Notes on: Boler M and Zembylas M (2003) ‘Discomforting Truths: The Emotional Terrain of Understanding Difference’.  In P Trifonas (ed) Pedagogies of Difference: Rethinking Education for Social Justice, 110--36, . New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Dave Harris

In the USA, difference has been underestimated against an ideology of equal opportunity.  It is hard to develop a 'critical and conscious awareness' of it (107).  When asked to analyse difference, students often react with 'feelings of anger, grief, disappointment, and resistance' (107-8), but they can develop their capacity.  Nevertheless 'this pedagogy of discomfort requires not only cognitive but emotional labour' (108).

The comfort zone that is to be exceeded is the 'inscribed cultural and emotional terrains that we occupy less by choice and more by virtue of hegemony'[defined as domination through conceptual social practices].  The underlying emotional investments have been largely unexamined and seen as common sense.  Examining emotional habits, and reactions and responses, 'emotional stances' can help uncover compliance with ideology.  A pedagogy of discomfort should aim at both cognitive and emotional inquiry.  A number of theoretical resources are to be deployed to examine the nature of ideology, habit, and the construction of the self.

The first step is to challenge liberal individualism as in the USA, with its associated myths like equal opportunity and meritocracy.  These involve particular ways of understanding difference. 

•    First, there is a 'celebration/tolerance model' with differences are respected and honored since every individual is different.  Difference can become 'benign multiculturalism'(109).  Power is not addressed, nor systematic discrimination.  It is also common to stratify differences, so that some are seen as purely private [Homer sexual identities].  Liberal legislation supports these divisions, protecting individual privacy, embracing freedom as long as it does not hurt others, while leaving unchallenged of the norms of dominant culture, even if they do hurt others. 
•    Second, there is the 'denial/sameness model', where what we have in common outweighs any differences, so '"we are all the same"' really. This is really an unconscious 'commitment to assimilation' (110) on the terms of the privileged, and it is 'an offensive' denial of difference [bit harsh!], and erasure of it.
•    Thirdly, the 'natural response/biological model', where fear of difference is natural [a weird example -- white men fearing emasculation by black men --not 'normal' worries about difference?] [Hints of scientific racism but not explored].

Each has their own emotional reaction -- benign tolerance, denial, retreat to the safety of what is natural [Why are these emotional? They are suggesting emotional= irrational?] [none of these are grounded in anything like empirical studies of racism]. All involve unwillingness to confront and critique own beliefs. Understandably -- which provides critical educators with ethical problems.

There is a myth that education is objective and neutral, without a political agenda, and student should just be left to make up their own mind.  However, there are explicit and implicit processes to get students to adapt to dominant cultural values, in the name of what 'the workforce needs' (115).  Any radical education is seen as political propaganda.  So the neutrality of education has to be challenged first [the suggestion seems to be first by working on how the meanings of words are restricted]. Freire is cited arguing for political practice to produce more rigorous analysis, especially challenging naturalized stories and cultural myths.  For example, people living in the USA absorb 'consciously or not' common sense beliefs about what it is to be American.  This affects both dominant and dominated groups.  'No one escapes hegemony'.  Specific discomforts can arise, heterosexuals when discussing homosexuality, white people when discussing racism, and so on. One obvious example is the common ritual of pledging allegiance to the flag, and the waves of patriotism in 2003.  Here, the dominant culture has appropriated a national symbol and tried to attach particularly narrow emotional and political meanings to it.  Different meanings are suppressed, and any contradictions and ambiguities 'laundered'. 

Then one student shows discomfort in that she feels she should watch a TV news broadcast  critically, but also participating uncritically in patriotic emotions.  This requires her doing emotional labour.  She is at least starting to do critical reading.  In another example, 'the internalized emotional processes of hegemony' are challenged by a pedagogy of discomfort.  In the example, some mature women were insisting that they had never experienced sexism, but were easily shown to be following 'culturally constructed gender roles'.  They were displaying emotional resistance to seeing sexism as effective.  When challenged, they became angry, after realizing that 'their experience and identity is not authentic'.

The examples show that a pedagogy of discomfort can demand that people in marginalized cultures reexamine hegemonic values, especially in curriculum and media; that hegemony and liberal individualism encourages misrecognition.  Hegemony 'masks itself as common sense' (118), and values are naturalized.  Western science, objectivity and the pursuit of facts can hide the social construction of these are differences.  Popular history offers dominant values [with some American examples involving log cabins and the rest]: school textbooks and popular media are responsible.  Critical media literacy is required, the politics of representation are particularly useful ways to analyze ideology.  'Reductive binaries' and stereotypes are also implicated, as is 'people's general discomfort with ambiguity'.

Denying racism is common.  Students responded to an article pointing out the many negative associations attached to 'the signifier "black"', which shows how racism is embedded in language although it is easy to misrecognise this.  Student responses included: denying that the use of the term black was racist, and arguing it was just a coincidence; an understandable early fear of the dark was responsible; every one fears that which is strange or foreign.  Actually, all these are interpretations which support dominant interests,apart from their obvious limits. All these responses share a 'curious emotional stance...  a desire to deny the possible racism' (120).  Non white students made similar claims.

