together concerns over demographic decline and changing cultural symbols (e.g. headscarves), backlash politics has succeeded in making multiculturalism a derogatory term and framing associated policies as failures. (32) Critical of researchers overly focused on the economic and demographic dimensions of this reaction, Alexander calls for a theory which focuses on the meanings and emotions migrant groups evoke in their host communities. (33) From this view practices of backlash politics--such as placing pig heads in front of Mosques--are read as the emotional responses of national groups who feel their solidarity is threatened. (34)
While disciplinary IR is largely absent from these debates, there are cognate concepts which overlap with, and connect to, the idea of backlash. A key contribution here is Mackay and Laroche's discussion of reactionary politics. (35) In pointing to a series of reactionary moments in world politics--the rise of populism, Brexit, the election of Trump, and emergence of ISIS--they ask why IR has yet to theorise a reactionary politics. In response they offer an image of reactionary movements organised around a longing for an idealised past order which was destroyed or upset by some actor or process. (36) Similarly related concepts here include blowback and resistance. The term blowback is a recurring feature of foreign policy analysis and is used to capture unintended consequences arising from western policies. (37) By contrast, the idea of resistance signals a more diverse tradition of thought ranging from resistance to international norms to feminist resistance to globalisation. (38)
Defining Backlash for Security Studies
Informed by these interdisciplinary debates and related concepts, I define backlash in the politics of security as situations where security claims are met with hostile emotional reactions. This definition is ideal-typical; actual empirical cases of backlash will approximate this definition to varying degrees, as well as overlapping with related concepts (such as reactionary politics). At the center of this definition are four constitutive features: reaction, hostility, emotion, and contagion.
Backlash in the politics of security is intrinsically reactionary; it is always a reactive movement tied to some prior development. This quality gives the concept a deeply historical and relational character. For analysts these antecedent conditions can be treated as claims around which episodes of backlash become discursively anchored. (39) In many cases, these claims will take the shape of the classic Copenhagen School-style securitising moves (i.e. claims about existential threats and the measure needed to defeat them). (40) But securitisation is hardly limited to these kinds of high-profile speech acts. Security professionals, bureaucratic routines, and the organisations they are embedded in represent a key source of contemporary security claims. (41) Seemingly innocuous technocratic practices like expert meetings and risk management can be a source of security claims. (42) More recently, various technologies are increasingly implicated in making security claims with algorithmic surveillance deciding what activity is suspicious, and no-fly lists determining which travellers are potentially dangerous. (43) Each of these represents a plausible source of security claims around which a reactionary episode of backlash can coalesce. In 2016, for example, the Canadian government committed to review its version of the no-fly list called Passenger Protect amid growing public anger. The list had repeated glitches: targeting children -some as young as six weeks old--and requiring them to have special security clearance to fly. (44)
While the terms backlash and reactionary are colloquially associated with conservative politics, my reading follows Mansbridge and Shames by decoupling it from any specific ideological movement. Instead, backlash reactions emerge when security claims are perceived to upset the status quo. (45) Emphasis hangs on the word 'perceived' in this definition. For Western human rights activists and legal experts, key policies from the Global War on Terror like indefinite detention and torture appear as obvious challenges to the status quo. For others, these policies appear aimed at preserving the status quo. Because security claims can upset the status quo in different ways (whether by shifting societal priorities, creating emergency powers, allocating new resources, etc.) the reactionary element of backlash can take on a variety of political forms.
Unlike other reactionary forms of politics, backlash does not require any idealised past, or nostalgia, for its recovery. Thus, contra the reactionary movements described by Mackay and LaRoche, backlash movements need not believe that progressive change is "fundamentally destructive" or that the best forms of social order lay in the past. (46) Privacy activists, for example, may be leading figures in a backlash movement against policies of mass surveillance, yet they can still believe in the potential of progressive privacy legislation. In this sense the reactionary element of backlash is able to accommodate different political understandings of history and historical change, including situations where the progressive trajectory of history appears to have fallen off track and needs a forceful correction.
