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Against Comfort: Political and Social Implications of Evading Discomfort
This is an author’s version pre-acceptance. Please cite the definitive, peer-reviewed and edited
version of this article in Global Discourse: https://doi.org/10.1332/204378920X15844659544839
Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic1
1University of Roskilde,
Philosophy and Science studies,
DK-4000 Roskilde Denmark,
Phone: +45 26 22 36 04
We typically think of emotional states as highly individualized, personal, and subjective. But
visceral gut-feelings like discomfort can be better understood as collective, public, and political
when they are a reflection of implicit biases that an individual has internalized. Most of us evade
discomfort in favor of comfort, often unconsciously. This inclination, innocent in most cases, also
has social and political consequences. Research has established that it is easier to interact with
people who resemble us and that such in-group favoritism contributes to subtle forms of
discrimination. If we want a more equal and unbiased society, we have a duty to expose ourselves
to more discomfort. Living up to this duty requires an enhanced emotional vocabulary that captures
the political dimensions of physiological affect. I argue that a better understanding of what I call
“interaction discomfort” can mitigate subtle forms of discrimination (142 words).
Implicit bias; emotional synchrony; affect; emotions; structural and indirect discrimination
Why do some situations make us more uncomfortable than others? We typically think of feelings of
discomfort and comfort as highly individualized, personal, and subjective. In this paper, however, I
argue that visceral gut-feelings like discomfort are not merely private emotional experiences but are
in a certain sense collective, public and political. To illustrate this point, consider the following
testimony from a young African-American man:
I feel like I’m disturbing people by just being there. Like, people feel uncomfortable
when I walk in. I guess I’ve kind of become numb to it after so many years. Like, this
is just my life, and it’s just something that I’ve gotten used to, unfortunately (Nelson,
Imagine this young man interviewed for a job by three white Americans. His interviewers come
across as uncomfortable in his presence. Registering their discomfort, he also begins to feel
nervous. If we attribute the tension in the room to individual psychology, we have told only half the
story. It is well-established that we find it easier to interact with people who resemble us—for
example, in terms of ethnicity, gender, and social and economic class. The people with whom we
share these characteristics increase our visceral well-being and make us comfortable. Emotional
synchronizing and empathizing become easier when we share the same experiences or cultural
background (Barrett 2017, Bloom 2018). We are drawn to people in whose company we feel
comfortable, and we evade situations and people that make us uncomfortable. The feeling of
discomfort is a force that pushes us in certain directions, often without our explicit awareness.
The statement quoted above takes place in the context of contemporary United States, where
perceptions of race play a central role in social interaction. But evidence on implicit biases suggests
that we can adapt our thought experiment to any particular social, political and geographical
location, varying the example to the social identities of the setting: a woman before an all-male
panel of interviewers (gender); a woman wearing a hijab before a panel of European Christians or
secularists (religion, ethnicity); a first-generation academic from a working-class background before
a panel of distinguished university professors (class) and many other parameters based on
appearance (beauty, weight, disability etc.). In each of these cases, the discomfort in the room is the
product of a specific political context, not mere individual psychology.
In her studies of hiring processes, Lauren Rivera shows that employers cite a so-called
“cultural fit” as one of the two most important qualifications for a job candidate. Moreover, 70
percent of employers cited cultural fit as more important than technical qualifications. In her own
words, her study shows that “hiring is more than just a process of skills sorting; it is also a process
of cultural matching between candidates, evaluators, and firms” (Rivera, 2012). The value of being
comfortable around someone (because of a perceived cultural fit) outweighed concerns about
Because it is simply easier and more comfortable to be around people whom we perceive to
be like ourselves, our gut feelings guide us to choose the recognizable, the safe, the familiar.
Interestingly, Rivera’s study sheds light on the fact that the operation of implicit biases in this
context is not merely automatic and unconscious, as often assumed. In her interviews, employers
explicitly mention “cultural fit” as a qualification, because their use of the term doesn’t directly
refer to implicit social biases, but a candidate’s prospective fit within the corporate, business, or
team culture. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that the feeling of being comfortable in a
situation or around a person is rooted in deep physiological processes, not merely cognition. It is
metabolically costly to be in environments that are hard to predict and easier (and more
comfortable, physiologically) to be in situations and with people that we find recognizable
(Theriault, Young and Barrett, 2019). Thus, while employers seek a fit within the culture of their
workplace, they are likely evaluating the comfort they personally feel with a candidate.
In political theory and philosophy, political emotions are typically identified narrowly as
emotions and feelings that are displayed in public, political life. Important work has sought to
understand how emotions like shame, disgust and contempt shape the politics of nations and their
political leaders (Nussbaum, 2010; Bell, 2013; Kelly, 2011). But this particular tradition has given
little attention the political dimensions of more covert forms of affect like comfort and discomfort.
