Danai Koltsida argues for a politics of humanity and feelings.
"Call me when (if) you arrive." These are the words of a mother just before we close the front door behind us. It is the best friend's message when we part after a night away. Since that terrible night of February 28, when the catastrophic train crash occurred in Tembi, Greece, they have become an important slogan. They can be read on streets and walls, were written on self-made posters, became stickers on school bags and placed in schoolyards. Such a simple and familiar phrase became the most powerful slogan, the motto of one of the highlights of the social mobilisation of recent years in Greece, characterised by the fact that mostly young people participated in it.
How could a phrase, full of concern and tenderness, but containing no complaint, no demand, no promise, no analysis, express so succinctly and better than any other what so many people filling the streets and squares feel? And, more importantly, is it an exception? Was it the nature of the event - the tragic accident in Tempi - that so decisively imposed emotion on public space and political discourse?
Public discourse is full of references to successive crises, polycrises, permacrises: The term "crisis" is used in all possible combinations. It is undeniable that the everyday life of "ordinary people" is becoming more and more complex and difficult, regardless of how each individual, political perspective or direction analyses the current situation.
If the new generation is the "battered generation" that cannot recover from the repeated blows, then our time is analogously the age of constant hardships, the "age of getting beaten up" for everyone, young and old. Every day we get beaten up. Mostly figuratively, sometimes literally.
We live in small, inadequate, yet very expensive apartments, in run-down neighbourhoods, with decaying - and sometimes dangerous - infrastructure. We work too much, get paid little, our free time is increasingly scarce, insecurity is the norm. What if we get sick, who will take care of our elderly parents, who will take care of our children - if we decide to have any - during the endless hours we work.
This beating leaves a mark. In our personal lives, in our mental and physical health, and in each individual of us, in our collective social body. And all this still without going into the "big picture", without thinking about war, climate catastrophe, the nuclear threat - all of them frighteningly present, even if we repress them every day. Without talking about the quality of democracy. Without bothering to talk about the even more complicated and difficult lives of those we commonly refer to as "the other half of heaven", who experience even more inequality, sexism, gender violence, and sexual exploitation every day. Without talking about the "other", about the lives of migrants, about racism, without talking about disability. That's where the level of hardships increases exponentially. And the beating becomes more and more literal. More and more physical.
GenZ experiences all this intensely and universally; today's youth has never known anything else, none of what constituted our earlier "normality."
This generation is not only or just the "crisis generation". It is the generation that made "I believe you, my sister" its motto when the #MeToo movement emerged. It is the generation that got vaccinated en masse, even when vaccines were questioned at the time, out of concern and sincere love for those around them, for the older ones. It is the generation that has been at the forefront of organising solidarity with migrants in recent years. It is the generation that is enraged and saddened by all manifestations of social injustice, and at the same time it is the generation that massively supports the prospect of an open society with more rights for all. One of the characteristics of the politicisation of this generation is precisely its personal dimension. The political and the personal merge, intertwine, and ultimately cross-fertilise each other in creative ways. It is what will be called here the "politics of tenderness." It is the response from "below" to the blows they take in every aspect of their lives. It is the refusal to become like those "above" who are responsible for the blows - be it politicians, bosses, a sexist neighbour, a homophobic colleague, or an abusive partner in their lives. The politics of tenderness is its practical counter-paradigm.
It is tailored to people and their world, to their needs and potential, and to everything that makes them special, even if it is excluded by traditional mainstream politics.
If the pandemic has brought anything, it is a reexamination of what is necessary and important for our lives, individually and collectively. The debate on the economy of care – the formal and informal economy in the sense of paid or unpaid work, mainly performed by women, related to health, childcare, care for the elderly, etc. – has until recently been conducted mainly within the contemporary feminist movement and has now become a central issue. There has also been a reconsideration, albeit temporary, of how professions are evaluated in terms of their social utility and thus the symbolic and material recognition they deserve.
This is an economic debate that moves away from the "hard" macroeconomic and fiscal indicators that dominate the dominant discourse, but is not deprived from economic arguments as well, and can be transformative on many levels. It is an economic approach that can put an end to the "age of getting beaten up" and care for the social wounds it has opened. It is an approach that can subordinate market forces or technological progress to human needs. It is finally a discussion of the economy that introduces the parameter of happiness.
This approach to politics is characterised by a personal dimension, the recognition that there is room for emotion in politics.
Of course, even today, emotions are not only not absent from politics, but they are a central element of politics. We know much about the relationship between emotions and political/electoral behaviour: Fear, anger, sadness, hope – almost every human response to external stimuli has a political component. Political discourse, political communication, campaigns are all designed to appeal to or even evoke emotions.
Officially, however, politics – especially in its institutionalised form – is presented as a rational decision-making process that is free of emotions. The corresponding politician model can put aside his or her feelings and thinks "rationally”, despite the fact that communication forces politicians to publicly show their "human side" in social media and in supposedly "de profundis" interviews.
Doesn't this removal of emotion from politics ultimately make it more inhumane? Could it not be that emotions - especially in times when political dilemmas are becoming more condensed and serious - could function as a moral compass?
There is something deeply elitist at the core of the banishment of emotions from politics. According to the prevailing logic, emotions are something for the masses, for the people, who – stupid as they are – are driven by emotions. Emotions are denounced as something that makes the subject manipulable. It is human emotions, and ultimately the "common person" themself, against whom the accusation of populism is often levelled.
Since emotions are considered a predominantly "feminine" trait, eliminating them from politics is another way to perpetuate gender discrimination.
Today, if we still believe in the triad of democratic politics – by the people, with the people, and for the people – we must take politics back from the hands of its professionals, those with "strong stomachs" capable of withstanding the self-evident and inevitable harshness of the political arena, and return it to the "normal," "everyday" people. To those who cry, who are depressed, who have made mistakes, who repent, who can't take it anymore.
We have to make room for people. It is the girls and boys who shout "Call me when (if) you arrive" or "I believe you, my sister." It is not only the men who assert their place in public life with the confidence of their learned social role. It is also those who do not "wear pants", who enter the public discourse with their doubts and insecurities. They are not just the shining examples of the young, the beautiful, the healthy and the successful. They are also people who have problems, who are unlucky, people who are broken by life. We have to make room for them.
During the tragic hours when the parents of those wounded and killed in the train accident waited outside the hospital in Larissa to learn the fate of their children, my best friend sent me a message: "I wish I could go there and hug them all one by one." Ultimately, the politics of tenderness can be just that: a collective hug that cares, comforts, protects, heals, but also includes, gives trust and space to each and every one of us.