Why we should be VERY careful what we’re conflating with emotional intelligence.

Anyone who has caught my postings elsewhere on the web knows that I feel a bit cautious about emotional intelligence. To name a few reasons:

    • The way it enjoyed universal, unquestioned approval for many years;
    • The way it, indirectly, holds up status-quo seeking as the most emotionally healthy attitude;
    • The way it, even if unintentionally, pathologizes criticism of society and social dynamics;
    • The way, corollary to the previous two points, it ends up boosting privilege.

We already have enough of society propping up privilege. It would be very dangerous indeed if being privileged became reframed as emotionally intelligent. Because so many of us believe emotional intelligence is an unalloyed positive good. We all want to have good emotional and mental health, and to take whatever actions are necessary to get there.

So, forgive me if I have a problem with so many of the people who are held up as examples of great EQ. They, quite frankly, look to me like the privileged.
As if it doesn’t matter how destructive the prosperity gospel is to both our spiritual life and our economy– all that matters is if it gives some of us self-confidence– which has long been held to be a necessary ingredient for high EQ.
As if nothing could matter more than calm. Notice how much mental health advice is all about accepting your lot in life and not trying to make it better. (Even right down to the famous Serenity Prayer.) Notice how much of it frames thinking as a problem, inferior to emotion and intuition. (Thinking is not superior OR inferior to feeling. They are equal co-partners.)

My intuition tells me that who you hold up as an example of your concept, speaks much louder than your description of the concept. So you can tell me all the time that EQ is not all about lulling yourself into bovine complacency. But if that’s the main emotion of all your high-EQ exemplars– if there’s no dissenter, no social critic, no– well, emotional person with high EQ that you can point me to– then I will feel less than enthusiastic about getting on board the emotional intelligence train.

UPDATE 7/13: My response to No More Mister Nice Blog’s discussion on the politics of punishing the poor. Why do the poor have to be punished? Because they fail the marshmallow test, of course. *facepalm*

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Those gut instincts everyone says to trust in? They’re sexist (and racist, and classist) little buggers.

The root of all evil is not money. It’s something more basic.

More to the point, it’s something that makes us feel so good, so comfortable and healthy and right, how could it possibly be bad?

It’s our need to feel comfortable. For the most obvious example: racism and sexism are, at their base, about our need to feel more comfortable and secure in our surroundings. Countless studies have proven that we like best the people who most remind us of ourselves… and we feel safest in a community that shares our values, preferences and life experiences.

And we are also coming off a decades-long charm offensive by psychologists, medical doctors, liberals, conservatives, spiritual leaders, cultural luminaries, and intellectual heavyweights alike attesting to the healing power of happiness… with no mention of how we get that happiness. Which has elevated stress-relief to a virtue, to the point of making thinking and concern for the less fortunate as emotionally less-than-healthy. Which has looked, uncritically and almost uniformly without dissent, on emotional intelligence; not openly acknowledging any possible dark side or side effects until a good 15 years after the fact.

How far down the rabbit hole have we fallen? I’ll just let my comments in the Alternet piece, “The Attractiveness Bonus in the Workplace” speak for themselves:

Why appearance bias in jobs where there is ostensibly no public contact? Because attractive people make our l’il gut instincts feel good.

Those touchy-feely things… which, I might add, were held up as better judges of character than our rational minds, and more reliable and closer to the truth than thoughts, by just about everybody under the frickin’ sun with barely-microscopic levels of dissent, from Oprah to our former president to our entire media to an army of credentialled doctors over the last couple of decades… well, those instincts of ours just like feeling comfortable above all else in the world. They like things fast, easy, and familiar. They like it so we don’t have to take too much time or emotional energy processing pesky things like complexity. Our instincts love stereotypes.
And may I add that happiness and being stress-free is the most important thing in the world? May I add that it doesn’t matter HOW you get your happiness, or where it comes from, or whether it was bought by screwing up someone else’s life, turning off our empathy switch, or surrounding ourselves with yes-men… only that we’re happy; because happy people are ALWAYS healthier and smarter than unhappy people, and EWWW I don’t want you contaminating me with your poisonous cortisol?
May I add that we are social beings and, as such, it’s more beneficial and healthy to follow the crowd than to stand up and challenge things? Besides, silly rabbit, everyone knows you can’t change the world; you can only change yourself, and your response to things.

For that I blame two people more than anyone else: Daniel Goleman and David Brooks. Goleman for spawning an industry that gave us a green light to stunt others’ LIVELIHOODS and malign others’ characters for failing to tickle our subjective fancies; Brooks for continuing to set the tone as to what it means to be a sociable human being– which, apparently, means someone who will put up with a lot of emotional manipulation and subtle coercion; because, goshdarnit, those are necessary prices to pay for love and friendship; and ZOMG, gender essentialism is so SEXY.

We are continually told that if we follow our gut instincts, we will be happier. And if we are happier, we are automatically healthier, smarter, and have more friends. In a country where 1 in 10 people suffer from depression and many more suffer from other mental illnesses and just basic unhappiness, these are not just empty promises. They are emotional manna to us. We eat these words up… like triple-chocolate ice cream with a touch of catnip. Besides, our economy being what it is; an creeping monoculture where everyone must be selling, baby, selling, where the personality traits of financiers and decision-making-by-mysticism are increasingly setting the tone for every line of work in America, our very livelihoods may demand we sing in tune…

We tell ourselves we are emotionally healthier and more intelligent, that we are socially well-connected and sound judges of character. Because we’re doing what the culture has been telling us to do. We’ve been trusting primarily, or entirely, on our gut instincts. And they make us feel good.

And we forget just how prejudiced our gut instincts can be. How racist, sexist, classist, ableist, every kind of -ist they can be. Because we forget that what our gut instincts enjoy more than anything, is not rocking the boat.

Money is just a tool.