The aim of this paper is to demonstrate how even such rudimentary affective states can be
conceived as political. Drawing on a so-called constructivist view on emotions and affect (section
2), my purpose is not only descriptive but also normative. After outlining the political and social
consequences of evading discomfort, I argue that we have a duty to expose ourselves to more
discomfort (section 3). Living up to this duty requires a better framework for understanding feelings
of discomfort, in short a more nuanced vocabulary (“emotional granularity”) for what discomfort
can be. To progress in this direction, I introduce the concept of “bias discomfort” and its more
specific subtype “interaction discomfort” in section 2. These concepts can help agents recognize
how the specific experience of interaction discomfort is distorting their ability to connect with
My proposal to pursue interaction discomfort as a conscious choice faces a number of
potential objections that I discuss in the second half of the paper. One set of objections confronts
the conceptual framework and practical feasibility of the solution: How exactly is one supposed to
The so-called ”affective turn” in cultural studies has, however, involved a more explicit focus on affect, especially
Sara Ahmed and her focus on the politics of bad feelings (Ahmed, 2005; Leys, 2011). In contrast, my focus in this
paper is on the notion of “affect” as it is used in the cognitive and affective sciences, but I share Ahmed’s understanding
of affect as relational and political.
identify a specific feeling of discomfort as a byproduct of implicit biases? A related concern is that
my reliance on a constructivist view of emotions encourages an unproductive kind of relativism, in
which there is no right or wrong interpretation of an affective state. I answer these concerns with
some specific examples of techniques to help manage and identify one’s own discomfort as
interaction discomfort (section 4).
Another set of objections challenge the ethical standards and scope of the proposal: Who
exactly is expected to consciously expose themselves to more bias discomfort? Is it not
unreasonable to demand this extra “emotional labor” of disadvantaged minorities who are already
exposed to a considerable amount of interaction discomfort on a daily basis? With reference to the
debates over the imperative of integration between Elizabeth Anderson and Tommie Shelby, I argue
that my proposal is targeted at a privileged majority but that minorities would also benefit from
engaging in a more conscious and purposeful exposure to discomfort.
Another ethical concern is
whether my proposal invites irrational behavior by demanding a greater exposure to discomfort
(Gendler, 2011). By encouraging agents toward emotionally charged and cognitively taxing
situations, could the proposal even worsen relations between minorities and majorities? Will agents
feel compelled to “fake” being comfortable or compensate by being overly welcoming? I reject
these criticisms on the basis that each rests on a flawed idea of authentic and false emotions and a
false dichotomy between rational and unbiased behavior (section 5).
It is important to note that the same person can belong to a minority in one situation and a majority in another. The
categories of “minority” and “majority” are not stable and fixed, but depend to some extent on the social role and
2. How can discomfort be political?
A fundamental basis of this paper is that the affective states of comfort and discomfort should be
conceptualized as political. But what is the broader phenomenon of affect? Affect is the flow of
feelings and unidentifiable moods, of which we are not necessarily explicitly aware, occurring in
the background of our conscious thoughts. We often feel a range of moods—excited, jittery,
irritable, annoyed, or simply uncomfortable—without knowing why. The same applies to sensations
of calm, peace, and comfort (Posner, Russell and Peterson, 2005; Barrett, 2017). In the framework
that I put forth in this paper, based on a constructivist view of emotions, affect is sometimes a
component of an emotion. But not all kinds of affect become constructed as emotions. Affect is part
of the larger phenomenon of “interoception”, basically a form of inner perception. In the words of
neuropsychologist Lisa Barrett, interoception is the “brain’s representation of all sensations from
your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and your immune system” (Barrett,
2017, p.56). Some of these sensations are transformed into emotions, but not all. If I feel irritable
during a morning meeting, I might simply interpret my affective sensation as a sign of hunger but I
may also understand my affect as a feeling of anger at a colleague who missed an important
deadline. Whether my state was in fact evoked by my colleague or my hunger is an open question.
What precisely causes an affective state cannot always be settled (Stephan and Walter,
forthcoming). Many studies have, however, found that negative affect often have a spillover effect
and influence our judgment and perceptions of the world. To cite just one example, interviewers
were found to rate job candidates higher on sunny days than on gloomy days (Clore and Schiller,
Because affect is part of this larger system of interoception, it never turns off, not even when
we sleep. From birth to death, we are always in some affective state, whether calm or aroused,
comfortable or uncomfortable. Even when we are not consciously aware of affect, it influences how
we behave, think, and perceive situations and interactions. In Barrett’s words “the human brain is
anatomically structured so that no decision or action can be free of [...] affect” (Barrett, 2017, p.72).
Like many other contemporary theories, the constructivist view of emotions therefore rejects the
dichotomy between feeling and cognition and emphasizes that feelings or affect, and the whole
body as such, are always involved in the way we experience and perceive the world (Sullivan,
2015; Colombetti, 2017; Barrett, 2017). As philosopher Susan Sullivan puts it:
The knowledge that an organism has—about the world, about itself, about others—has
a bodily basis. Human beings … come to know things through our physiological,
affective transactions with the world (Sullivan, 2015, p.14).
If affect is always lingering in the background, how can such rudimentary visceral phenomena have
a political dimension? To understand this, we need to consider the phenomenon of emotional
synchrony. Different scholarly fields have given the phenomenon a variety of names: attunement,
mirroring, mimicry, and emotional contagion (Hatfield, Cacioppo and Rapson, 1993). It is, for
example, the inexplicable urge to yawn following the yawn of someone else. It is also the
unconscious coordination in body language that we see in pleasant interactions. But emotional
synchrony is more than mere coordination of facial expression and bodily gestures. More
fundamentally, emotional synchrony makes us feel better at a very basic physiological level. By
synchronizing breathing and heartbeats, for example, we help maintain each other’s visceral state of
wellbeing (Barrett, 2017, p.195ff).
