Written by Ebony Short
It all started on a mundane Wednesday night. I was sitting on my bed alongside my then-partner and we began discussing emotions—particularly empathy. He shared with me that his best friend told him he isn’t empathetic enough towards women. He doesn’t necessarily believe that decisions should be made based off of emotion, but rather they should be based off logic. I was intrigued. We went back and forth about empathy, emotions, and logic. It was that conversation—along with a tweet from one of my favorite poets, Olivia Gatwood—which inspired me to write about how capitalism perpetuates the commodification of emotions (or a lack thereof) and to invalidate someone making an empathetic decision is to invalidate the human evolution of emotions which is in and of itself-logic.
In Emotions as commodities: capitalism, consumption, and authenticity, Eva Illouz argues that “…consumer acts and emotional life have become closely and inseparably intertwined, each one defining and enabling the other…emotions are converted into commodities….” Illouz furthers their point by claiming that the process in which an emotion is converted into a commodity is an “emodity” and attributes this conversion to the west’s capitalistic consumer culture saying that “…consumer capitalism has become an intrinsic aspect of modern identity.” Illouz goes on to say that capitalism can be conceptualized with an even greater emphasis on consumption. This particular type of capitalism is by no means any less harmful, but focuses on the “emotional capacities of actors.” Meaning, this capitalism is fueled by consumers’ lack of understanding that one need not express their emotions with an object. The author continues by stating that companies employ “emotional branding” strategies in order to not only sell to their consumer a physical product, but they also are selling them the feeling that comes with it.
“The point here is that it is not the case that advertising and marketing tapped into a reservoir of ‘real’ emotions; rather, in bestowing upon goods an emotional meaning, marketers contributed to the construction of the consumer as an emotional entity, thus making consumption into an emotional act and legitimizing the identity of the consumer as driven by emotions.” Illouz continues this point by arguing that scholars from various backgrounds or fields of study have concurred that as consumers, we not only purchase products for what they do, but for how they make us feel, what they mean, and what they say about us. This process is so carefully done that our identity can be constructed through a symbolic work of marking. Illouz also claims that capitalism perpetuates a sense of relational individualism in that in order for people in Western society to properly express their emotions, it must be done in some form of commodification. People buy their significant others’ roses or cards in order to express their emotions and in this process, emotions can be considered emodities. Illouz asserts, “In the context of an ideal of personal life, emotions were made into commodities through the spectacular growth of gift-giving practices, viewed by anthropologists as crucial to the maintenance of interpersonal bonds.” As a result, Hallmark has become the largest manufacturer of greeting cards worldwide. These types of cards have become a way to commodify one’s emotions surrounding that person and represent “closeness and acquaintance.” However, this is just one of the myriad of ways that a person can reinforce, establish, maintain, and affirm an emotional connection. Either way, these specific emotions, be it happiness, love, or sadness have become objectified and exploited through capitalism.
I argue that this commodification process results in the trivialization of emotions and thus an emotionless attitude that is trying to erode humans’ emotional evolution. This can be seen heavily in music and in the media. In Maliibu Miitch’s, The Count, the South Bronx female rapper says in a sure voice, “5, bet that n****a tryin’ to make it work, now he want to nag uh’ tell that p**** lift his skirt.” It can be inferred that the rapper is insinuating that because this person has developed feelings for this other person he is no longer “tough” or “masculine” but a “pu***” which reinforces toxic masculinity and misogyny. On Pinterest when one types in, “Catch feelings,” a multitude of media comes up that trivialize emotions. The two that stuck out most to me were, “Why catch feelings, when you can catch flights?”
Why catch feelings when you can catch flights 🤷🏾♀️
— JENNELL (@MarlinaJennell) January 24, 2018
It is evident that society believes that emotions are trivial and should be avoided at all costs. My partner asked me, “Would you have empathy if someone killed your grandmother for money that they were going to use towards their child’s chemotherapy?” I answered “Yes,” with no hesitation. To not have empathy or some sort of sympathy for that person is lazy and irresponsible. I cannot put into words the sadness of the loss of a family member. However, given that the killer was attempting to save their child’s life, it is important that people call into question the overarching superstructure in place that lead someone to take another’s life. The medical system is indeed failing working-class citizens and there needs to be a conversation about how we are going to fix the fact that a person without insurance, working hourly with already unlivable wages, has to be burdened with trying to figure out how they are to muster 37,000 dollars for chemotherapy so their child can live. Healthcare should be a right, how can I not be empathetic towards that person?
In Evolutionary Roots of Empathy, Frans B. M. de Waal conducts various studies on mammals proving that empathy is a basic form of evolution. Waal first describes that empathy is a basic form of human evolution through mimicry. Using electrodes to register particular facial muscle movements, analysts showed human subjects images of other people that were expressing different emotions. The subjects easily mirrored whatever emotion that they saw being expressed involuntarily and also reiterated that emotions being expressed even if the image were flashed at the participant. It was proven that subjects that were shown “happy” faces exhibited the same facial expression. The study was consistent with other facial expressions as well. Waal paraphrases these findings by stating that interpersonal emotional bonds are prevalent not only through bodies, but minds as well. Waal takes this point even further by setting the stage for how basic emotional connectedness or empathy is by asserting that empathy was formed in monkeys before humans. The electrode study was actually conducted on monkeys initially and a similar scenario was observed in which the monkeys displayed empathy by seeing other monkeys express a range of emotions and mimicking those emotions. Waal continues by saying that the greatest sense of empathy or “emotional connectedness” in animals can be seen in monkeys, “Monkeys will for many days refuse to pull a chain that delivers food to themselves if doing so delivers an electric shock to a companion (Masserman, Wechkin, and Terris 1964).” The author goes on with a myriad of other examples of animals showing some variation of empathy in either targeted helping, sympathetic concern, pre-concern, and emotional contagion and concludes that humans, as well as mammals, have the capacity to exemplify empathy and will do so, even inadvertently, due to the human evolution of emotions.
“Accordingly, seeing another in a given situation or displaying certain emotions reactivates neural representations of when the subject was itself in similar situations or had experienced similar emotions, which in turn generates a bodily state resembling that of the object of attention. Thus, seeing another individual’s pain may lead the observer to share the bodily and neural experience. The perception-action mechanism (PAM) seems to operate in both humans and other mammals (Preston and de Waal 2002).”
In conclusion, to say that a person should base their decisions on logic as opposed to emotions is an invalidation of a person’s evolution of human emotions, which is their logic. Humans have the capacity to be empathetic and in most circumstances will inadvertently be empathetic towards a person due to human evolution of emotions. Capitalism perpetuates the idea that emotions are commodities or emodities and results in the trivialization of emotions through various forms of media thus resulting in a person being socialized to believe that emotions themselves are not important enough to base a person’s decisions.