PrologueI haven't been posting much in the past few months. My time has been occupied being angrier than I've ever been before in my life. Besides the minimal energy I've been able to spare to do my paying job, most if not all of my intellectual energy has gone into composing (in my head) what you're about to read. I haven't worked on my dissertation or read research papers, much less worked on any hobbies. I haven't worked on any open-source projects for the fun of it (besides the one I'm getting paid to work on). This has been it.
"I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one's own actions or lack of action."
-- Audre Lorde
Today is Labor Day in the US. I want to write about the emotional labor that I have to do just to do the usual things people do -- have a job, have friends, study -- and be a trans person. When I say I'm trans, it means -- for the purposes of this discussion -- that people don't, universally, recognize my sex and gender as valid. And the more power someone has, at least in the place and time where I live, the less they tend to recognize my sex and gender as valid. The number of fucks I would ordinarily give about this approaches zero asymptotically, but unfortunately, when people have power over you, you have to care what they think. Because what they think affects what they do, and what they do affects things like whether you can get a job, board a plane, or walk down the street without getting assaulted. Caring about they think is emotional labor, too, and it's unpaid labor.
So call today Emotional Labor Day, and let's talk about how, at work, some people can simply do the job they're supposedly being paid for and be accepted, validated and recognized for their achievements; others of us have to do just as well at the job (better, usually, in fact) -- and do a litany of emotional tasks. We don't get paid overtime. (I originally learned the concepts of "emotional labor" and "emotional work" from the writing of Barbara Ehrenreich and Laura Kipnis. Sometimes "labor" gets used to refer to the stuff that has economic value attached, like smiling and saying "have a nice day" when you're a cashier at Starbucks, and "work" gets used to refer to the stuff that doesn't, like pretending to be interested in "Star Wars" because your significant other loves it. As I hope I'm about to show, though, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.)
As a trans person, as a queer person, as a -- to use an umbrella term that's less offensive than some such terms, gender and sexual minority group (GSM) member -- part of the emotional work I get asked to do involves assuming good intent. It happens all the time. Someone does, or says something hurtful, and maybe one out of twenty times when it happens, I say something about it. Like "that was hurtful to people like me." Like "don't do it next time." (The other nineteen times out of twenty, I silently rage while convincing myself that saying something would cost energy I can't afford to spend. That's emotional work, too.) Almost all the time, the answer is "well, I didn't intend any harm." The person being critiqued seems unconcerned as to my intent, which is to educate them so they can learn. So really, when they say that it's the intention behind your actions, and not your actions, that matters, they actually mean to apply such a rule selectively. They really mean that privileged people -- people who are white, or who are affluent, or who are men, or who are cisgender, or who have cissexual bodies, or who are heterosexual, or who are able-bodied, or preferably all of the above, get a free pass to do or say anything oppressive, and get out of it because their intent was good. Having meant well is the excuse that becomes the reason not to take criticism, not to listen, not to apologize, not to do better next time.
The tyranny of good intentions really has very little to do with intentions (rarely are people consciously aware of their intentions), but it has a lot to do with power. Specifically, it has to do with the power to make other people do your emotional work for you. When someone tells you, "It invalidates me when you say that trans men were born female but became male" (example taken from an actual recent Twitter conversation; my take on the foundation behind this), and you say you were only trying to be helpful, you are dodging the emotional work of having to admit you made a mistake, having to admit that you don't know everything. You are shifting the work onto the other party -- the person who got hurt. You are asking them to suspend their disbelief and assume that you meant well, even though you didn't do the work of showing that you meant well. You are also shaming the other person for lashing out against a person who is -- the magical silencing word -- an ally.
And you are discouraging them from speaking out next time. If telling someone "You hurt me" gets met with "fuck you, I was trying to help but because you were so rude to me, I'm going to hurt you worse now", well, as a defense mechanism, next time you're probably just going to suffer in silence. This is the point that lightgetsin made recently about asking web site owners to make their sites accessible. It's a double bind: if you complain, you get shamed for complaining. If you say nothing, privileged people complain that they don't know how to respect people in minority groups because those people don't speak up enough about oppression.
Power can impose double binds. And the kind of power I'm talking about -- the kind that involves using language to control reality rather than using outright physical violence -- is very effective. When you've been taught to defer to people whose identities are more socially valued than yours is, you tend to internalize that education. You accord the benefit of the doubt. You learn to suppress your pain in favor of considering how painful it must be to be criticized for using a slur.
If I'm to be charitable (see, there I am again, being a good little marginalized person and doing the privileged people's work for them!), I could assume that this phenomenon doesn't just occur because privileged folks are lazy motherfuckers. I could think about how difficult it can be to be told that something you were doing without really thinking it was hurting somebody.
But I don't really know why it would be in my interests to be charitable towards people who already have more privilege than me. I doubt anyone always likes being told they're wrong, but in a situation where I'm on the low end of the power scale (and power and privilege are always relative), what seems to happen more often than not -- even after years of raising my own consciousness -- is that I get recruited into doing the high-privilege person's work for them. I remain silent. I ignore opportunities to call someone out on using language that reinforces and reconstructs systems of oppression and hierarchies of value. Because what I've been taught my entire life is that whatever job I'm being paid to do, I'm always expected to do the work of helping the privileged people around me maintain their self-image. Usually, that self-image involves thinking of oneself as a nice progressive person who's an ally to all members of disenfranchised groups. One of the privileges a person has, then, if they occupy a coveted position in the network of social hierarchies, is low-cost narcissism. If you're poor, or a person of color, or disabled, or a GSM member, you're not going to get self-esteem for free. It's going to involve actually doing good things -- and not doing bad ones -- in order to get people around you to validate you. (And even then, they might not.) But privileged people can maintain narcissism for a low, low price -- all they have to do, instead of doing good deeds, is say those magic words "I meant well", and an entire class of people will sing "Yes, sir, you did" like a chorus. Because they've been taught to work for free, and because they know that the price of demanding reciprocity is social banishment. Or else the price is the deployment of the dreaded tone argument, which is how the privileged person gets to resist the odd bit of criticism that makes it past the "good intentions" filter: they say you're being rude and angry, which gives them a license to keep hurting you as much as they want.
In the words of Chungyen Chang: willful ignorance is just as bad as action with intent. (Add emphasis on "willful"; I understand the word to mean not just ignorance through intentional -- see what I did there? -- aversion to learning, but self-serving passive ignorance as well. In other words, if you're unaware of a truth that would be inconvenient to you, you might be willfully ignorant.)
(If you haven't read "Intent! It's Fucking Magic!" already, go read it now. I'll wait.)
Comments on this post are screened by default. I will unscreen comments that I find to be constructive, unless you tell me "Please don't unscreen my comment".