It is important to emphasize again that we do not necessarily notice these deep forms of
synchrony. Sometimes we are aware of these physiological changes and sometimes we are not. But
they are always present, part of how our brain is modelling the world. As a consequence, we
experience some interactions as more or less pleasant than others. We often cannot put a precise
finger on why one interaction made us feel a certain way. But the guiding force behind such
encounters is not accidental and cannot solely be attributed to individual differences in personality.
Research in the psychological sciences demonstrates that it is simply easier to synchronize and
therefore empathize and interact with people who resemble us, and in this regard, as psychologist
Paul Bloom, argues “empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that
prejudice does” (Bloom, 2018, p.31). Empathizing become easier when we share the same
experiences or background. In a job interview, for example, it is easier for interviewers and
interviewee to communicate and connect with each other when they share the same socially and
culturally inherited scripts for how to display a politely interested and engaged attitude (Eickers,
2019). As we already seen, Rivera’s research has documented how important this kind of “cultural
fit” is for a job offer to materialize (Rivera, 2012).
The flipside of these synchronizing processes is that agents display various signs of
discomfort when interacting with members they perceive as belonging to other groups. This result
in a specific kind of bias discomfort that I call “interaction discomfort” (Author’s own, 2019)—a
broad term that captures more specific forms of the phenomenon, for example “racial stress”
(Sullivan, 2015), “white discomfort” (Applebaum, 2017), and “white fragility” (DiAngelo, 2011)—
that has been well-documented by research from psychology (Devine, 1989; Pearson, Dovidio and
Gaertner, 2009) as well as testimonies from the relevant minority groups. Recall the opening quote
from the young African-American man who observes the discomfort of his interactions with white
Americans. None of these interactions are defined by explicit, intentional forms of discrimination,
but we should not underestimate their damaging effects. Subtle forms of bias can lead to higher
stresses in minority populations than explicit discrimination—precisely because of their ambiguity
and uncertainty. These covert forms of discriminations leave the recipient with physiological and
affective states of stress, for example a tight stomach, racing heartbeat, blushing, etc. (Sullivan,
Despite the fact that this experience of negative affect is felt by a specific individual, we
cannot understand it as a mere reflection of their own private and individual emotions. The specific
experience of interaction discomfort—on the side of the majority and the minority subject—is
necessarily public and political. Drawing on the work of political philosopher and theorist Elizabeth
Anderson, my point here is that racial stigmatization (and its negative affective consequences)
should not be understood as mere “private thoughts, isolated in the mind of discrete individuals”,
because these thoughts “enjoy a certain public standing, coloring the meanings of interactions even
among people who prefer that these meanings not apply” (Anderson, 2010, p.53).
For a stereotype to have such “public standing”, it has to be common knowledge in a relevant
society or context, i.e. everyone understands its meaning without necessarily endorsing it
(Anderson, 2010, p.62). When the discomfort of a particular situation arises as a consequence of
internalized stereotypes and implicit social biases with this kind of public standing, it is best
understood as interaction discomfort and hence a political and public form of affect. In such cases,
understanding the discomfort as individual and subjective does not provide sufficient explanation
for the phenomenon, particularly considering the ubiquity of discomfort in such interactions.
Following philosopher Sally Haslanger, my argument here is that the specific phenomenon of
interaction discomfort cannot fully be captured through an individualist methodology but demands
us to apply a wider lens to identify “patterns in attitudes that gives rise to the pattern of actions
which, in turn, constitutes the social fact” (Haslanger, 2019, p.1). At their root, social phenomena
like interaction discomfort are best understood as “systems, and parts of systems, that involve more
than individuals and their attitudes” (Haslanger, 2019, p.1).
The phenomenon of interaction discomfort arises as a byproduct of specific social and
political contexts, including biases towards and stereotypes of specific groups, which are inherited
and internalized to the point where they materialize in our own affective, physiological habits. A
mere individualist, psychological understanding of interaction discomfort is insufficient both
descriptively and normatively, losing sight of the multiple factors (political, material, cultural,
historical etc.) that brings about this kind of affective phenomenon in a particular social context.
3. The duty to choose discomfort
So far we have established that, when rudimentary affective states are a reflection of implicit biases,
they are not merely individual, personal and private, but best conceived as social, public and
political. Most of us evade discomfort in favor of comfort, often in unconscious and implicit ways,
and the consequence of these patterns in behavior poses a problem for individual agents (and their
unequal prospects for social advancement) but also for the possibilities of social and political
progress. Those individuals who are perceived as easy and pleasant to be around are likely to be
favored by influential people and receive more help to reach their respective career, education, or
life goals. If our employment decisions favor the sort of people whom we meet for coffee, the
company of our coffee dates becomes a social problem.
