It’s strange to notice how often we’re told how to feel. It happens on a small, daily scale – it’s especially noticeable for people who work in customer service, but in general almost everyone who has a job is told not just to do their work, but to project an air of being happy, excited and grateful to be allowed to be doing their work. And it happens on a grand, national scale: we’re expected to put our own personal feelings aside, and instead to celebrate with the Royals, to be respectful on Remembrance Day, to have a laugh for Children in Need or Red Nose Day.
Whatever we’re told to feel, our instructions always come from above, and ultimately they’re always based around what suits the people giving us the orders, not about what we actually feel. It might not be the worst thing about this society, but it’s a constant source of tension: right now, I’m sure there’s someone dealing with the stress of a personal tragedy having to keep a smile fixed on their face so as not to harm their employer’s brand image, feeling torn up inside by the need to keep on projecting the right set of feelings.
Like any other kind of top-down discipline, this power needs to be broken if we’re ever going to reclaim power over our own lives. I’m interested in thinking about how we can start to sabotage this kind of emotional management. When it comes to grand national displays of emotion, the left has made some attempts to organise shows of opposition, as with the protests against the Royal Wedding or attempts to start discussions around the politicised nature of Remembrance Day, but I’m not sure that these are usually very effective. Perhaps the problem is that both the grand spectacles and the spectacles of opposition to them are both based around quite abstract agendas, when what’s needed is to start from our own lives. I don’t think that organising protests against Children In Need or Red Nose Day would achieve anything useful, but I think that using them as starting-off points to talk about how, if rich fuckers like Terry Wogan and Gary Barlow were that serious about tackling child poverty, they could start by dipping into their own pockets instead of expecting the rest of us to foot the bill, might be more productive. It may or may not be explicit, but these kinds of spectacles are always intended to create a grand feeling of cross-class unity, so anything that cuts against that is worthwhile.
Disobeying our emotional orders isn’t that hard a step to take. Whether or not it’s worth doing is a harder question, and one that can only be answered in specific situations, not as a general rule. Anarchists and other radicals are often isolated enough to start off with, and openly displaying the “wrong” set of feelings might only isolate us further, without actually achieving anything practical – whatever you might feel about the reasons for it, when a minute’s silence happens, the sensible thing to do is usually to keep your mouth shut. But in other situations, it can serve as a way to start making connections with others who feel the same way – to return to the example of Children in Need, when surrounded by other low-paid workers worrying about how they’re going to keep the heating on this winter, it’s safe to say that there’ll be other people who don’t necessarily feel like putting on a happy face and joining in the fun and games, and there’s definitely going to be people who won’t welcome another drain on their pockets. Having a critique of Children in Need doesn’t mean abstractly denouncing it as a bad thing, it means recognising that there are going to be gaps where the ideology of “we’re all in it together, and it’s the job of rich celebrities to provide the entertainment and your job to have a good time and make sure you pay up” doesn’t line up neatly with what’s going on in our lives, and looking for ways to widen those cracks and undermine the authority of those who have power over us.
If we were starting from a position of strength, then relatively minor forms of rebellion like not displaying the right feeling at the right time might seem irrelevant. But, for the most part, we’re not in a position of strength, we’re in situations where it’s very difficult to openly challenge the power of our bosses. Emotional sabotage can be a worthwhile tool in these situations: because it’s relatively low-key, and it often means breaking unspoken expectations rather than explicit instructions, we’re less likely to be disciplined for it, and openly defying instructions in this minor way can help to build up our confidence for bigger clashes, as well as helping us to find others who feel the same way so that we can start planning collective action. This form of disobedience could also play a role in larger collective struggles – for instance, if restaurant or cafe staff were going through a dispute but not ready to take strike action, they could carry on serving food and drinks as normal, but not going through the expected routines of fake politeness and cheerfulness. (EDIT: thanks to Ollie S in the comments for pointing out an example of this actually happening last year.)
On a larger scale, I think the Thatcher death parties that took place up and down the country earlier this year are a good example of large-scale collective defiance of the “correct” emotional response. Grumpiness when we’re ordered to celebrate and partying when we’re ordered to be respectful are both potentially valuable tactics for undermining our rulers’ authority, and they can both be enjoyable in their own right.
Closing note: these are just some relatively brief musings on a subject I haven’t properly developed my thoughts on. Much more remains to be said. For related writings which have helped shape my own perspective, see Rob Ray on Kony 2012, Images From the Future on Thatcherdeath 2013, and Joseph Kay on affective politics in general. I recognise that “affect” is probably a more precise term than “emotional” or “feelings” to describe what I’m talking about here, but it also feels much more jargony, and I generally try to keep my writing as jargon-free as possible.