The Ignored Inequality: Affective Inequality

Written by  Wednesday, 19 April 2017 15:36
We live in a world where inequality permeates all aspects of our lives, where we are indifferent to the emotional burdens of others, where we are victimized by fear, anger, resentment, and hatred. Economic, cultural, and political inequalities widen the gap between the rich and poor, and unemployment rates remain high in many countries (e.g., the United States and Taiwan). Such inequalities result in affective inequality which, in a vicious cycle, exacerbates these economic, cultural, and political inequalities (Lynch, Baker, & Lyons, 2009). While slogans of fighting for justice have become ubiquitous, emotional depletion has been ignored (Lynch & Lyons, 2009b; Lynch, Lyons, & Cantillon, 2009b; O'Brien, 2009; Stevenson, 2015). We are asked to pretend that we are not wounded (Enright, 2015b). A seventh-grader’s spoken word poetry entitled “Behind My Smile” gives us a vivid expression (Fiore, 2015, p. 817): 
                             Some wear fake smiles
                             Behind those is pain
                             How do I know?
                             I too wear a fake smile . . . 
From a psychological perspective, the capacity to receive and give love is vital for an individual’s development into a fully human being because love is at the core of humanity (Enright, 2012, 2015b). Being loved and cared for is a fundamental prerequisite to love and care for others; moreover, the capacity to love and to care for others is essential for establishing a basic sense of self-worth and belongingness (Lynch, 2007). Lynch and Lyons (2009c) highlight the centrality of love in facilitating the development of personal identity for primary carers. The mutuality and interdependency in care and love relations have an essential value per se (Lynch & Lyons, 2009a; Lynch, Lyons, & Cantillon, 2009a). Evidently, being loved and cared for as well as being able to love and care for others are vital to the wellbeing of humans because we live in affective relational realities wherein we are both dependent and independent. As emphasized by Freire (1997, 2000), love is a strong foundation for liberation that focuses on humanization. Therefore, depriving individuals of experiencing and engaging in relations of love, care, and solidarity is a severe injustice to human rights.
Noticeably, the realization that love, care, and solidarity relations are sustainable never occurs naturally; it requires affectively driven efforts with other-centeredness (Lynch, 2007; Lynch, Baker, et al., 2009). A series of investigations on Care Conversations has indicated that maintenance of primary care relations involves love labor, which is pleasurable but burdensome (Lynch & Lyons, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c; Lynch, Lyons, et al., 2009a, 2009b). These studies suggest that love labor, as an emotionally engaged work that centers on mutuality, commitment, trust, and responsibility, is not commodifiable and cannot be replaced by paid care work because feelings, intentions, and commitment cannot be commodified. Consequently, the development of nurturing rationality is crucial to affective equality. Concurrently, primary care relations involving love labor require effort, time, and energy. Without sufficient resources or support, primary carers face difficulties in fulfilling their love labor when using only their nurturing rationality (Lynch & Lyons, 2009c). Therefore, theorists of affective equality argue that the development of the capacity to engage in love, care, and solidarity relations has a legitimate position in the public sphere rather than in private matters (Lynch, 2007, 2009; Lynch, Baker, et al., 2009).
The literature identifies the intertwining effects among affective, economic, political, cultural, and social inequality (Lynch, Baker, et al., 2009). The aforementioned series of investigations on Care Conversations highlighted the economic challenges and stress faced by primary carers from low-income families, particularly from low-income families with single parents (Lynch & Lyons, 2009a, 2009b). The results revealed that single-parent primary carers are often criticized for their dependence on government welfare. When single parents enter the workforce, they are perceived as neglectful parents because they are no longer able to carry out their caring responsibilities as expected. Their love and care labors are sacrificed at the cost of full-time employment, which subsequently exacerbates their financial problems, and vice versa. Inadequate social resources make it more difficult for low-income primary carers to balance love laboring and paid work, resulting in feelings of isolation, exploitation, and hopelessness.
Egalitarian theory indicates inextricable links among cultural, economic, and social inequality (Apple, 2001, 2012, 2013; Darder, 2002; Freire, 1997, 2000). O’Brien (2009) further demonstrates the interplay between affective inequality and the aforementioned dimensions of inequality. Focusing on mothers’ care work for their children in the context of education, O’Brien revealed that poverty affects a mother’s caring performance for her child’s education. A lack of economic capital limits the choice of schools for single parents, which further dispossesses their children of their cultural capital. Moreover, mothers with limited access to social and cultural capital are deprived of participation in the decision-making process of educational and school policies. In addition, O’Brien indicates that poverty and a lack of emotional support deplete mothers’ emotional energy for caring for their children’s education and personal well-being. Evidently, a mother’s capacity to provide educational care is disadvantaged by a lack of economic, social, cultural, and emotional capital, which further strengthens the structure and reproduction of class privilege.