It may seem an overstatement to argue that unconscious and benign preferences for social
interaction contribute substantially to inequality. But plenty of research demonstrates just that—
how in-group favoritism and helping behavior are forms of exclusion. As Banaji and Greenwald put
it: “Discrimination of even the most apparently well-intentioned kind—helping members of in-
group—has significant impact on those who are not part of the in-group and those who are (Banaji
and Greenwald, 2013, p.143). It is important to underline that such indirect forms of discrimination
become visible only when tracking them based on their structural accumulation in a given society.
Nonetheless, the foundation of these processes rests on simple, seemingly innocent questions: Who
can help you write the essay for your college application? Who will mentor you about your future
career prospects? What other advantages are recived in the form of small favors, invitations to
social outings, etc.?
Individuals without connections are at every level disadvantaged by diminished access to an
invisible network of opportunities. Worse yet, these advantages are leveraged and multiply with
time, opening doors to new rooms that remain closed to out-groups. The downstream effects of
evading discomfort are therefore dramatically different for members of an affluent majority or a
disadvantaged minority. Consider the following testimony of an African American man on how he
deals with the exposure to interaction discomfort in the public space:
I have to make sure that I have given enough space between myself and another
patron or another commuter on the train just to make sure that I am not making
someone uncomfortable. I have to make sure that my hands are visible when I walk
into certain spaces so they make sure I don’t – I’m not stealing. I try to make sure I
make eye contact with people who may or may not be security or managerial staff,
just to ensure, you know, I’m not here to hide anything. I watch my tone to make sure
that I don’t come off as threatening. Just leaving the house some days, you know,
sometimes it’ll just keep you at home and just keep you away from everything.
For someone in the position of a socially disadvantaged minority, the option of evading interaction
discomfort, i.e. staying at home, often entails a loss of opportunities because access to jobs is often
granted and mediated by members of the affluent group. In contrast, for a person with a privileged
majority background, there is little or no concomitant cost to evading uncomfortable environments,
situations and people. For a member of the majority group, the social world is relatively
comfortable and easy to navigate (Sullivan, 2015, p.132). Instead of being profiled as suspicious
and followed around a store, a member of the majority is met with a welcoming smile or small
gestures of respect and consideration—what Sullivan calls “microkindness” (Sullivan, 2015, p.154).
Likewise, the argument that I am advancing—that we have a duty to consciously and actively
engage with environments where we experience interaction discomfort—also has different
implications depending on an agent’s standing in society, as a member of a disadvantaged minority
or a privileged majority. My primary target are prominent members of the majority group in
gatekeeper positions, those with influence over a job market, educational opportunities, etc.
Nonetheless, the duty to actively choose discomfort is also incumbent upon members of minority
groups although, as I will detail in the discussion below (section 5), this obligation is secondary and
neither as urgent nor demanding as the duty of the majority.
The guiding idea behind my argument is that the possibilities for political and social change
of these subtle and indirect forms of discrimination are dependent on the way agents interpret and
manage their affective states. If we wish to dismantle the unequal status quo that these unconscious
affective and physiological habits perpetuate, agents need a better vocabulary for the varieties of
discomfort that they experience. A fundamental assumption in the constructivist view of emotion is
that we need the concept of an emotion to experience or perceive that emotion. Without a concept
of interaction discomfort, I will be effectively blind to understanding my discomfort as a byproduct
of implicit biases. Though I will still experience the same negative affect, absent the conceptual
framework to interpret it, I will be unable to reflect on the influence that my discomfort has on my
choices and actions.
Let me make this point more concrete by returning to the example of an interview situation
where a young African American man sits before a panel of white interviewers. If the interviewers,
who we can imagine to be committed egalitarians, merely let their gut feelings guide them towards
a candidate that feels familiar, recognizable and comforting to be around, they risk unconsciously
reproducing a status quo that none of them would be willing to defend on a principled level of
reasoning. The only way to break with their own affective physiological habits is to engage in a
critical apprehension of their own discomfort. By questioning the temptation to choose the
candidate who feels like the right pick, employers can scrutinize their own impulses and the
concrete qualifications of the candidate with the understanding that their interaction discomfort may
be a product of implicit biases.
Let us apply the same logic to the perspective of the young African American man on the
other side of the table. If the young man does not critically reflect on the political dimensions of his
private experience of discomfort, he risks leaving the room with the notion that his nervousness is a
reflection of his lack of preparedness, qualifications, or even a flaw in his individual psychological
profile. A broader interpretation and a political reading of his discomfort enables him to realize that
the tension in the room is not merely his own but a reflection of the structural and systemic tensions
in American society, operating beyond individual control and through internalized affective habits.
Some may be skeptical that this proposal seems to rely on the classical, implausible
dichotomy between emotion and reasoning. But, in the above example, critical reflection should not
be understood as an independent cognitive mechanism free of affect. By contrast, the semantic
More on the role of concepts in emotion construction and experiential blindness (Barrett, 2017, chaps2 and 3).
exercise of naming the discomfort is in and of itself a form of emotional differentiation, i.e.
inseparable from the process of feeling something and experiencing something emotionally. More
specifically, my proposal is an expansion of the constructivist idea that recategorization of negative
affect can be a powerful strategy for individuals to cope with stressful affective states. Studies have
shown that students suffering from performance anxiety, who can categorize their anxiety as mere
signs that they are excited and that their body is coping, achieve higher scores on GRE exams. This
kind of “stress reappraisal” has also been proven to be beneficial for people with fear of public
speaking or singing (Barrett, 2017, p.189; Jamieson, Mendes and Nock, 2013).
