• Politicizing affect

    By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    How do you escape? Work? Reading? Or maybe love? Have you ever thought about how the ubiquitous feminist phrase “the personal is political” and how it affects professional life? The following is a look at affect theory—a field in which tremendous value can be drawn for social entrepreneurship—and equality. In the article “The politics of love: Women’s liberation and feeling differently,” Victoria Hesford explores the phrase “the personal is political,” which has helped (and, in some ways, hindered) the women’s liberation movement. The “motto” stems from the idea that personal struggles are in fact political struggles, and underlying the phrase is a focus of systemic oppression that creates inequalities in the more personal realms of life, for example in the home or in a relationship. It involves a turn inwards, a refocusing on intimacy, sexuality and love. Love is typically considered to be outside of the political sphere and more of a private aspect of life. Hesford notes key feminists, like Kate Millett who, during the 1970s, encouraged an expansion of the political sphere, one included sexual relationships, romantic love and intimacy. Hesford considers the conception of how love gives us reason to live, and creates something of a sphere of escapism. Similarly, Berlant and Warner explore how love has come to be a “refuge from politics,” in the sense that domesticity and heterosexual normative relationships are then considered “pre-political.” What are the consequences of thinking of heterosexual love as a haven from the public sphere? Who is left out of the equation? The strict distinction between public and private reflects the inequalities of those who are considered privileged enough to engage in politics and those who are not. Feminist politics, at least in its roots, took to examining how the idea of “politics as something you do in public” had debilitating effects that had on women’s political lives (or non-political lives) because they were exiled from the public sphere and confined to domesticity which was considered (and to some extent, still is) as apolitical or nonpolitical. Hesford argues that “the personal is political” has become and empty phrase that essentializes, individualizes and further privileges white middle-class women. How then is the personal transformed to the political? How is intimacy related to political life? Through an analysis of how literature disrupts the binary of personal versus political and public versus private, Hesford  explores how Doris Lessing’s writing makes a call to language and discourse to examine political action. Hesford writes, “While political discourse is portrayed as a highly artificial and obfuscating language, emotions become the propulsive force in the novels.” This made me look at how emotional language is seen as something easier to articulate for most women, something almost “innate.” But, both political and personal discourse is learned. Emotions are given more primacy during the early stages of life, but are subsequently repressed and get fragmented. For example, work and politics remains a space where emotional language is quelled, in exchange for a more “reasonable” language. Hesford recognizes that the problem still exists, of “how a politicization of feeling converts into an effective propulsive force for collective political action.” What is important is to keep open that “critical space” for engaging in discussion on emotions and politics.

  • Empathy: it’s all good, right?

    By Tiana Reid, Senior Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    Empathy has been studied seriously since the 1960s as something more than an emotion. It’s an affect, yes, but it has implications for things outside of the personal realm. Social activist and cultural critic bell hooks cultivated an idea of “engaged pedagogy” which centers on the idea of mutual recognization.  “Engaged pedagogy rests on a compassionate premise: to be effective, teachers need to be engaged with students, to nurture not only their classroom performance but their whole well-being: mental, physical, and spiritual,” writes Janet M Lucas in her 2011 dissertation “Not just a feeling anymore: Empathy and the teaching of writing.”

    How empathy works in social businesses may be difficult to assess. After all, it goes back to whether or not intentions matter. But empathy has been and continues to be a hot topic online in the social entrepreneurship world. I’d say it’s pretty much a buzz word by now. Intentionally or not, affect and emotion have always held a premier role in social business. Especially when it comes to companies selling products, it takes emotional marketing and/or a “virtuous” feeling on the part of the consumer, to sell a fair trade, environmental, ethical (etc.) product, considering that it’s usually at a higher price.

    Empathy: it’s all good, right? Well, maybe not. In “The risks of empathy: Interrogating multiculturalism’s gaze,” which was published in Cultural Studies, Megan Boler argues that “passive empathy… falls far short of assuring any basis for social change, and reinscribes a ‘consumptive’ mode of identification with the other.” Consuming the other (or “eating the other” if we look at this again through a bell hooks lens) is already a huge issue in social business. The so-called exotic is sold, bought and traded through goods manufactured (but sometimes not) in the Majority World.

    Last year, Ashoka launched their empathy initiative in which they outlined the following: “Empathy. We don’t hear the term every day, but Ashoka Fellows over the past thirty years have shown time and again that there is no practice more fundamental to the human experience and no skill closer to the heart of what it means to be a changemaker. Its presence–and as profoundly, its absence–can be seen amongst the myriad challenges that populate our daily headlines, whether school bullying, ethnic conflict, crime, or the global preparedness of tomorrow’s workforce.”

    But is it really possible to “identify with another person’s feelings” as Mary Gordon’s Cultivating Empathy describes empathy? How could a straight able-bodied white middle-class North American male identify with the feelings of a poor black lesbian from Zimbabwe? But this isn’t about the Oppression Olympics. Rather, if I go back to Boler, it’s about being active in not consuming identities because claiming to empathize is far different than acknowledging someone’s right for self-determination and ownership.

    To problematize empathy isn’t to disregard it, but rather, it’s to take a look at how promoting empathy can blind being critical, which is crucial, especially in an industry that purports to care.