The Politics of Emotions


This morning I came across this luminous insightful paragraph on page 132 of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility:

Many of us see emotions as naturally occurring. But emotions are political in two key ways. First, our emotions are shaped by our biases and beliefs, our cultural frameworks. For example, if I believe—consciously or unconsciously—that it is normal and appropriate for men to express anger but not women, I will have very different emotional responses to men’s and women’s expressions of anger. I might see a man who expresses anger as competent and in charge and may feel respect for him, while I see a woman who expresses anger as childish and out of control and may feel contempt for her. If I believe that only bad people are racist, I will feel hurt, offended, and shamed when an unaware racist assumption of mine is pointed out. If I instead believe that having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change), I will feel gratitude when an unaware racist assumption is pointed out; now I am aware of and can change that assumption. In this way, emotions are not natural; they are the result of the frameworks we are using to make sense of social relations. And of course, social relations are political. Our emotions are also political because they are often externalized; our emotions drive behaviors that impact other people.

It’s such a romantic notion — that our feelings are pure, apolitical, unsullied by the dirt and grime of being human or being in relationship with others. But when we assume that our feelings are apolitical, isn’t that another way of saying they are disembodied? This, I think, is one of the brilliant truths of orthodox Christianity: that a human community is “embodied” just as much as a single organism with flesh and blood. We speak of the community of faith as the Body of Christ. What does it mean to be embodied? It means that we belong to one another, and that we impact and shape one another. This is why speaking of structural racism or structural systems of privilege and oppression is entirely consistent with the heart of Jesus’s teachings.

Another point, that Diangelo implies but doesn’t go into — which is a basic principle of cognitive or rational-emotive-behavioral therapy — is that our thoughts shape our feelings. We feel a certain way, quite often, because our thoughts make that particular way of feeling possible, plausible, or probable. “If I lose my job, the world will come to an end” is a common way of thinking, even though it is rarely true on a strictly empirical level. Yet the person who thinks this way is likely to find getting fired or being laid off to be a deeply frightening experience. But if your way of thinking is “Losing a job is difficult, but it also can pave the way to new opportunities” then the emotional experience of being terminated will be very different. Probably still difficult — it never feels safe to lose income or a sense of purpose — but not devastating.

We can see how this applies to Robin DiAngelo’s work challenging white people to dismantle their own privilege and subconscious racism. If we think “Only bad people are racists” then we get defensive if someone points out when we are acting in racist ways. But if we think “Racism is a structural problem in our society that everyone has to work together to dismantle” then having our own racism pointed out to us still stings, but it’s easier to frame it as a challenge and an opportunity, not an attack.

So why am I writing about this on a contemplation blog? For a couple of reasons. First, contemplatives need to be engaged in work to dismantle oppression and privilege in our communities, which means those of us who are white have full responsibility for undoing our own racism. But I also think this question of “the politics of emotion” or the relationship between our thoughts and feelings is directly applicable to contemplative practice as well.

We often talk, in the spiritual direction world, about “image of God.” For most of us, our image of God is not so much a visual image (the old man with a beard, the all-loving Spirit) as it is a constellations of beliefs about God. Is God all-loving? All-forgiving? All-merciful? Kind and compassionate? Passionately interested in our well-being? In love with us? Committed to peace and justice, in ways that are holistic and affirming for everyone? Most of will, on a conscious level, answer “Yes” to questions like these. But the more interesting question is, “what do we subconsciously believe about God? Just as our subconscious patterns of privilege and prejudice mean that whites often behave in racist ways even though they believe themselves to be non-racist, so too our deeply hidden beliefs about God, or about humanity, or about the possibilities of spiritual practice, all shape what we experience (feel) in prayer, meditation, and contemplation. This is one of the reasons why I tend to be a bit skeptical of experience as the only arbiter of mysticism. Yes, experience is very important. But our experience can often be shaped by our beliefs or values (especially when they’re subconscious).

The point behind this is not to delegitimate our feelings or experiences! But rather to hold feelings and experiences lightly, and to recognize that just because we feel something strongly doesn’t make it objectively “true.” Learning to fearlessly understand our thoughts, beliefs, values and views that undergird our feelings — whether our feelings about race, justice, privilege, or for that matter, about God, prayer, and mystical awakening — is a way to grow in both authenticity and freedom.

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About the author

Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

By Carl McColman



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