However, in contrast to psychological constructivist models that categorize discomfort as
purely physiological and individual (Barrett, 2017, pp.183–188), I argue that we need to understand
some forms of discomfort as a product of the social and political environment of the agent. It is
insufficient to conceive of a common phenomenon as “imposter syndrome” as a private problem
that each agent needs to tackle individually. In some cases, it will be beneficial for an agent to
situate their nervousness and negative self-esteem within a larger structure of social and political
systems. To sum up, if we are able to properly identify some forms of discomfort as originating
from implicit biases, we are better equipped to devise strategies for managing them.
4. Managing interaction discomfort
My proposal that everyone, minorities as well as majorities, should actively expose themselves to
more interaction discomfort can be criticized from a range of different perspectives. The rest of the
paper is dedicated to these discussions. The first set of objections concern the practical feasibility of
the proposal; the second set pose ethical questions about the duty to choose discomfort.
One common objection to the constructivist view of emotions is that it is too optimistic about
the prospects of recategorizing and reappraising affect. Many are skeptical that cognitive control
can be exercised to make us reassess and re-experience negative affect. In short, the skepticism lies
in the thought that merely thinking about nervousness as “interaction discomfort” can be successful
in changing the experience of the affective state. I agree that it would be naïve to imagine that
agents could assert anything close to complete control over their affective negative states.
Reassessing an affective state and assigning it social, public and political standing will not lessen
the discomfort. Instead, I argue that agents may become better equipped at managing and enduring
their affective states if they are able to name and conceive of them as political as well as personal.
Recall that rudimentary affect like discomfort does not necessarily have a transparent,
straightforward intentionality. We can often pinpoint whether a feeling of discomfort is a sign of
general bodily discomfort like hunger or an upcoming flu but the interpretation of discomfort as an
emotion is a more ambiguous process. The moment agents begin to interpret their discomfort, they
endow this affect with cognitive content, meaning, and intentionality. In this process, there can be
multiple, competing interpretations of what discomfort signifies in a given situation. This is why
both the situational and conceptual context is fundamental to how agents interpret their discomfort
(Author’s own, 2019). We cannot always determine whether a specific interpretation of an affective
state is accurate. But from a pragmatic perspective, some interpretations will be more productive if
they include a political and social perspective.
What strategies should we apply to direct this process of recategorizing discomfort toward
socially productive ends? How do we make this duty to feel uncomfortable practically feasible? The
preferred strategies will depend on an individual’s standing in society, whether a member of a
disadvantaged minority community or a privileged majority. I will return to the particular and
thorny case of the duty of minorities in the next section. Here I focus primarily on the duty of
members in the privileged majority who bear the primary burden to expose themselves to more
One immediate, short-term strategy is to consciously display more “microkindness” to people
with minority backgrounds. This implies taking extra care that a person with a minority background
feels welcome and comfortable in their workplace, university, organization, sports club, etc.
because we already have established that the problem of interaction discomfort is political and not
specifically individual, the more promising solution is to focus on long-term institutional and
societal strategies. One such strategy is to create environments that can facilitate and manage
interaction discomfort so as to cultivate strong communities and even friendships across
differences. A promising version of such a model of “living together” is advocated by Elizabeth
Anderson in The Imperative of Integration:
The ideal of integration envisions a restructuring of intergroup relations, from
alienation, anxiety, awkwardness, and hostility to relaxed, competent civil association
and even intimacy; from domination to relaxed, competent civil association and even
intimacy (Anderson, 2010, p.117).
Anderson’s project is specifically focused on the social, economic and political problems of racial
segregation in the United States. From her perspective, the only way white Americans can really
overcome their unconscious racial bias is through daily contact and intimate relationships with
black Americans. Anderson builds her argument on the so-called “contact hypothesis”, originally
put forward by social psychologist Gordon Allport, which proposes that the best way to overcome
This individualist strategy also has its own set of ethical problems if not handled appropriately. I’ll discuss this in the
in-group/out-group animosity is to create environments where the opposing groups interact to create
a new, shared “we identity”—a super structure that erases, or at least diminishes, perceived
differences. The contact hypothesis is one of the most widely tested claims in social psychology and
recent meta-analysis confirms its robustness (Anderson, 2010, p.125; Dovidio, Glick and Rudman,
2005; Paolini et al., 2018). The best environments for the contact hypothesis to unfold and succeed
are in what Anderson calls places of “formal social integration”, i.e. institutional environments in
both the public and private sphere (schools, organizations, clubs, companies, etc.), where given
authorities can administer and secure the optimal conditions for intergroup interaction. The case of
the United States army constitutes one such interesting case of successful formal social integration,
in which “being in the army” supersedes the different racial and social identities of the soldiers
(Anderson, 2010, p.125).
