In an era when personal outrage and emotional reactions to injustice have become the norm, we may be losing sight of the big picture—and fueling oppression in the process.
“The personal is political” was one of the main tenets of second-wave feminism. I’m referring to the feminist demand we understand oppressions that took place in the home and in the workplace, between two people—possibly intimates—as structural. It came from the collective realizations that often arose in “consciousness-raising” groups, realizations that what you thought just happened to you in fact were happening to many different women, in much the same way.
That these realizations happened in a collective, organized space makes it that much more disappointing that it seems, in recent years, as though this sentiment has been turned on its head. Instead of seeing personal oppression as part of a broader political structure, we now only understand it as something that makes us feel bad. We have substituted feelings for politics.
Katherine Cross, in an excellent piece at Feministing, lays out an example. She argues that when we use the term “offended” as a synonym for “harmed” or “oppressed,” we lose sight of what is actually oppressive. Cross points out, “Being made to fear for your life is not the same as feeling hurt by speech. Losing your job as a result of stereotypes or harassment contained in speech is not the same as feeling personally offended by that speech. Being shot by the police because of ideas about your skin color transmitted through discourse is not the same as merely being offended by it. Being outed against your will is not the same as having your feelings hurt by it. It is the deeds that flow from words which concern us, and which cannot be contained by the concept of offensiveness.”
I think of White girls in my middle-school English class, offended by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it contained many uses of “the n-word,” yet never questioning why our “honors” English class was all-White.
Being offended is not in itself political. “What is political,” Cross writes, is the way that racist ideas contribute to systemic violence, the way transphobic language acts as “the spearpoint of violence against trans women, used to justify it and all but ensure such crimes will be repeated.” We are not talking about offense. We are talking about actual harm and lost life.
As Sara Ahmed points out, making arguments turn on hurt feelings is an excellent way to cover up the actual mechanisms of power at work.
Many of us get started in politics because of emotions; the Wal-Mart worker walks off the job on strike because he is angry at his low wages, his lousy schedule, and the offhand homophobic comment his boss just made was the last straw. The protester is saddened by yet another death of an unarmed Black person at the hands of police, comes out to mourn and joins the protest blocking traffic on a highway. Emotions are powerful motivators that should not be discounted. Emotions are necessary for a fully human life.
Yet what we’ve seen too often lately is the feelings of one or a small group of people being substituted for an actual understanding of harm and of power. And the people whose feelings get aired in public and taken seriously are often those who already have a level of power to begin with.
For women in particular, the ways we have been limited in public discourse and action have shaped the very writing and actions we take to challenge sexist structures. As Mary Beard noted in The London Review of Books, women historically were allowed to speak publicly on two subjects: “First … as victims and as martyrs—usually to preface their own death,” and “second … women could legitimately rise up to speak—to defend their homes, their children, their husbands or the interests of other women.”
We can either detail our own victimhood, or we can speak about the victimhood of other women. (It is unfortunate that Beard, who makes this point so well, signed on to a letter in The Guardian which itself is an excellent example of feelings-as-politics.)
We see this in what Phoebe Maltz Bovy calls “feelings journalism”: writers “making an argument based on what they imagine someone else is thinking, what they feel may be another person’s feelings.” The offspring of the personal essay, feelings journalism substitutes reporting on facts, systems, even asking people about their situation, with an emotional appeal. It takes up the victimhood of others, without even asking them if they consider themselves victims.
As Maltz Bovy notes, feelings journalism arose from economic constraints on the media industry; budget cutbacks and the accelerated 24-hour news cycle online lead to a demand for content that simply can’t be filled by costly reporting. It is itself a structural issue. The feelings evoked by such pieces drive the clicks that pay the bills, and the writers themselves are usually underpaid (or unpaid).
Whatever the cause, though, the result has been an individualizing of political issues, a narrowing of our understanding. As I wrote in For Love or Money, a chapbook I co-authored with Melissa Gira Grant, “When we center our own feelings about something that’s happening to someone else, we lose all potential for solidarity.”
What we end up with instead is a politics of pity and charity; endless articles in newspapers and magazines about the abject misery of the poor and handwringing about what “we” should do about it. Gira Grant argues in For Love or Money that tears become a substitute for the hard work of political organizing. “Weeping, from a safe distance. Weeping that somehow isn’t also read as a form of objectification.”
As for the people who are the objects of all this feeling, well, their voices continue to simply be wiped out of the conversation. Sydette Harry brings up the example of Janay Rice, whose wishes after the video of her then-fiancé assaulting her made news were continually ignored. The NFL, which employs Rice’s now-husband, hired “domestic violence advisers” but, Harry writes, “This major step to ‘address issues’ still hinges on making a Black woman’s personal affairs heartbreakingly public and assuring that no one who represents her voice—which has asked for very different things than advocacy—will be heard.”
This is not to say that we should not write about or talk about our feelings. Sharing can be a powerful act of solidarity, a precursor to the trust that organizing requires, or simply a way to make art out of something awful. When women in particular are reduced to feelings on a page, as if all we are capable of is emoting, not thinking, it is frustrating not because feelings are bad, but because we have been denied other forms of agency.
Emotions themselves can be work; exhausting, dehumanizing work. Emotional labor, as sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild defined it, is the management of our own emotions in order to produce a certain emotional state in others. That Wal-Mart worker has to swallow his anger on the job and smile at the customers. The feminist blogger has to summon the outrage to write about yet another sexist incident. The comment moderator has to fight off her own disgust to delete the racist comments so that no one else has to see them.
All that production and moderation of feelings takes its own toll, and the exhaustion left at the end of the day is easy to mistake for a sign of progress. Yet the benefits of this endless stream of emotional labor are mostly being captured by those who already have power, and we are left isolated with our individual feelings, mistaking the things that make us personally feel better for a solution to a much bigger problem.
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