Second, the posture of this reaction is universally hostile. There are no benevolent backlashes. The groups involved may be internally diverse with different interests and origins, but their shared hostility places them in common opposition to a putative set of security claims. This may create situations of "strange bedfellows", such as when right-wing groups, civil activists, and hacker collectives rally in opposition to expansive state surveillance. (47) When this hostility begins to extend across large segments of society, an episode of backlash can begin to take on populist characteristics. In these cases an episode of backlash becomes framed as a struggle between a corrupt and amoral "elite" who has transgressed against the will of "the people". (48) The source of this transgression are security claims made by elites which are seen as nefarious and thus demanding punishment. (49) These dynamics feature prominently in the legacy of the Iraq War in the United Kingdom. Despite the Chilcot Inquiry satisfying parliamentarian demands for a full account of the decision-making process leading up to the war, it stopped short of meeting popular demands for the criminal prosecutions of those involved, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair. (50)
This hostility need not be confined to popular movements. Elites, technocrats, and academics can become implicated in episodes of backlash, though their hostility to security claims is often anchored in pre-existing knowledge and expertise. A recurring example of elite-oriented backlash can be found in proposals to ban or limit electronic encryption in the hopes of compromising terrorist communications. (51) In the United Kingdom an encryption ban was proposed by Prime Minister David Cameron in early 2015, and a similar measure was proposed by Home Secretary Amber Rudd following the Westminster terror attack in 2017. Both proposals were widely ridiculed by experts as radically infeasible and a sign of a more fundamental misunderstanding of the role of encryption in modern society which is integral to everything from online commerce, to banking, to the protection of medical records. Andrew McLaughlin, former Google Director of Global Public Policy and advisor to the Obama White House, openly mocked the 2015 proposal, calling for a "[s]low hand clap for David Cameron, whose proposal to ban encrypted COMMS (leaving UK wide open to hacking, spying etc) is colossally stupid." (52) The 2017 proposal met similar hostility with one technology journalist deriding it as "some of the most wildly stupid and poorly informed nonsense since the last time a politician opened their mouth on the topic of technology". (53) Unlike populist variants of backlash where hostility stems from transgressing the will of the people, elite variants of backlash revolve around how security claims transgress against established authority and expertise.
Third, these hostile reactions represent a distinctly emotional phenomenon. This means episodes of backlash cannot be reduced to speech acts, discursive contexts, or technologies of governance. (54) Instead, the texture of these situations is distinguished by an irreducible embodied intensity. (55) This intensity is what makes episodes of backlash empirically distinct from more banal moments of disagreement. Unlike mundane disputes, episodes of backlash attract of a series of vivid displays of public emotion ranging from heated rhetoric to highly evocative symbols. (56) These features can serve as empirical markers of when situations have transgressed from everyday disagreement to more acute moments of hostility. Such markers were a defining feature of the reaction to President Trump's handling of the violent protests in Charlottesville in August 2018. In his initial response to the protests Trump refused to condemn white supremacists and blamed all parties for the violence. In reaction, major magazines ran frontpage covers depicting Trump with the emblematic white hood of the Klu Klux Klan. (57) When mainstream outlets like The Economist and The New Yorker begin to depict the actions of a sitting US President with evocative white supremacist imagery, it signals a situation which goes beyond mundane disagreement.
At the same time emotions do more than simply serve as empirical markers. The most important role emotions play in backlash is epistemic; they distribute certainty over the nature of the situation and possibilities for the future, including whether a threat is genuine, whether a speaker is earnest, and whether the proposed countermeasures are viable or appropriate. In backlash situations, popular reactions like anger, shame, or disgust are best conceived of as the body's klaxon alarm system alerting audiences to claims which appear especially dubious or grotesque. Thus, the widespread reaction of disgust to images of torture at Abu Ghraib in 2006 was more than a gut reaction; it created an acute confidence among audiences that such practices were far beyond the realm of moral conduct. Similarly, the popular ridicule and contempt directed at the Trump administration's proposal to arm school teachers to combat endemic gun violence was bound up with a conviction that such a proposal was comically misplaced. What unites these situations is not a single discrete category of emotional experience. Indeed, analysts should expect backlash emotions to take on a variety of forms which will manifest in messy and ambiguous ways. (58) What qualifies emotional reactions as backlash reactions is not how they fit within socially recognised criteria for 'anger' or 'rage', but in how they suffuse certainty that security claims must be rejected.