It is more difficult to successfully manage integration in unstructured and informal settings
because agents spontaneously (and often unconsciously) seek out peers and comfort in a group with
shared characteristics. However, positive experiences with formal social integration can have a
spillover effect on informal social integration. If agents learn how to practice integration under
formal and structured settings, for example by acquiring competence and ease in intergroup
interactions, the same habits will help them alleviate the anxiety and stress they feel in informal
social interactions (Anderson, 2010, p.124). The most important evidence for the contact hypothesis
appears in its long-term effects. Research shows that early experience with integration (for example
in schools) leads both minorities and majorities to be more comfortable with interracial interactions
and to lead more integrated lives, for example by living in integrated neighborhoods (Anderson,
Other minorities like LGBT+ are still awaiting full inclusion in the US military (Birman, 2016).
Decisions makers, elites, technocrats and gatekeepers have a special obligation to actively
engage with different communities and environments where they feel uncomfortable and uneasy. If
they are physically and socially segregated from groups with minority backgrounds, they will not
feel accountable neither for or to them (Anderson, 2010, pp.124, 131). Moreover, such authorities
play an important role as “norm entrepreneurs” to induce their subordinates to follow norms of
civility in intergroup relations (Anderson, 2010, p.124). One concrete example of how this could be
done is the model of “reverse mentoring” where CEOs or similar leading figures in organizations
are coupled with an employee with a minority background to learn and understand more about their
experience (Wingard, 2018).
To sum up, the best model for tackling the phenomenon of interaction
discomfort and its damaging consequences for society is to set up formal, structured models to
integrate minority perspectives and facilitate social integration.
5. The costs of choosing discomfort
Another set of possible objections against my proposal are ethical, concerned with problems that
may confront agents who take their obligation to engage with interaction discomfort seriously. One
particular concern is the emotional costs suffered by minorities. Considering the fact that many
minorities are already exposed to interaction discomfort on a daily basis, it can be argued that my
proposal demands too much of such communities. Are they not already overloaded by this kind of
A related set of questions is whether increased interaction, commonly difficult
For more concrete strategies, consult Madva, 2016 and Saul, 2016.
The term “emotional labor” is originally coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1983) and describes the emotional
demands that workers in the service industry are met by (positive attitudes like smiling, being welcoming) (Hochschild,
and uncomfortable, really is beneficiary for the minority, i.e. whether it will grant them more equal
access to opportunities. Philosopher Tommie Shelby criticizes Anderson’s integration model on this
point, arguing that we should whenever possible avoid adding to the burdens of the oppressed
(Shelby, 2014, p.284).
Shelby questions the core of the “contact hypothesis” and the underlying assumption, also
present in my argument, that minorities have to bear the burden of increased interaction discomfort
now to decrease implicit biases among the majority in the long run. While allowing that both the
privileged and disadvantaged have a role in redressing injustices, and that it is not unfair as such for
the disadvantaged to incur some costs of social reform that will ultimately bring benefits, Shelby
stresses the tipping point of such costs and when minorities should refuse to play this role in the
moral reform of the privileged. From the perspective of the disadvantaged group, some costs should
never be accepted, such as a loss of self-respect. Other costs, like increased vulnerability to
discrimination and hostility, should only be imposed when absolutely necessary and with the
provision that the most disadvantaged may opt out (Shelby, 2014, p.284). The central problem for
both Anderson’s model and my argument “against comfort” is the presumption that modern
Western societies are primarily challenged by implicit biases and other subtle forms of structural
discrimination, and that explicit racism and other forms of direct discrimination are things of the
past. Anderson’s optimism may have been warranted in light of her writing during the presidency of
Barack Obama. But is my model “against comfort” tenable in an era of Donald Trump and rising
white ethno-nationalism throughout the West?
Let us accommodate Shelby’s criticism by returning to the example of the young African-
American who faces interaction discomfort at a job interview. If offered the job, the young man will
2012). Many today use the term for self-sacrificing and other-serving behavior that is rarely recognized or compensated
appropriately, for example when minorities are asked to give testimony for how it feels to be oppressed or when
minorities are asked to assume the responsibility of mentoring other minorities in their workplace.
face an opportunity in an environment where he is likely to experience increased stress and
interaction discomfort (Anderson, 2010, pp.180–181). In light of Shelby’s criticism, the question to
consider is whether this additional emotional toll will be outweighed by the benefits of the new job
(better pay, broader networks, increased opportunities), but also whether he can rest assured that
explicit racism and practices of social exclusion have been rejected in the prospective work
environment. If this minimum has not been met, we cannot speak of a moral duty to choose more
discomfort, nor should we expect such self-sacrifice and heroism of an already vulnerable minority
(Shelby, 2014, p.282).
