I once met a professor who lamented the amount of time he had to spend marking, preparing lectures and consulting with his students. He spoke something every academic has thought at one point or another: “The university would be a vastly improved place if we simply got rid of all these students!”
His focus on his own research goals was so intense that he’d managed the ultimate moral solipsism: he’d reduced other people to mere burdens – intrusions on an otherwise blissful life.
I’ve been thinking about that professor a lot while observing the latest piece of relational etiquette advice doing the rounds on Twitter: seeking consent before burdening a friend with emotionally heavy questions, stories or requests for advice.
The conversation began when Melissa Fabello, a writer and doctor of human sexuality, shared a text she’d received from a friend. The text read: “Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something medical/weight related for a few minutes?”
In a thread following the tweet, Fabello celebrated this as an act of care and respect from a friend. It was, as Fabello put it, seeking consent for emotional labour rather than simply assuming that the people around us can and should be freely available for our needs at any time. Fabello even offered a template for people to use if they didn’t feel they were available to provide emotional support at any given time – which was promptly memeified.
First, as many people pointed out, being available for a friend is not what the term “emotional labour” usually describes. The term is usually used to talk about the care work that women in the workforce are expected to undertake alongside their formal duties. Think about the hairdresser who acts as a sounding board for advice, or the flight hostess who has to deal with the emotional immaturity of every drunk idiot they’ve encountered. That’s a very different thing to expressing care and concern for a friend, even when it’s inconvenient or burdensome.
However, the broader question – should we be obliged to ask before seeking someone’s advice, and can good friendship also include saying no to offering support – still generated a range of responses. Some extended the need for consent into other spaces. For instance, feminist writer Suzannah Weiss proposed that people seek consent before sexting. Like Fabello, Weiss offered a script for seeking consent for sexting.
When I first encountered this trend, I found it not only ridiculous but morally troubling. Like the professor who had transformed other people into inconveniences, the idea that someone would erect such strict social boundaries around themselves reeked to me of the kind of individualism and selfishness that has crippled our ability for collective action as a society.
How, I wondered, can we be a society that cares for each other if we can’t go out of our way to be available for them when they need us? If our community comprises only people who can inconvenience me only to the extent that I’m OK with, to what extent can we claim to be a community at all?
Moreover, the development of scripts, templates and consent prompts seems to flatten out the need to be responsive to the other person and their needs. Presumably, if we’re close enough to someone to tell them our deepest concerns, we’re close enough to know what’s going on in their lives. We will know if – say – they’re grieving and not in a headspace to want to talk about death. We’ll understand if the person we’re sexting is a survivor of abuse and therefore unlikely to respond well to unanticipated sexual fantasies storming into their phone.
By utilising scripts and seeking permission, we remove the need to think empathetically about the other person’s readiness to receive before we begin the conversation. We put the onus on them to do the work – they need to decide if they’re ready. We put the other person in the awkward position of having to say no.
What I failed to realise is that in the absence of that empathetic connection, scripts, boundaries and prompts become absolutely essential. If someone is vulnerable for health reasons – physical or mental – because of something going on in their lives or for some other reason, we shouldn’t wait for some grand ethical revolution to give them the time and space they need to preserve their own sense of wellbeing.
To put it bluntly, by shitting on the positive ethical role that asserting emotional and interpersonal boundaries can play, I was demonstrating precisely the lack of care that I thought those boundaries demonstrated.
There are, as political philosopher Zara Bain pointed out to me, myriad reasons why someone might need to assert boundaries despite desperately wanting to care for a friend. They might even resent needing those boundaries, wishing they had the capacity to be constantly available. For them, the script is a tool to protect themselves when other people aren’t aware, or aren’t considering, their needs and interests.
As it turned out, I was more like the professor than I thought. It’s easy to prioritise our own needs and experiences. It’s easy to see changing practices through our own lens and to ridicule them on that basis (and in all honesty, I think if someone like me were to use the script Fabello provided, I’d deserve to be ridiculed), but that only serves to demonstrate why they’re necessary.
- Matt Beard is an Australian moral philosopher at the Ethics Centre and a regular writer on philosophy and ethics
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010