Zeinab Khalil: Are we post-emotional?

By Zeinab Khalil, Columnist
Published October 22, 2013

I struggle a lot with binaries. It isn’t surprising that they’re everywhere. In a world with so much complexity and uncertainty, they offer an easy shortcut to understanding what it means to be: masculine versus feminine, west versus east, religious versus secular and the one ever present in academia: emotional versus logical.

Binaries are problematic for a lot of reasons. Not only do they leave no room for the grey in-betweenness that most things actually fall into, but they also hierarchize categories. In the case of emotion versus logic, the latter always trumps the former, especially when it comes to knowledge and scholarship. The problem with ranking binaries is that we’re not only ranking concepts, but identities and experiences informed by these concepts. In this case, the logic-emotion binary elevates Eurocentric cultures that emphasize less expressive ideals, while debasing non-western/non-white cultures that may be differently or more emotionally expressive.

The logic versus emotion question plays out in many scenarios between both people of oppressed and privileged identities. In dialogues, for example, although all participants may be processing their emotions in their own ways, privileged folks often set the guidelines for how to do so. By universalizing arbitrary rules on what kind of emotional expressions are and aren’t permissible, they police the emotions of everyone else in the room.

Recently, I was in a conflict resolution meeting that involved two white men on one side and a diverse collective of people of color on the other. My friend, who was clearly upset and hurt by the incident we were addressing, steered away from speaking in abstracts like some in the room, and instead took a courageous risk by telling how the incident personally impacted her and explaining what was going on inside.

Her transparency and exposed vulnerability was met with fierce tone policing, shrouded through whitewashed phrases such as, “Can’t we have a civilized discussion?” and “I can’t speak with someone angry who isn’t even looking at me,” and “I advise we speak with more tact and decorum.”

This sort of emotional policing, especially when it occurs during conversations related to race, only perpetuates racism by setting a dynamic where white people are instructing people of color on how to express their emotions and how to speak — about race or otherwise.

Beside being very racialized, the logic-versus-emotion notion is also very gendered. Rooted in patriarchal norms, this binary renders profound intuitions and emotional energy as things specific to women. And even if women consider these powerful sources of knowledge, these elements are regarded as inherently weak and dubious because of their perceived femininity.

Ironically enough, the “emotional” label is applied irrationally and inconsistently. For example, when men exhibit anger, they’re not seen as “being so emotional” but as “just being men.” Because aggression is deemed an integral part of hypermasculinity and therefore looked at favorably, anger by men often isn’t even viewed as being emotional. And even if it is, it’s viewed as a justifiable, good type of emotional.

On the other hand, if a woman is even slightly passionate while speaking and resists being silenced in the process, she’s not only labeled emotional, but as the bad kind of emotional — a derogatory word, loaded with all sorts of inferiority undertones.

Regulating what is and isn’t deemed emotional and what types of emotions are deemed good or strong, bad or weak depending on who practices them is groundless and oppressive.

Erasing emotions because we think doing so somehow leads us to better and higher forms of knowledge is a hegemonic norm that ought to be questioned. Why should an abstract theory or scholarly “factual” pieces be looked at as the only way of knowing, or as more informative than our lived experiences? Who does abstract theorizing benefit and whose perspective does it center? Whose perspective does it leave out?

It’s a strange feeling to be studied and spoken about by others in the same room. In class recently, we looked at Muslim women in the Middle East. Obviously, everyone had something to say. The class sat there for an hour and half intellectualizing the shit out of everything.

Somehow this conversation was supposed to relate or speak to my people, our history and, to some extent, me. But none of it did. When I finally mustered up the energy to bring in my personal experience, what I said stood contrary to what the reading said, which made things complicated for the instructor who centered the discussion around a particular academic perspective and for the students who wanted so badly to consume it as Truth.

There are no number of books, essays or equations that can teach what I know through my experience as an Arab-American woman. By foregrounding my own experiences and the diverse experiences of other Arab-Americans and women of color, I am able to decenter and destabilize the whiteness and maleness that we’ve been taught to place at the center of all that we learn. This shift in perspective affects how I think about readings for class, how I take in what my professors say and how I choose to write about and produce knowledge.

There is no need to pretend that we live in a postemotional society. Nothing appeals to me about a society that fears feelings and won’t admit that emotions are very much tied into learning. Our lived experiences and intuitions shape how we receive knowledge because what we feel cannot be divorced from what we know — for all of us.

Zeinab Khalil can be reached at zkha@umich.edu