Feeley (2009) observes that quality care is substantial in both familial and school contexts for successful literacy learning. In that study, 80% of the successful literacy learners were from families with supportive and loving relationships. The love and care relations encouraged learners to reach their potential in literacy learning despite extreme hardships. However, the learners who were denied love and care relations in the family or school encountered difficulties in literacy learning. One study participant stated, “It would be very hard to learn if you feel that nobody cares about you” (Feeley, 2009, p. 206). Evidently, the deprivation of love and care results in the loss of one’s cultural capital. 
The deprivation of love and care can affect learning and permanently damage the development of humanity in children. Stevenson (2015), in his book entitled Just Mercy, reveals the associations between multiple inequalities and juvenile crimes, which result in further injustice. He presents the case of Ian, a 13-year old delinquent, who was a victim of family negligence; he had been left to wander the streets with little parental or familial support. After committing a crime, Ian was condemned by the judge for living on the streets and not having adequate parental supervision; he was sent to one of the strictest adult prisons in Florida. While in prison, Ian was placed in solitary confinement, which turned him into a “cutter”—he would use any sharp object in his food tray to cut his wrists and arms just to watch himself bleed, and he even attempted to commit suicide several times. Stevenson also discusses the case of Antonio, who lived in a poor neighborhood where gun violence occurred regularly. As a child, Antonio was abused by his father and neglected by his depressed mother. He was shot at the age of thirteen and witnessed the death of his 14-year-old brother, who was shot while responding to his call for help. At the age of fourteen, Antonio was in a dangerous, overcrowded adult prison in California because of the compounded difficulties he had experienced. These cases demonstrate how economic, cultural, and political inequalities exacerbate the emotional and mental health problems of the disenfranchised.
The preceding discussion highlights that affective inequality is a severe injustice to human rights and is associated with economic, cultural, social, and political inequality. The consequence of these entwined inequalities is a vicious cycle of injustice caused by inner wounds that, similar to viruses, are invisible and pervade all aspects of our personal lives and society, thereby compromising our mental and social health. As Ama Ata Aidoo stated, “We are victims of our History and our Present. They place too many obstacles in the Way of Love” (cited in Hooks, 1994, p. 93); the deprivation of the capacity to love—the core of humanity—and a sense of self-worth and confidence causes humans to harbor resentment, anger, hostility, and hatred and even to perceive revenge as a form of justice. We become fatalists with a lost sense of self-worth and confidence, living in hopelessness and helplessness. Negative emotions of resentment, anger, hostility, and hatred subvert rational thinking, reinforcing our existential duality: the oppressed and the oppressor who wields power over others. We are consumed by genetic-like victimization, leaving a legacy of revenge for future generations.
Unfortunately, the need for affective equality has not received the political recognition in the dominant neoliberal framework of contemporary society (Lynch & Lyons, 2009a). Lynch and Lyons criticize the neoliberalist definition of citizenship which denies the reality and need of dependency and interdependency of human beings. Emphasizing competitive individualism as the defining feature of human identity (Apple, 2001), neoliberalists glorify economic rationality and consider nurturing rationality as a weakness and vulnerability against the ideal of self-sufficient and self-determined citizens (Lynch & Lyons, 2009a). Lynch and Lyons consider the neoliberal model of citizenship a threat to affective equality.
To summarize, the literature on affective equality highlights the critical role of love laboring in the formation of love, care, and solidarity relations, specifically in realizing the potential for living a successful, quality life. Affective inequality has strong connections to economic, cultural, social, and political inequalities. As a result, Lynch, Baker, et al. (2009) emphasize the need to include affective equality into the current major analysis of egalitarian theory in order to facilitate individual and collective well-being in contemporary society. 
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Chien-Hsing Wang王千倖

Chien-hsing Wang


Graduate Institute of Education

National Changhua University of Education


Fulbright Visiting Scholar

University of Wisconsin-Madison