As a point of comparison, let us now consider the case of the African-American man who
discloses that merely leaving the house can sometimes be difficult because of the toll of interaction
discomfort and general climate of suspicion towards him. Though clearly sympathetic, Anderson’s
position would object to this impulse to withdraw to a safe community. In her model, the imperative
of integration exists not just at the formal level of institutions but also though informal social
integration. Anderson is explicitly against models of benign ethnocentrism put forward by scholars
like Shelby and Iris Marion Young that endorse self-segregation based on social identity (Anderson,
In this case, I agree with Shelby that Anderson’s model sets the demands for integration too
high. While it may be practically necessary for minorities to endure the daily chores of interaction
discomfort in formal institutional settings (if the minimum requirements discussed above are
fulfilled, i.e. no explicit discrimination, etc.), it is unreasonable to require that they also seek out
discomfort in informal settings, for example by moving to a mixed neighborhood (with the risks of
increased stigma, direct discrimination, hostility etc.). As already stated, the daily stress and
discomfort that even subtle and indirect forms of discrimination produce are well documented for
their physiologically damaging effects (Sullivan, 2015, chap.3). Often, agents belonging to the
majority group do not notice their own signs of discomfort and aversive behavior (Dovidio and
Gaertner, 2004). Though the contact hypothesis predicts that the display of such biases will
diminish with time and increased intergroup interaction, it is too big a burden to ask an already
encumbered minority group to also give up the comfort and safety in the private sphere of their
lives. Furthermore, residential integration and close social contact do not necessarily increase
interaction or social ties. One can live in a mixed, diverse neighborhood without forming close
friendships with one’s next door neighbor (Shelby, 2014, p.275). Proximity does not necessarily
entail intimacy, or belonging. More importantly, as Shelby points out, a minority’s desire for a
culturally homogeneous community is not necessarily borne out of political commitment, but
simply out of the “intrinsic pleasures and comfort that come from being around people with similar
life experiences” (Shelby, 2014, p.273). For black Americans who choose to formally integrate in
institutions, black communities may be places of refuge from the strains of an unwelcoming,
predominantly white society.
In sum, Anderson’s model of integration is primarily based on the idea of reciprocity: “For
blacks to achieve racial equality, blacks need to change, whites need to change, and we need to
change. These changes can happen only through racial integration” (Anderson, 2010, p.186). By
contrast, I place the primary duty to change on the majority group, specifically on people in
positions of influence, and in proportion to their level of influence, i.e. CEOs more than mid-level
managers, managers more than workers. This position does prompt another set of objections.
Namely, that (i) minorities could find it offensive or hurtful to know that majorities are choosing to
interact with them despite their discomfort and because (ii) merely exposing oneself to interaction
discomfort could have cognitive and epistemic costs (Gendler, 2011).
The first concern expresses a worry that a duty to interact despite discomfort will be
understood as dishonest and fake. Certainly, no one likes to be in a social setting where it becomes
clear that someone feels forced to be in your company. We have already addressed the obligation of
minorities on this point: the obligation to elect discomfort exists only in formal institutional settings
and where the disadvantaged group can see a clear purpose such as access to increased opportunity
or social advancement. I here focus on the more general view that it is problematic to demand
people act against their natural inclinations or what feels natural or spontaneous to them.
This assumption relies on an outdated distinction between false and genuine emotions based
in the so-called “basic emotion view”—originally put forward by psychologist Paul Ekman
(Ekman, 2004, 1992). The central idea put forth by this view is that all human beings are born with
a set of basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise).
emotion has its own specific way of being expressed—through specific facial expression, bodily
gestures and patterns in neurological movements. Because emotions have this fixed biological
basis, they are also believed to emerge naturally and spontaneously from within. According to
Ekman, it is therefore possible to detect when someone is acting against their natural inclinations
because the real emotion will still be displayed through so-called “micro expressions”, tiny
manifestations that reveal the true emotion beneath. From the perspective of this theoretical
framework attempts to overcome interaction discomfort are suspicious, because other people
be able to detect the agent’s insincerity.
But it is no longer tenable to regard emotions as natural, spontaneous expressions that we can
do little or nothing to modulate or control. Even the strongest proponents of the basic emotion view
consent that emotions are partly shaped and formed by an agent’s social, cultural and political
environment (Scarantino and de Sousa, 2018).
The mere fact that emotions have a biological and
The list sometimes includes more candidates for what counts as a basic emotion—a recent study by Alan Cower and
Dacher Keltner found 27 distinct categories of emotion (Cowen and Keltner, 2017).
At least so-called emotion experts with a trained eye, for example those who have been certified by the Paul Ekman
Group (Paul Ekman Group, no date).
For a recent example, see Charlie Kurth’s biocultural model (Kurth, 2018).
physiological basis does not imply that each individual instance of an emotion is “natural” in any
pure sense. The work of neuropsychologist Lisa Barrett also conceives of emotions as having a
biological and physiological basis but endorses a constructivist view of emotions. The work of
Barrett and colleagues calls into question the foundational ideas of the basic emotion view that there
is a distinct fingerprint for each emotion in the face (facial expression), body (physiology), or the
brain (neurology) (Barrett, 2017; Lindquist et al., 2012). But even ordinary examples show that it is
too simple to speak of “natural and genuine emotions” versus “fake and dishonest emotions”. There
are many situations where we find it completely unproblematic to suppress or hide our so-called
natural emotions. Take, for example, a situation in which someone is feeling tremendously nervous
at the thought of public speaking. Most people would consider it poor advice to recommend this
person to stick to their “natural” fear of the audience’s judgment and, indeed, many public speakers,
however nervous, manage to speak convincingly and authoritatively on their subject. Why should
we regard interaction discomfort any differently from a myriad situations in which control over our
emotions is not only demanded but expected?