The emotional character of backlash, however, should not be taken to imply an absence of strategic or instrumental behaviour. While much of emotional life falls outside intentional and reflective models of actorhood, (59) shrewd political actors are often aware of how periods of backlash represent unique opportunities and challenges. This has become defining feature of the white backlash against immigration in the United States. (60) For republican partisans the growing hostility towards Latino immigration represent an opportunity to widen a shrinking electoral coalition; for democrats the same hostility places constraints on their ability to appeal to white voters. In other situations strategic behaviour can be focused on fomenting episodes of backlash. In his study of the American Tea Party DiMaggio argues the group represents less a "genuine social movement" and more a "highly mediated, top-down phenomenon". (61) While the group draws upon existing grievances, such as economic stagnation, these were intensified with outside support from wealthy industrialists aiming to create a pro-business movement. (62) Beyond mobilising specific movements--more on this below--episodes of backlash can serve as an important signalling function in strategic interactions. As Hall shows in his study of emotional diplomacy, public displays of emotion can play an important signalling role that communicates information about an actor's preferences in ways that narrower verbal statements cannot. (63) Acute hostility and ridicule directed towards efforts to securitise climate change, for example, can be read as an audience signalling the limits of their tolerance for a security claim. Thus, while backlash remains a distinctively emotional phenomena, it also creates opportunities for "socially thick" forms of strategic action. (64)
Finally, episodes of backlash are contagious. Ross uses the term "contagion" to describe the transfer of emotion between individuals and groups. (65) As he argues, "[d] iplomatic meetings, legal trials, religious rituals, commemorative events, protests, rallies, and political speeches--all are social interactions with the potential to expose participants to emotion-inducing stories, symbols, and practices". (66) In the context of backlash, contagion can be understood as traveling through distinctive repertoires of social interaction. These repertoires represent the crucial tissues which connect individuals to larger, collective emotional experiences. In repertoires characterised by high levels of proximity to other people, such as rallies and protests, contagion often occurs through emotional "mirroring"; an unconscious emulation of the emotions of those around us. (67) In other cases contagion travels via repertoires which communicate and impress "concerns" over significant goals, values, and objects in ways which elicit emotional reactions. (68) Unlike mirroring, where emotional reactions are merely mimicked, the socialisation of new concerns creates novel sites of "affective investment" where situations take on a newfound emotional significance. (69) This dynamic was central to 'die-in' demonstrations during opposition to the Vietnam and the 2003 Iraq wars. By engaging in the dramatic pantomiming of mass death, die-ins aim to impress a new emotional significance over the costs and legitimacy of war. (70) In other words, die-ins functioned as part of broader social repertoire which worked to make backlash over the Vietnam and the 2003 Iraq wars contagious.
Finally, as the imagery of die-ins suggest, visual repertoires play a special role in circulating and sustaining episodes of backlash. As Bleiker notes, "[p]art of what makes images unique is that they often evoke, appeal to and generate emotions." (71) By offering a more visceral experience, images can play an leading role in backlash events when compared to textual depictions, and this is especially the case with film and television because "they combine narratives, visual images and sound" in ways that textual depictions simply cannot. (72) The result is that visual imagery has played a outsized role in some of the most acute episodes of backlash in the politics of security in recent history, ranging from the image of Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi's fragile body washed up on the shore of Turkey, to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammed, (73) to the iconic status of the The Hooded Man photo from Abu Ghraib. (74) This potential to elicit emotions is augmented by two related features of images: their circulability and democratising effects. Images can move rapidly through and between different social contexts, including across linguistic boundaries, (75) and this is especially the case when images become embedded in social media. Second, the ubiquity of smartphones has enabled even some of the most marginal actors to contribute to visual discourse. (76) States and commercial media may still exercise disproportionate control over how security is visualised, but the growing democratisation of imagery has left an increasing number of security policies vulnerable to being visualised in ways that provoke backlash events.
In sum, backlash refers to situations where security claims are met with hostile emotional reactions. These reactions are made contagious through distinctive repertoires of social interaction, with visual imagery playing a leading role. They can align with a variety of different political ideologies and take on both populist as well as elite-led forms. They stand apart from more banal moments of disagreement by virtue of their emotional intensity. And while these features help define backlash for security studies, they stop short of fully capturing its effects. To appreciate these effects, we need to turn to how backlash works to politicise security.
Backlash as the Politicisation of Security
Historically, emotional critiques of security claims have been regarded with suspicion as feminine and irrational. (77) Women engaged in the anti-nuclear movement during the Cold War were often deemed hysterical and thus too emotional to contribute to debates on nuclear war. (78) Like many disciplines, IR and security studies in particular often relegate emotions to the private sphere and thus not properly political. (79) The study of backlash inverts this classic association. More than momentary outbursts, the significance of these emotional episodes stems from their capacity to politicise security claims and by making them intensely controversial. Drawing on the introduction to this special issue, (80) these politicising effects are visible in three different areas: the mobilisation of backlash movements, the intensification of controversy, and a shift in discursive arenas.