These examples show how difference is produced not only through naming but through silence and absence.  This leads to Foucault and the idea of the technology of the self produced through a discourse.Silences are part of the strategies that produce discourses.  Ignorance actually requires a sustained effort to maintain and police it, and is a crucial part of the regime of truth [the example is the ways in which 'deviant' sexual identities were kept in the closet].  Simple binary understandings prevent us from seeing contradictions and ambiguities [examples are 'either/or, black/white'(121)]. Sex and gender often impose binary identities, and this excludes them both hermaphrodites and transgenders, as well as 'gender fluidity or ambiguity'. Binaries are central to western European culture, however [underpinned by notions of profit and surplus value, Lorde (1984) suggests].  These values and norms are internalized, becoming myth, and representing norms—in America this refers to people who are 'white, thin, male, younger, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure' (122).  Ambiguity is feared and as a source of discomfort, and binaries can be imposed systematically [we are told that 'many infants are born with ambiguous gender', but have the conventional categories imposed on them by the medical profession—the source is a television documentary].

Differences are created in everyday social interactions, the difference between self and other has been discussed by many famous philosophers and psychoanalysts.  Very often, some antagonism is presupposed, but some theorists suggest that into subjectivity can be 'defined as a form of mutual recognition', permitting self and other to be seen as 'autonomous subjects'[sounds dangerously neoliberal] who are 'in some ways similar, in some ways different'[differences do not include power differences here, I assume?] The politics of postcolonial identity can raise some important issues, says Trinh Minh-Ha.  It can be easy to see matters of identity as being ideological.  However, outsiders are also divided, requiring a particular silence or repression of parts of their identity. 

This material also shows how Marxist economic accounts need to be supplemented by psychological ones, to ask why individuals complying with hegemony, even against their own interests.  A number of writers have tried to reconcile the two, including Freire and Benjamin, who both talk about how oppressed and oppressor can simply reverse positions on a binary: this arises from a fear of freedom for Freire, and a testament to how deeply dominant binaries have been internalized.  For Benjamin as well, this sphere can lead to a paradoxical desire for the role of oppressor.  These examples show how important it is for critical analysis and radical pedagogy to attend to 'the emotional habits that accompany values, beliefs and knowledge' (124)

If we think of our own difference, we can see how context has shaped us. Examples are personal ones—Zembylas has suffered from being an exile in his own country, and a migrant in the USA, constantly being asked when he is about to return home [with lots of references to Stuart Hall] on ambiguous identity for migrants caught between their own subjectivity and another culture, leading to a constant displacement, and a pathological openness for the self, something never completed or coherent, fully grounded in experience.  Immigrants never feel at home, but nor can they go back: they are particularly aware of how constructed identities and selves are, and how important difference is.  This can be a source of insight, and suitable modesty. Zembylas has had to do some emotional labour to find a place from which to speak, and develop the positive aspects of ambiguity.  He needed to emancipate himself from the illusions of security provided by 'practices and discourses that aim at bringing closure in the name of nature, freedom, or culture'(126). 

Conversations and practices are central to the construction of identity and the development of emotions.  Individual subjects, constructed by these conversations and practices, do emotions actively.  The emphasis is on what emotional utterances actually do, how they connects bits of subjectivity, how they enable individuals to act, in a connection of 'thoughts, emotions, beliefs, desires and actions'.  We can start to understand that it is complex by attending to emotions, not least because emotional responses are common in students.  The point is to 'inhabit the more ambiguous sense of self not reduced to the binary positions of good and evil', to maintain and seek out ambiguity, to see how emotions, beliefs and actions are complicated, and subject to pressures to submit to categories and norms.  We need to criticize practices which involve, for example, instilling patriotism.  We should refuse 'to submit to the categories' implied (127).  We should embrace 'a decentred, multiple, nomadic process of constructing identities', in order to produce 'resistance, transformation, and transgression'.

Dewey would agree that active engagement involves a combination of interest emotions and the search for truth.  Emotions produce selectivity of experience, in the form of  'emotional habits...  embedded in beliefs'.  This explains why those women were able to say they had never experienced sexism.  Their attention is selective, 'as a result of cultural and political patterns', which discipline differences and individualize them, as in American patriotism.  Dewey is particularly interested in habit to explain conduct, including the nature of our selves [and habit gets quite close to habitus here].  It follows that critical pedagogy means a lot of emotional labour to change these habits, when it is much more comforting to hang on to them.

'Various discourses and practices' have established norms and emotional roles, permitting complexity to be coded.  They not only repress emotions, but also constitute them, and conceal this activity, as with the women who have claimed that they have never experienced sexism, or when habitual thinking is described as an ethical code.  Habits do come under strain when encountering new circumstances, or however, and this can produce every day 'disappointments, tensions, and failures' (128).  Such discomfort impels critical thinking' [always?], certainly for Dewey [a good pragmatic problem solver].  This means that emotional labour is required as well, however, as is 'some history of success' in rethinking emotional rules (129).

