Is Emotional Labor the Same as Working Construction in Your Dreams?

By Don Hall

There is a misconception going around that having a conversation about difficult subjects is hard. That the very idea of sitting down with someone who vehemently disagrees with you is so taxing that the potential results of common understanding and forward momentum are simply seen as not worth the effort.

I'm not buying it. And I don't even like Heineken.

This is the danger of the feel-good “let’s just talk to each other” approach. It’s just a more cuddly version of that horrible bothsidesism that equates being called a racist with actual racism as reasons for hurt and anger. Both sides are not the same. The transphobe who agrees to have a beer with the trans woman is sacrificing nothing. She, on the other hand, is giving up a certain amount of dignity by breaking bread with someone who thinks she shouldn’t have the right to exist. She’s risking her mental and physical safety, volunteering for the hard emotional labor of arguing for her right to be a person. And with ads like this, that labor is being demanded of her with no consideration of how much it may cost. Worse, it’s heavily implied that if she were to walk away, it would make her just as intolerant as the bigot who views her with disgust.
Not all viewpoints are equal. Not all olive branches are earned. And it is not in the service of justice to demand emotional labor of marginalized people while praising bigots for doing the bare minimum to act like humans on a single occasion.
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It isn't that I don't agree with the basic idea that trying to reason with bigots and morons is both difficult and often a genuinely frustrating waste of time. I hear that. It is the overblown rhetoric that creates the message that having a conversation with someone who negates your ideological stance is in any way dangerous or back- and mind-breaking in process.

"...risking her mental and physical safety...?"

Hurt feelings and frustration comprise no risk of harm and no one is risking her physical safety unless the conversation is being held in a basement or a bar filled with like-minded assholes.

"...volunteering for the hard emotional labor...?"

Again, annoyance and labor aren't even in the same wheelhouse so dial down the melodrama a bit, yeah? The very term emotional labor is hyperbole. The work being done is simply controlling your reactions and being calm enough to think through your petulance. If you think that's labor, you've never worked an actual job a day in your life.

"...arguing for her right to be a person..."

More high drama and exaggeration.  

When the fight for equal treatment under the law and a straight up refusal to go along with the individual and systemic marginalization of anyone is couched in the language of a histrionic teenager, is there is any wonder that fight is met with an eye roll? Sure, there are lots of people out there on Planet Overcrowded vying for attention, so the tendency to speak in the broadest and most clickbait-like headlines is natural. It is not, however, terribly compelling after everyone does it.

It's no different when someone Irish brings up the fact his ancestors were also brought to this country as indentured servants but frame it as "My people were slaves, too!" No. No, they weren't slaves. They were indentured servants. They were definitely not saddled with chattel slavery.

It's likewise no different than when someone black claims they are still slaves. No. No, you aren't. Marginalized in a systemic and institutionalized racism and incarcerated at ridiculously high rates that are not in proportion to your percentage of the population? Absolutely. Slaves? Nope.

Perhaps, in the effort to be heard, we have adopted the language of advertising where every new product is AMAZING AND GROUNDBREAKING. Language that tells us we'll never get laid with zits on our faces or that it's better to take pills that may make you shit yourself and possibly commit suicide than to learn to cope with some very normal sadness.

So, don't kid yourself. Arguing for equal rights under the law is not the same as arguing for your right to be a person. Sitting down to have a debate with someone who finds your worldview to be ugly, immoral or just wrong does not risk your mental and physical safety. And there simply is no such thing as "emotional labor."

But saying, "That fucking sexist, racist shithead just annoys the crap out of me and my irritation wears me out!" doesn't play so well in academia these days.