One of the most conspicuous signs of the politicising effects backlash is how it mobilises different groups and coalitions in civil society. In a way that mirrors the role of fear in security exceptionalism, backlash emotions like anger, disgust, and embarrassment become an energising force for mass movements, attracting and integrating otherwise disengaged groups and individuals. From the mid-1960s and early-1970s the backlash against the Vietnam war led to an unprecedented level of antiwar activism in America, with an estimated 6 million people joining various antiwar movements. (81) In February of 2003, in what was likely the single largest international protest in history, (82) an estimated 6-10 million people in 40 different countries demonstrated in opposition to the impending Iraq War. (83) These situations can also see a surge of interest and funding for existing groups. Immediately following President Trump's executive order banning travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) saw a sharp surge in donations. In the two days following the order the ACLU received a record breaking $24 million in online donations, almost seven times as much as they received during the entirety of 2015. (84)
One of the most prominent and contemporary examples of these mobilising effects is in the recent backlash against the securitisation of journalism. After two weeks of denying any involvement the Saudi Arabian government admitted that American-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi died inside its Istanbul consulate in October of 2018. While Saudi officials originally blamed the death on a "fistfight", this explanation was contradicted by evidence from the Turkish investigators suggesting an "assassination squad" intentionally targeted Khashoggi. (85) As the culpability of the Saudi government became increasingly apparent, a diverse and international backlash emerged in response to the killing.
Protest and vigils were mobilised at Saudi consulates and embassies around the world including Istanbul, London, Dublin, Washington, and in Tunis local activists called for protesting a visit from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the Khashoggi killing. (86) In response to the killing, the international NGO Committee to Protect Journalists launched an online social media campaign. (87) The campaign invites participants to submit their name and reasons for needing journalism, and to circulate their response with the hashtag #justiceforjamal on social media.
A second set of politicising effects can be observed in how episodes of backlash can rebrand security claims as controversial. In 2003 the decision to invade Iraq encapsulated relatively uncontroversial mainstream views in American politics; the war enjoyed majority support in Congress and public opinion. By 2007 the growing backlash against the war transformed it into a highly controversial decision. A key part of this transition to controversy is how practices of dissent previously seen as discrediting became rehabilitated as sources of civic virtue and foresight. Commenting on his opposition to the war, then-Senator Obama acknowledged the war's initial popularity made his position appear politically costly, even causing him to fear the decision would lead to his defeat in his 2004 Senate race. (88) Yet by the 2007 democratic primary, and later the 2008 presidential election, the increasingly controversial status of the Iraq enabled Obama to distinguish himself from opponents who supported the conflict. By making security claims appear controversial, episodes of backlash can transform previous seemingly 'safe' policy positions into damaging political liabilities.
When these controversies become embedded in professional and organisational identity it can lead to a form of stigma. In these cases any involvement with controversial security claims can be viewed as "deeply discrediting" within a community, and as a marker of a "spoiled identity". (89) This stigmatisation was a visible feature of the backlash to the Trump administration's child separation policy for undocumented immigrant families. (90) As the public face of the child separation policy, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen attracted considerable opprobrium, including calls for her resignation. (91) The stigma surrounding Nielsen's role became so acute that she was confronted by protestors shouting 'shame' during a private dinner at a Washington D.C. restaurant. As if to underscore her deficit in social capital, Nielsen's departure was applauded by other patrons in the restaurant. (92) Backlash politicises not just by making certain claims controversial, but by making people and political movements associated with them controversial as well.
A final set of politicising effects are tied to how episodes of backlash shift security issues from the domain of executive secrecy and expert knowledge to more prominent public arenas. In many cases, this shift is highly visible. These include situations where civil society groups engage in highly publicised legal challenges --such as the ACLU's challenge of the Trump Administration's travel ban. It also includes journalistic exposes of security policies either previously secret or partially obscured, such as revelations of torture and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In other cases, this arena shifting can be more subtle and diffuse. Manifestations of backlash politics can circulate into different genres of popular culture where security claims and the organisations associated with them become the object of public enmity, disgust, or simple irreverence. Immediately following the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013 the American technology magazine Wired commissioned the satirical web series Codefellas. (93) The series' humour revolves around the dysfunctional relationship between two NSA employees as they navigate staff incompetence, alcoholism, petty office politics, abuses of power, and conspiratorial paranoia. Public perceptions of the NSA as having a spoiled identity --whether deserving or not--became fodder for a specific genre of satire in popular culture. In both cases backlash politics shift discussions of security into a less exclusive and more public domain.