As the literature on the nature and responsibility for implicit biases suggests, it is not
warranted to attribute implicit biases to the moral character of an agent or to assume that they
reflect the “deep self” of the agent, i.e. the principles and values that the agent consciously and
reflectively endorses (Zheng, 2016; Levy, 2017; Saul, 2014). Many implicit biases are often in
conflict with our conscious and reflective principles. For those committed to egalitarian principles,
efforts to overcome one’s interaction discomfort are attempts to have one’s behavior reflect one’s
moral character or “deep self”, if such a one exists. Put differently, in these cases, efforts to break
with one’s affective physiological habits are more honorable than any attempt to stay “true” to
One more ethical concern to consider is the view that exposing oneself to more interaction
discomfort could have damaging cognitive and epistemic costs. A variation of this objection has
been put forward by philosopher Tamar Gendler.
Taking one’s implicit biases into account in an
attempt to regulate one’s behavior and suppress one’s biases, she argues, can have significant
...if you live in a society structured by racial categories that you disavow, either you
must pay the epistemic cost of failing to encode certain sorts of base-rate or
background information about cultural categories, or you must expend epistemic
energy regulating the inevitable associations to which that information—encoded in
ways to guarantee availability—gives rise (Gendler 2011, 37).
Gendler refers to an experiment in which white people with implicit racial biases (but low explicit
racial biases) performed worse at a cognitive task after interacting with black people. Gendler draws
the conclusion from this and other experiments with similar conclusions that racial interaction is
cognitively depleting for these biased but well-intentioned white people. Her conclusion is that
agents belonging to the well-intentioned but implicitly biased are faced with a tragic dilemma of
choosing between acting ethical (but potentially irrational) or rational (but potentially unethical)
(Gendler, 2011, p.57).
Gendler’s argument correctly describes the process that leads to interaction discomfort: It
really is both emotionally and cognitively taxing to interact with people that we feel less
comfortable around because they belong (or we perceive them as belonging) to a different cultural,
social or political group. But her conclusion of a tragic dilemma sets up a false choice between
acting unbiased (according to our ethical standards) and acting rationally. If stereotyping leads an
Jennifer Saul’s analysis of Gendler’s paper inspired this objection (Saul, 2016).
employer to choose a weaker job candidate on the basis of her personal comfort and their mutual
and easy familiarity with one another, then it is stereotyping that potentially steers them towards
irrationality, i.e. making the wrong hire for the job. Rivera’s studies demonstrate the frequency with
which comfort trumps qualifications (Rivera, 2012).
A further problem with Gendler’s view of the issue—that it is epistemically costly to oppose
one’s intuitions and gut feelings—is that it underestimates the emotional and moral costs of acting
against one’s explicit principles. If an employer is explicitly committed to ideals of anti-racism,
anti-sexism and equal access to opportunity, etc., then the realization that one has perpetuated
inequality by choosing the most comfortable candidate can also trigger a feeling of discomfort—a
form cognitive dissonance that I have previously described as “awareness discomfort”, i.e. the
uncomfortable feeling of becoming aware of one’s one biases and the lack of alignment between
one’s principles and behavior (Author’s own, 2019). Pursing an ideal of justice, therefore, even
when incurring short term costs, can be rational upon reflection and in the long run.
In this paper I have argued that, to attain the goal of more equal societies, majorities as well as
minorities should become better at tolerating and even embracing interaction discomfort. This is no
easy task. It requires us to think of negative, aversive affect in positive terms. More work is needed
to lay out exactly how we can learn to re-conceptualize discomfort as potentially morally
productive, not something to be avoided. The groundwork for this approach is already being laid
out by a range of contemporary voices in philosophy who argue that negative affective states like
Kathy Puddifoot launches a similar critique of Gendler (Puddifoot, 2017).
Alex Madva targets Gendler’s argument in a similar fashion by arguing that pursuing an ideal of anti-racism (for
example by endorsing compensation for racial injustice) can also be rational (Madva, 2016).
discomfort and distress can be of intrinsic value because they literally and physically force us to
pause and reflect on our situation (Kurth, 2018; Applebaum, 2017; Bailey, 2017; Haidt, 2015).
There are, however, good reasons to be skeptical of discomfort and its potentially damaging
effects (Author’s own, 2019). When arguing as I do that both minorities and majorities should
actively seek out more interaction discomfort, the central concern is how to structure and mediate
intergroup settings that often cause interaction discomfort. The best settings for intentional
interventions are formal, institutional environments where it is possible to scaffold and cultivate the
right conditions for intergroup interaction. I have given a few examples of concrete strategies for
such an approach but more work is needed in this area.
The possibilities for far-reaching political and social change rest to a large extent on the
mitigation of implicit, affective biases, not just the barring of explicit discrimination. Affective
states may be experienced individually, but they often reflect emotions that are not entirely private
and personal, but public and political. A critical understanding of the political dimensions of deep,
physiological experiences of negative affect will make minorities as well as majorities better
equipped at tackling difficult and awkward interactions in the public space, and it is the central
argument of this paper that possibilities for progress are themselves dependent on the way
individuals interpret and manage their affective states.
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