About a month ago I heard Lola Olufemi, women’s officer for Cambridge student’s union, being interviewed on BBC radio 4, about her anger at being singled out by a right-wing newspaper from an active group of students working to broaden the literature curriculum , and misrepresented as trying to get rid of ‘white authors’. She identified herself a feminist killjoy and referred to Sara Ahmed’s arguments for this. Her proud use of this label prompted me to revisit Ahmed’s work on happiness as a social norm, especially as the media interview
did not give any space for her to explain this work. Going back to Ahmed’s arguments about the unequal, conditional ‘promise’ of happiness made me realise how relevant they are right now, when the injustices of workplace sexual harassment and violence are at last being brought into public view.
Ahmed’s argument about happiness as a kind of social norm is philosophically precise, and that makes it a challenge to summarise here. You can find some references at the end of this post for you to read in full. She asks us to look at which social groups get to define what happiness is – what kind of lives and objects are pushed as desirable, to be wished for. What do we do when what is supposed to make us happy is not what we are experiencing?
Ahmed argues that happiness gets attached to what she calls ‘happy objects’. These can be things we do as well as things we have. These objects are pointers towards an end point of happiness. They point to the path that will lead to happiness if you follow it. Think of the wedding day, or the exciting new job or role, of balancing career and children in your perfect home. Such paths have become social goods; they are what we all should desire. If you experience unhappiness while following them, if there is a gap between what you actually feel and what you think you should feel – then voicing that unhappiness is seen as a threat; as spoiling the happiness of others. You become the source of tension, the breaker of solidarity, the troublemaker. And you feel like a stranger. We can see the reality of this in the experiences of those who are at last coming forward in significant numbers to talk about being treated primarily as sexual objects by those who have power over them in the workplace, what ever their gender. The happiness of these men with a little bit, or a lot of power, is finally being challenged.
This kind of trouble making is the inevitable role of the feminist says Ahmed. If you protest against sexual harassment or even assault, or against unequal pay, or work practices that don’t take a man’s responsibilities as a parent into account, then the defense is that you are the problem. Don’t rock the boat!
Your complaint is turned back on you. Don’t complain about that powerful man if you want to be successful in your job – find your own ways to deal with it and smile! This was the message received by many of those who did voice their unhappiness, their hurt and anger, at the way they were being treated.
Ahmed says that instead of the promise of happiness being laid down for us in advance, we can think about the idea of happiness as a sense of possibility, a sense of opening up new ways of being, rather than following paths that restrict the possibilities of so many of us.
The more of us that do this, the more change we can make, and we can see this now, in the strength of the numbers of people coming forward now, to make public the unhappiness, distress and anger that has been a hidden part of our workplaces.
article – ‘Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness’, Signs, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring 2010), pp. 571-594
book – ‘The Promise of Happiness’ Duke University Press
blog – feministkilljoys.com