While these politicising effects are important, they are also easy to overstate. The effects of backlash politics are often fragmentary, temporary, and limited in scope. Even when facing recurrent international opposition, a string of embarrassing legal failures, human rights abuses, and detainee deaths, the Guantanamo Bay detention centre remains open. Likewise, domestic opposition to the American presence in Afghanistan has steadily increased in the last decade, yet there are no signs of an impending American withdrawal. Episodes of backlash ebb and flow, and in doing so often recede into the historical background of contemporary security politics. Identities previously spoiled by backlash movements are rarely irreparably damaged and often become rehabilitated. Thus, even though American national security officials like John Bolton and Gina Haspell are historically associated with the worst excesses of the Global War on Terror--including the invasion of Iraq and torture respectively--their public personas have undergone a major campaign of rehabilitation by the Trump Administration in the lead up to their appointments. The question of whether the politicising effects of backlash movements actually transform security practices is an empirical one.
The concept of backlash offers a useful lens for understanding the role of emotion in the politicisation of security. While the politicisation literature has yet to fully engage with the role of emotion, I argued for viewing emotions as serving a key role in the distribution of certainty in security discourse. Building on this epistemic view of emotion, I defined backlash as situations where security claims are met with hostile emotional reactions. These episodes can have acute politicising effects including the mobilisation of backlash movements, provoking controversy, and shifting the subject of security to new discursive arenas. More than a simple rejection of security claim, moments of backlash signal a forceful reopening of contentious debate.
However, beyond this early programmatic attempt at defining backlash for security studies a number of puzzles remain. First, there is a paradoxical symbolic power inherent in the concept of backlash. On the one hand, by declaring a backlash a speaker activates longstanding cultural tropes about the role of rational debate, which can work towards delegitimising opposition to a security discourse: by framing it as reactionary and emotional. On the other hand, declaring a backlash can function as an accusation that a speaker has transgressed against the norms of a community. This symbolic power raises pointed questions over who has the authority declare a backlash, and to what effect.
Second, the ability of public officials to rehabilitate their identity after an acute period of backlash raises serious questions for security scholars. What are the strategies and conditions that make an identity previously spoiled by backlash become reconstituted over time? How are public personas reconstructed in ways that minimises or erases culpability for violence or torture? How do political and media institutions work to return individuals previously banished after an episode of backlash to the center of public discourse?
Third, there are numerous and complex normative tensions surrounding the concept. Backlash politics may have a priori appeal for scholars interested in how to best to organise a pubic sphere in a way that resists "demonising" security claims. (94) Yet it would be a mistake to believe this kind of reactionary politics is always benign. As scholars of race and gender remind us, episodes of backlash have historically targeted minorities and women, as well as entailing violence and dehumanisation. The idea of backlash detailed here then can only appear as an unadulterated good if we adopt the "cheap ethics" of viewing all security practice in negative terms. (95) Thus, scholars looking to curb the worst effects of security discourse may want to think twice about embracing the concept of backlash. Otherwise, they may be in for a reaction of their own.
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Eric Van Rythoven
Carleton University, Ottawa
(1) Jef Huysmans, "The Jargon of Exception--on Schmitt, Agamben and the Absence of Political Society," International Political Sociology 2, no. 2 (2008).
(2) The Guardian, "Global fury as Donald Trump's ban on migrants takes effect," 29 January 2017. Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/29/global-fury-donal-trump-us-ban-immigration-muslim-countries>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
(3) Financial Post, "Canada's embarrassing failure on lawful access legislation," 14 February 2012. Available at <https://business.financialpost.com/technology/comment-canadas-embarrassing-failure-on-lawful-access-legislation>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
(4) The Hill, "New York Times mocked for comparing threat of climate change and nuclear war," 11 August 2017. Available at <http://thehill.com/homenews/media/346274-ny-times-asks-whats-a-greater-threat-to-guam-north-korea-or-climate-change>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
(5) Jonas Hagmann, Hendrik Hegemann, and Andrew Neal, "The Politicisation of Security: Controversy, Mobilisation, Arena Shifting," European Review of International Studies 5, no. 3 (2018).