Again this should reveal that what looks coherent and essential is fragile and contingent.  This is how ambiguity can become empowering, forcing us to produce 'new narratives that he rode of the biases we so often ascribe to others, and to ourselves'.  We must learn how we shift our positions complex ways.  We must embrace ambiguity and explore 'the diversity of strategies and tactics of subjectification 'that have affected us.  We need in particular to look at the role of emotional investments and how they shape actions.

This can be discomforting and it 'demand substantial negative emotional labour such as vulnerability, anger, and suffering', and risk.  The favourable results are 'self discovery, hope, passion and a sense of community', and overcoming of silence, omission and ignorance which can also produce discomfort when we encounter difference.  We need in particular to attack the binary of innocence vs. guilt: a more complex analysis enables us to develop suitable accountability.  If this is done in 'an emotionally open and safe environment' (130) then all will be well and mutual exploration can ensue, even if no actual change takes place.  We need to trace suitable '"lines of flight"' [SIC] to lead to more complex identities.

All this applies to educators as well as students.  Professors can also feel deeply frustrated when female students deny sexism, for example.  This requires reflection about pedagogical approaches as well as a willingness to listen to what people were trying to say.  In particular, an adversarial approach ran risks [and Boler in fact invited those students to reflect on their experience—she challenged them to explain other aspects of their experience like their girly leisure interests].  This required a suspension of immediate judgement, and sharing the options with the whole class had done so - some had said that they were also experiencing discomfort with personal lives.  This led to 'a refreshing and productive openness in the conversation', as the educator recognized her own limits and made a space for discussion [compare this with Ellsworth's  nightmare experience]. A subsequent comment pointed out that we should not be arbitrarily choosing among differences to privilege our pedagogies, as do actual radical pedagogies like queer pedagogy or media literacy: their attempt to address emotional stances in general would not privilege particular groups, though, since they focused on whole Deweyian habits of mind.  The point is to move out of comfort zones, questioned beliefs and assumptions and then to take action 'in the collective struggle for social justice'.  Their specific approach dresses the necessity of emotional labour.  [But this sort of abstractness lets in relativism and invites infinite regress.  The alternative, of course, involves some sort of sociological or economic analysis to establish whether or not a particular form of discrimination is more central or constitutive, as in the struggles about whether class and gender or 'race' explains more inequality].

We should engage in critical thinking about our habits, relations of power, knowledge and ethics and how they affect our conduct in classrooms.  We should stress the multiple and complex realities, and how power is both enacted and resisted.  We should attack binaries and stereotypes in particular, although discourses have other methods of closing themselves off, including structured absences.  Increasing contestability is central to a pedagogy of discomfort.  At the very least, we should be able to 'identify the price that is paid' (132) for comfort provided by current regimes.  A pedagogy of discomfort should make it impossible to persisting customary ways of thinking feeling and acting, and raise possibilities for new collective forms of thinking and transformation.  Educators and students are themselves at the centre, and this might involve new risks, like the discomforting feelings already expressed by the students.  The aim is to raise ' a new conception of engaging with others' and with selves.  This is an ethical practice, aiming at widening experiences and enlarging possible discourses and practices [some sort of ethic of joy?].  A new kind of comfort with positive emotions should eventually result.

A pedagogy of discomfort should lead to a new way of understanding differences and their role.  It is not a utopian or transcendental project, but arises out of cramped and blocked relations in the present.  Conventional radical trajectories can become recuperated, but this one is about maximizing the capacity for understanding and change, revealing lies and deceptions.  Its 'embodies a certain vitalism under a minimum normativaty: "each person's life should be its own telos...  We should oppose all that which stands in the way of life being its own telos"', (133, quoting Rose) [utilitarianism on stilts].  This will lead to new ways of being in the world, ethical responsibility, and new senses of interconnections with the others.

Back to Lorde on the need to celebrate difference as necessary, as a source for creativity and dialectic.  Those who are different should not be seen as simply oppositional, nor just avant-garde, but as '"distinct articulations of talented...contributors" who apparently '"desire to align themselves with demoralized, demobilized, depoliticised and disorganised people in order to empower and enable social action"'(133 - 4, quoting Cornel West) [so difference is tolerated as long as it fits the requirements of cultural radicals].

Radical pedagogy involves risk and emotional labour, to balance against the possible sources of invention and creativity.  There might indeed be considerable vulnerability and suffering as a consequence of discomforting pedagogy, and we must remember ethical responsibilities.  But should educational always be comforting?  What about taking responsibility or demanding justice, even if this is discomforting?  The alternative is to submit to fate or common sense, 'but why should someone privilege comfort anyway?' (134).  If identity really is nomadic, then understanding difference and creativity 'is already imbued with its own comforting trajectory', so again, exercising such activities would be ethically responsible.

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