Emotion and AIDS Activism by Zhibin Dai

Deborah Gould’s “Life During Wartime” discusses the ACT UP movement, a “militant” AIDS activist organization that sought to use anger to empower and change the normative goals of AIDS activism. In particular, Gould focuses on the role of emotion in defining, sustaining and changing AIDS activism. She argues, ostensibly, that ACT UP used emotion to shift AIDS activism away from a movement dominated by grief and political accommodation and into one driven by anger, which led activists to become more militant in confronting the government’s insufficient and bigoted response to the AIDS crisis.

 A few thoughts on the paper:

– I think there’s a presumption – or at least you could read this into the paper – that the gay community’s initial political and social response to the AIDS crisis was naïve and unsuccessful. That’s a debatable point, but I think it’s important to note that the ACT UP movement sprung up not only as a counter to the political response towards the AIDS crisis but also as a reaction towards the gay community’s initial activist approach, which means that the gay community’s initial, more accommodating approach to AIDS was a necessary pre-condition for the ACT UP movement. This leads to my second point.

– It seems to me that the initial response towards a crisis is rarely anger driven because anger, particularly in the form that ACT UP espoused, is a response not only to the crisis itself, but the initial response to the crisis. For example, take the “Occupy” movement. The people involved in it probably have a variety of grievances, but they coalesce around the issue of the poor economy. Like ACT UP, Occupy is also driven by anger, anger about economic insecurity and the political system that seems to work for the “1%” at the expense of the “99%.” And like ACT UP, the Occupy movement did not begin during the early stages of its crisis; instead it began more than three years after the financial crisis, at a time when the political response to the crisis had – at least up to that point – failed to sufficiently restore the economy to its pre-recession state. This means that the ACT UP movement probably did not artificially create anger within the gay and AIDS activist community so much as it tapped into an existing, latent emotion.  

– I wish the paper would have described the effects of the ACT UP movement in terms of its political or social impact outside of the gay and AIDS activist communities. It would have been helpful since it impacts social movement sustainability, which is Gould’s focus here.

– On the issue of social movement sustainability, Gould argues that ACT UP’s emotional message of anger towards the political establishment and pride about gay sexuality helped sustain the movement after its initial development and growth. However, I think that another possible reason ACT UP was able to sustain itself was that they achieved – and could continue to achieve – real, tangible goals. Gould’s conclusion essentially suggests this point. In discussing why ACT UP eventually declined, she notes that by the mid-1990s, the social and political context had changed; the gay movement became more mainstream, the political system responded to some of their demands, and a more gay-friendly president was elected. This meant that anger didn’t make as much sense anymore. If this was the case in the mid-1990s, maybe the reason ACT UP was able to sustain itself in the late-1980s and early-1990s was that they were busy working to achieve the successes that finally came to fruition later on, and that’s why their membership remained consistent during that time.

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