(6) See also Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1998), 32.
(7) This literature is often drawn from outside of security studies. See for example, Matthew Wood, "Politicisation, Depoliticisation and Anti-Politics: Towards a Multilevel Research Agenda," Political Studies Review 14, no. 4 (2016); Laura Jenkins, "The Difference Genealogy Makes: Strategies for Politicisation or How to Extend Capacities for Autonomy," Political Studies 59, no. 1 (2011); Stephen Bates, Laura Jenkins, and Fran Amery, "(De)Politicisation and the Father's Clause Parliamentary Debates," Policy & Politics 42, no. 2 (2014).
(8) Edgar Grande and Swen Hutter, "Introduction: European Integration and the Challenge of Politicisation," in Politicising Europe, ed. Swen Hutter, Edgar Grande, and Hanspeter Kriesi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 9; Pieter De Wilde, "No Polity for Old Politics? A Framework for Analyzing the Politicization of European Integration," Journal of European Integration 33, no. 5 (2011): 553.
(9) Russell Foster, "'I Want My Country Back': Emotion and Englishness at the Brexit Ballotbox," EU Referendum Analysis 2016 2016; Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, "The Emotional Politics of the Eu Referendum: Bregrexit and Beyond," ibid.
(10) Jesse Prinz, Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion (Oxford UP, 2004). I have slightly altered Prinz's terminology here from 'embodied appraisals' to 'embodied judgements' for stylistic reasons.
(11) On the problem of reducing emotion to cognition in international politics see Andrew A.G. Ross, "Coming in from the Cold: Constructivism and Emotions," European Journal of International Relations 12, no. 2 (2006).
(12) Prinz, 69.
(13) Nico H. Frijda and Bajta Mesquita, "Beliefs through Emotions," in Emotions and Beliefs: How Feelings Influence Thoughts, ed. Nico H. Frijda, Anthony S.R. Manstead, and Bem Sascha (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 50-51.
(14) Linda J. Skitka and G. Scott Morgan, "The Social and Political Implications of Moral Conviction," Political Psychology 35, no. 1 (2014): 105-06.
(15) Cognitive theories of emotion would call these "action tendencies". See Agnes Moors, "Flavors of Appraisal Theories of Emotion," Emotion Review 6, no. 4 (2014). Though the they use the term 'dispositions' very differently, this idea overlaps with the discussion of unconscious biases in Todd Hall and Andrew A.G. Ross, "Affective Politics after 9/11," International Organization 69, no. 4 (2015).
(16) Jonathan Mercer, "Emotional Beliefs," ibid.64, no. 1 (2010): 7.
(17) Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (Mineola, New York: Dover Books, 2008), 209.
(18) Randall Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
(19) Ibid., 48-49.
(20) Caron E. Gentry, "Anxiety and the Creation of the Scapegoated Other," Critical Studies on Security 3, no. 2 (2015).
(21) Andrew A.G. Ross, Mixed Emotions: Beyond Fear and Hatred in International Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
(22) On the importance of human agency, contingency, and alternatives to politicisation see the excellent discussion by Jenkins.
(23) USA Today, "Facebook backlash: Failure to disclose political firm's profile access draws scrutiny," 18 March 2018. Available at <https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2018/03/18/facebook-cambridge-analytica/436373002/>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
(24) Michael J. Klarman, "How Brown Changed Race Relations: The Backlash Thesis," The Journal of American History 81, no. 1 (1994): 103.
(25) Heidi Beirich and Evelyn Schlatter, "Backlash: Racism and the Presidency of Barick Obama," in Barack Obama and the Myth of a Post-Racial America, ed. Mark Ledwidge, Kevern Verney, and Inderjeet Parmar (New York: Routledge, 2014), 80.
(26) Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1991), 9-10.
(27) Ibid., 13-14.
(28) Sue Thomas, ""Backlash" and Its Utility to Political Scientists," Politics & Gender 4, no. 4 (2008).
(29) Jane Mansbridge and Shauna L. Shames, "Toward a Theory of Backlash: Dynamic Resistance and the Central Role of Power," ibid.
(30) Ibid., 626.
