Attempt: On “Emotional Labor”

Back in the hey-days of October, Haley Swenson wrote a piece called “Please Stop Calling Everything That Frustrates You Emotional Labor.” I missed it because I have found Slate’s contrarianism gradually turn into knee-jerk left-liberalism as Jamelle Bouie became its political editor.  Bouie represents a millennial Democratic politics that often use far more radical social justice language than it’s actual policy advocacy.  It was as if Slate wanted to run in the other direction from the time before his death when Christopher Hitchens was a primary voice of the political end of the magazine.  Regardless, Swenson describes the internet “political discourse” diluting a term to near meaningless.  She explains the history of the “emotional labor” here:

In her 1983 book The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Hochschild first coined the phrase emotional labor to describe the work of flight attendants and bill collectors to consciously regulate their own feelings and attempt to shape the emotions of others to get their jobs done. Women and low-income workers were being asked to very subtly (and very deftly) fix up people’s feelings without being recognized or compensated for that very tricky part of their labor.

It is interesting how much of the critical theory that was Marxist-adjacent was adopted by bloggers in the late aughts.  In particular, the language around these theorists from the 80s and 90s made it into blog and social media talk: Crenshaw’s “intersectionality,” McIntosh’s specific use of privilege, and Hochschild’s “emotional labor.”  I suspect this is because a generation of people in sociology and critical studies courses in undergraduate core requirements were superficially exposed to these neologisms and/or compound concepts and the ideas expressed in them by over-worked graduate assistants and young adjuncts who teach most undergraduates.  So the treatment was superficial.  Combine that with the deadlines around think pieces and the brevity required for engagement on most social media, the hollowing out of political theory happens particularly quickly when these concepts are weaponized.

So what has happened to “emotional labor”?  Before I go into Swenson’s analysis, let’s look at the limits of the term.  Emotional labor was not the same as “doing things that are emotionally draining without being paid.”  It was not a theory that encouraged one to commodify one’s personal distress.   It was specifically limited to emotional distress in the service sector and female employment that was largely uncompensated and which does have a personal and interpersonal health cost.    Swenson then goes on to point out how at the end of the aughts, the term became far broader:

So what exactly is emotional labor? Emotional labor is simply the management of feelings (your own or someone else’s) to accomplish some goal—to leave a customer satisfied or to get someone to do something they might not otherwise want to, or to keep your household functioning. Note that there are many other kinds of labor that can produce these outcomes too (simply providing information to someone, for instance), but emotional labor concerns the work of emotion management—say, delivering bad news about a flight cancellation in a comforting way, so that disgruntled passengers hardly notice the news is bad.

One notes, again, the expanded definition includes transactions that are not specifically commodified transactions but do have end-specific goals.  So we move from the purely economic sphere in areas which are, to use a Marxist way of phrasing, part of “the production or reproduction of social relations.”   To speak like a normal person, when one has to manipulate displays of emotion to make something work between people–personal or economic.

Swensen notes that this expansion of emotional labor can be a form of gatekeeping, which ultimately actually reinforces some pretty traditional gender roles under the guise of progressive or feminist politics:

The anxiety women feel about it shouldn’t be confused as proof that their way of doing things is right and the men in their lives are incompetent or wrong. Sociologists have a word for the tendency of women to set the terms for how parenting or housework should take place and then policing that line in such a way that men are effectively shut out of doing it. It’s called maternal gatekeeping. It’s a problem that’s bad for fathers, kids, and the mothers who end up stressed and overworked because of it. If we chalk up every dispute over how and when something should be done to emotional labor, we might bulldoze our way past the possibility that our own expectations can be our worst enemy.

This may be particularly pernicious. Other forms of pernicious uses of the concept that she does not note are demands to further commodify activism or relationship “labor.”  For example, the pain of activists who are constantly asked to “educate” others on topics of their own experience is labeled “emotional labor” that is entitled to compensation.  There has been a recent backlash against this “we have no responsibility to educate you” sentiment often justified in “emotional labor,” but the backlash is on tactical grounds.  After all, there are plenty of people who are opposed or ignorant of someone’s experience perfectly willing to offer a counter-narrative for free.  Yet, beyond that, I think we should be honest that commodification of our own experiences probably increases our own alienation in regards to that experience. Instead of normalizing our traumas through exposure and helping others see our points of view, we set it off as a trauma that too much to bear without specific compensation.

I personally find these kinds of expansions of terms fascinating as it proves that our specific jargon, like even someone like George Carlin pointed out about euphemisms, that the expansion of the term weakens its use and can often lead to the opposite point.  Like the euphemism that becomes a coded slur itself, the expanded logic of a sociological term like “emotional labor” can actually lead to some practices that have nothing to do, or maybe in some ways are subtly opposed, to the original coiner of the neologism or phrases’ point.  Sometimes, in the realm of politics and language, victory in terms of ubiquity is defeat in terms of clarity.  Or, you can lose for winning.


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