Getting Along: Good Feeling vs Bad Feeling

I first came across ‘the politics of Good Feeling’ last year in a discussion around Peter Tatchell’s work. I was pointed towards this piece which, in turn, led me to the original paper by Sara Ahmed.  In short, the papers explored the concept that “happiness has come to be synonymous with the glue that holds the social together” As Sara Ahmed puts it:

Groups cohere around a shared orientation towards some things as being good, treating some things and not others as the cause of delight. When we feel pleasure from objects that are agreed to cause happiness, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. We become alienated – out of line with an affective community – when we do not experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are attributed as being good.

When people are alienated from this shared delight, they experience ‘Bad Feeling’.  Given its necessarily minority status, this can be a bewildering sensation. Individuals experiencing Bad Feeling frequently experience self-doubt and confusion – why do they feel differently? What is wrong with them? The Bad Feeling is attributed to a personal defect. For those who move on from this to sharing their Bad Feeling with others, this is even more pronounced. Stacy Douglas explains:

In this process,“bad feelings” are pathologized as barriers to the achievement of happiness. Happiness, then, is not just a status to be achieved,but is also contingent on a temporal promise that is interrupted or dislodged by “bad feelings.” Ahmed goes on to examine how within this conception, “bad feelings” are attributed to the bodies that disrupt the “good feelings.” 

In short, people blame the dissenting voice for disrupting their happiness. Ahmed uses examples of radical Feminists and black civil rights campaigners who are seen as ‘killjoys’.  A very simple and mundane example which we could all relate to is the purchase of a new item of clothing. We feel a little rush of excitement and can’t wait to wear it, yet if someone comes along and points out that our new clothing was made by children working in sweatshop conditions we see them as passing on their Bad Feeling to us. We don’t consider the issue at hand; we don’t get angry at the manufacturers for their exploitative practices; we don’t question an economic system which actively encourages these practices. Instead we direct our displeasure at whomever dared to bring the practices to our attention. So, in the case of Peter Tatchell, those who saw in his politics strong evidence of Islamophobia and Orientalism were seen as ‘negative’ creators of Bad Feeling and personally attacked. Their criticisms were quickly ignored and the retraction of their article was seen as their own fault. They shouldn’t have disrupted the Good Feeling in the first place.

The politics of Good Feeling can be seen all around us. Last Friday’s Critical Mass event saw 182 cyclists arrested for ‘public order’ offences which effectively amounted to cycling in the wrong place. A very powerful and illuminating account can be found here. Despite the profound implications for civil liberties and democratic freedoms, a common response has been to blame the cyclists, even to the point of deliberately distorting the accounts of what happened. They are purveyors of Bad Feeling attempting to disrupt the Good Feeling engendered by the Olympics and, as such, deserve everything they get. As a result, their treatment at the hands of the police, the fact only 4 of them have actually been charged with anything and the draconian bail conditions excluding people not charged with any crime from entire areas of London have received little attention.

Sadly, blaming protestors for their own ill-treatment is very common today. It was with some irony that I noted the presence of suffragettes in the Opening Ceremony, as today these brave protestors, who utilised property damage in their campaigns, would almost certainly be attacked for their Bad Feeling by many of those who viewed the event.

It is clear that the politics of Good Feeling has a lot to say about the Olympics. Indeed, you can hardly conceive of an event which better characterises a “shared orientation towards some things as being good”. This perception is so strong that the attacks on those who dissent as bringers of Bad Feeling are constant and frequently aggressive. Olympic critics are attached as ‘pathetic’, ‘Scrooges’, ‘whingers’, ‘cynics’ and so on. There is no willingness to engage with any issues raised – after all, why risk contaminating your Good Feeling?

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not always or merely a case of critics speaking truths and being ignored. During the Olympic Ceremony a combination of copious amounts of alcohol, unease at the bizarrely oppressive atmosphere in London and dismay at the shrieking jingoism on display led me to fill my Facebook with anti-Olympic rants. The next day I was embarrassed. This would, of course, engage with absolutely no-one and, if expecting others to recognise the problematic politics of the Olympics it’s only fair that I am able to recognise the positives. Nonetheless, the politics of Good Feeling vs Bad Feeling has something to say even about my drunken rant. Clearly there were a lot of political strands in and around the Ceremony, both explicit and implicit. Yet despite being deeply ideological statements, anyone telling people to ‘get behind’ the Olympics, to celebrate the monarchy, to be proud of modern Britain, would experience no interrogation of their words. They do not interrupt the Good Feeling. Conversely, pointing out the contradictions in, to use the example above, the celebration of the suffragettes against the treatment of protest in modern Britain, is seen as bringing Bad Feeling and unwelcome.

We can see an example of how insidious this narrative becomes in the recent Cosmo piece of ‘Things You Shouldn’t Do On Twitter’. One of them is Anything Political, justified on the basis that people have differing opinions and it’s easier to ‘not go there’. Don’t be the person who brings Bad Feeling, better to keep quiet. We can see this spread throughout  our society, not least in the ironic detachment which increasingly becomes the standard mode of interaction. Since the great man passed away yesterday, I’ll refer to one of Gore Vidal’s quotes about Americans:

We’re the most captive nation of slaves that ever came along. The moral timidity of the average American is quite noticeable. Everybody’s afraid to be thought in any way different from everyone else.

That last sentence sums up the politics of Good Feeling very well. The urge to belong, to be liked, is enormous and increasingly the easiest way to do this is to avoid at all costs disrupting dominant ideas of that “shared orientation towards some things as being good”. Certainly we may have faux-disagreements over whether we think a current pop song is any good but when it comes to the big things, things like politics – avoid.

We can see the power of this when combined with something like the Overton Window. Disagreements within this narrow spectrum of ideas are seen as acceptable, as civilised discourse. Anyone outwith this spectrum is seen as radical and, inevitably, as a holder of Bad Feeling. We can see a glaring example of this in the issue of tuition fees. Introduced only 14 years ago, those who oppose them entirely and support free Higher Education are seen as, at best, hopelessly naive and, at worse, ‘Trots’. The window has moved and the ‘acceptable’ debate is now between fees and a Graduate Tax.

We are psychologically attracted to people similar to us – it’s in our nature. Yet this pathologising of Bad Feeling means we are increasingly terrified of not being similar, leading to our communication becoming increasingly superficial and disengaged. This fear of difference, this portrayal of ‘radical’ views as character flaws, means we are cut off from opportunities to learn, to grow. It has never been easy for us to control how we are perceived, given the increased use of text and image-based communication, and how we most want to be perceived is as part of the Good Feeling. So-called ‘positive’ statements which do not conceive of a world beyond the surface of things have implications – they have power.  We would all, myself included, be better if we actively and sincerely engaged with views which interfered with our Good Feeling rather than closing ranks, hectoring, ranting and dismissing them as bringing Bad Feeling.


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