(31) Steven Vertovec and Susanne Wessendorf, "Introduction: Assessing the Backlash against Multiculturalism in Europe," in Multiculturalism Backlash: European Discourses, Policies and Practices, ed. Steven Vertovec and Susanne Wessendorf (New York: Routledge, 2010).
(32) Ibid., 14.
(33) Jeffrey C. Alexander, "Struggling over the Mode of Incorporation: Backlash against Multiculturalism in Europe," Ethnic and Racial Studies 36, no. 4 (2013).
(34) Ibid., 542-43.
(35) Joseph MacKay and Christopher David Laroche, "Why Is There No Reactionary International Theory?," International Studies Quarterly 62, no. 2 (2018).
(36) Ibid., 235.
(37) Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001); Caroline Kennedy-Pipe and Rhiannon Vickers, "'Blowback' for Britain?: Blair, Bush, and the War in Iraq," Review of International Studies 33, no. 2 (2007).2001
(38) Charlotte Epstein, "Stop Telling Us How to Behave: Socialization or Infantilization?," International Studies Perspectives 13, no. 2 (2012); Catherine Eschle and Bice Maiguashca, "Rethinking Globalised Resistance: Feminist Activism and Critical Theorising in International Relations," The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 9, no. 2 (2007).
(39) Emanuel Adler and Vincent Pouliot, "International Practices," International Theory 3, no. 1 (2011): 28-29.
(40) Buzan, Waever, and de Wilde.
(41) Didier Bigo, "Security and Immigration: Toward a Critique of the Governmentality of Unease," Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 27, no. 1 (2002).
(42) Jef Huysmans, "What's in an Act? On Security Speech Acts and Little Security Nothings," Security Dialogue 42, no. 4-5 (2011).
(43) Louise Amoore and Rita Raley, "Securing with Algorithms: Knowledge, Decision, Sovereignty," ibid.48, no. 1 (2017).
(44) CTV News, "Anger grows over children caught in no-fly lists," 5 January 2016. Available at < https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/anger-grows-over-children-caught-in-no-fly-lists-1.2725244>. Accessed 12 November 2018.
The American Conservative, "'Strange Bedfellows' Are Rolling Back NSA Surveillance," 29 October 2013. Available at <http://www.theamericanconservative.com/2013/10/29/strange-bedfellows-are-rolling-back-nsa-surveillance/>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
(45) Mansbridge and Shames, 625.
(46) MacKay and Laroche, 235.
(47) The American Conservative, "'Strange Bedfellows' Are Rolling Back NSA Surveillance," 29 October 2013. Available at <http://www.theamericanconservative.com/2013/10/29/strange-bedfellows-are-rolling-back-nsa-surveillance/>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
(48) Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford UP, 2017), 5-6.
(49) This emphasis on transgression and hostile public reactions connects backlash with a broader literature on moral outrage in law, criminology, and history. See Judith Rowbotham and Kim Stevenson, eds., Behaving Badly: Social Panic and Moral Outrage - Victorian and Modern Parallels (New York: Routledge, 2017).
(50) The Independent, "Third of British people want to see Tony Blair tried as a war criminal over Iraq, finds YouGov poll," 1 August 2017. <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/tony-blair-war-criminal-iraq-trial-convicted-yougov-british-people-uk-prme-minister-wmds-dossier-a7870341.html>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
(51) I am grateful to Andrew Neal for this example.
(52) Sky News, "UK and US To Stage Cyber War Games To Test Banks," 15 January 2015. Available at <https://news.sky.com/story/uk-and-us-to-stage-cyber-war-games-to-test-banks-10375233>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
(53) Gizmodo, "5 Reasons Why The Home Secretary's Proposed Encryption Ban Is Aggressively Stupid," 27 March 2017. Available at <http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2017/03/5-reasons-why-the-home-secretarys-proposed-encryption-ban-is-aggressively-stupid/>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
(54) Buzan, Waever, and de Wilde., Thierry Balzaqc, "The Three Faces of Securitization: Political Agency, Audience and Context," European Journal of International Relations 11, no. 2 (2005), Jef Huysmans, The Politics of Insecurity: Fear, Migration, and Asylum in the Eu (New York: Routledge, 2006).
(55) On the failure of constructivist ontologies to appreciate to the embodied dimensions of emotions see Ross, "Coming in from the Cold: Constructivism and Emotions."; Eric Van Rythoven, "Learning to Feel, Learning to Fear? Emotions, Imaginaries, and Limits in the Politics of Securitization," Security Dialogue 46, no. 5 (2015).
