Rethinking the approach of demanding vulnerability for the sake of creating emotional connections

Within the social sector, and in a lot of social justice spaces, vulnerability has been a growing preoccupation and prerequisite in recent years. A lot of work meetings now start with asking people to share personal stories. Staff are sent for courses/workshops on learning to be more vulnerable (which, they assert, is synonymous with being authentic). There is a hunger, particularly, for everyone to share their pain, trauma, troubles – the more intimate, the better. The more revealing, the better.

I find this deeply uncomfortable, voyeuristic and outright unethical at times. It is claimed that vulnerability creates a “safe space”, and in my experience it often does the opposite because people are coerced to dig deep when they are not prepared to. These experiences at workshops or dialogues are often transient, this illusion of a connection with someone else in a controlled environment. Facilitators don’t take responsibility for the cans they open and when the illusion ends in two hours, we’re left to sit with the discomfort, confusion and emotional exhaustion.

It is true that vulnerability can deepen relationships and understanding, but that’s only so if we are in complete control of how and when this happens.

Work and media environments are often incompatible with vulnerability, and can come at a real cost to individual well-being and the right to privacy.

People, often women and minorities, have good reason to be emotionally guarded, and are often asked first to perform this labour, to show others the way. To be guarded is not to be inauthentic. In fact, if I don’t feel comfortable and I am forced to share, then that is what is inauthentic.

Our pain is not currency for others to trade in, so we can collectively imagine that a meaningful conversation has taken place. That’s what leads to “dialogue” like the one in Regardless of Class, and I’ve come to see it as a disingenuous, neoliberal practice. Dialogue should be about more than personal experiences. I say time and again that when we speak to marginalised groups, we need to be listening to and asking for their opinions, their perspectives, not (at least not just) their pain. There’s an over-emphasis on stories. “Stories are transformative, stories can change minds in ways facts cannot” – this is such a pet peeve for me. If people want to share their pain, they should only do so on their own terms, to the people they choose to, on the platforms they feel are right for them.

We don’t spend enough time in the social sector and even in civil society discussing ideology, debating ideas, challenging each other to undertake deeper analysis. We need to devote more attention to philosophy, to reflective practice, interrogating values and first principles, debunking myths, questioning long-held assumptions and being reflexive about contradictions and our own hypocrisies. The kind of honesty we need more of is an intellectual sort, so we have less sacred cows and become more practiced in challenging and critiquing each other’s ideas in healthy, transparent ways.

People are always sceptical of this – they say, not everyone will understand concepts, facts are cold and hard, we need to invoke emotions.

Concepts and facts do invoke emotion – especially when it is deeply relevant to people’s lives.

When I discuss the welfare system with low-income families, when we talk about the cycle of poverty, social mobility, inequality, how low income families have a smaller margin of error, go over graphs on how families can slip back into poverty even if they’re consistently saving, the discussions are rich and deeply illumining. Families get excited, it helps them find language for their experiences, fears and hopes – just like it does for everyone. It hits a chord and can be a deeply emotional experience, but not of the variety that asks them to parade their intimate lives. It is empowering and validating to have the tools to discuss our ideas and participate in a wider conversation.

People on the margins have incredible insight and understanding of the way the world works, what is broken, and how it can be fixed. We need to pay attention to the way people analyse their circumstances and take their ideas seriously – that is how we learn to be better. We don’t scapegoat them so we can collectively wince at the orchestrated spectacle of things we already know and encounter in our daily lives. Nothing the kids said in that clip is a surprise, not to anyone. This was a pointless, cruel exercise and we need to be done with this insistence on vulnerability. This fad is doing real damage.

This was first posted on Kokila Annamalai‘s Facebook and reproduced with permission.