(56) On public displays of emotion see Todd Hall, Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2016); Simon Koschut, "Emotional (Security) Communities: The Significance of Emotion Norms in Inter-Allied Conflict Management," Review of International Studies 40, no. 3 (2014).
(57) Washington Post, "From KKK hoods to Nazi salutes, some magazines are betting on bold, artistic Trump covers," 21 August 2017. Available at <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2017/08/21/from-kkk-hoods-to-nazi-salutes-some-magazines-are-betting-on-bold-artistic-trump-covers/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f54e471f743c>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
(58) Ross, Mixed Emotions: Beyond Fear and Hatred in International Conflict, 21.
(59) "Coming in from the Cold: Constructivism and Emotions."
(60) Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan L. Hajnal, White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2017).
(61) Anthony DiMaggio, The Rise of the Tea Party: Political Discontent and Corporate Media in the Age of Obama (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 31.
(62) Ibid., 38-39.
(63) Hall, 28-29.
(64) Hall ibid., 29.
(65) Ross, Mixed Emotions: Beyond Fear and Hatred in International Conflict, 22.
(66) Ibid., 21.
(67) Ibid., 24-26.
(68) Hall and Ross, 854.
(69) Ibid.; Ty Solomon, "'I Wasn't Angry, Because I Couldn't Believe It Was Happening': Affect and Discourse in Responses to 9/11," Review of International Studies 38, no. 4 (2012).
(70) On the power of die-ins see Oliver Kaplan, "The Power of Die-N Protests," Political Violence @ A Glance, https://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2015/03/24/the-power-of-die-in-protests/. On the emotional significance of dead bodies see Jessica Auchter, "Paying Attention to Dead Bodies: The Future of Security Studies?," Journal of Global Security Studies 1, no. 1 (2016).
(71) Roland Bleiker, "Mapping Visual Global Politics," in Visual Global Politics, ed. Roland Bleiker (New York: Routledge, 2018), 9.
(72) Ibid., 10.
(73) Lene Hansen, "Theorizing the Image for Security Studies: Visual Securitization and the Muhammad Cartoon Crisis," European Journal of International Relations 17, no. 1 (2011).
(74) "How Images Make World Politics: International Icons and the Case of Abu Ghraib," Review of International Studies 41, no. 2 (2015).
(75) "Theorizing the Image for Security Studies: Visual Securitization and the Muhammad Cartoon Crisis," 57.
(76) Bleiker, 5.
(77) Carol Cohn, "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals," Signs 12, no. 4 (1987).
(78) See Tina Managhan, "Shifting the Gaze from Hysterical Mothers to 'Deadly Dads': Spectacle and the Anti-Nuclear Movement," Review of International Studies 33, no. 4 (2007). Contrary to this popular view, Managhan argues these displays were, in fact, an intentional and effective tactic among anti-nuclear movement.
(79) Christine Sylvester, "The Forum: Emotion and the Feminist IR Researcher," International Studies Review 13, no. 4 (2011).
(80) Hagmann, Hegemann, and Neal.
(81) Simon Hall, Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement (New York: Routledge, 2012), 3.
(82) Donatella della Porta and Sidney Tarrow, "Conclusion: "Globalization," Complex Internationalism, and Transnational Contention," in Transnational Protest and Global Activism, ed. Donatella Della Porta and Sidney Tarrow (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2005), 227.
(83) BBC, "Millions join global anti-war protests," 17 February 2003. Available at <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2765215.stm>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
(84) The New York Times, "Donations to A.C.L.U. and Other Organizations Surge After Trump's Order," 30 January 2017. Available at <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/us/aclu-fund-raising-trump-travel-ban.html>. Accessed 13 July 2018.
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(94) Vibeke Schou Tjalve, "Designing (De)Security: European Exceptionalism, Atlantic Republicanism and the 'Public Sphere'," Security Dialogue 42, no. 4-5 (2011): 446.
(95) Thierry Balzaqc, "Legitimacy and the 'Logic' of Security," in Contesting Security: Strategies and Logics, ed. Thierry Balzaqc (New York: Routledge, 2015), 4.
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|Author:||Van Rythoven, Eric|
|Publication:||European Review of International Studies|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2018|
|Previous Article:||Politicisation, Law and Rights in the Transnational Counter-Terrorism Space: Indications from the Regulation of Foreign Terrorist Fighters.|