Bringing people together can be a risky business. You invite people from different parts of the society. They might distrust you. They might also distrust the people they expect to meet. Part of that distrust is in my view due to the unanswered (and perhaps unspoken) question “will I be recognized as equal, will the other people see me as a full moral person”? It would be very unpleasant if not. In this short article I want to shed some light on an emotional mechanism that creates mutual contempt based on our position in the world of employment. I presume that deep down most of us are well aware of this contempt and have experienced it ourselves. Or have experienced it being directed at ourselves. Distrust and fear of not being recognized therefore is not completely ungrounded which makes this problem relevant for everybody working in participatory democracy or civic education.

The remainder of this article is structured as follows: In the beginning I need to present a brief overview of the functioning of our emotion system and how internalised and nontransparent (unconscious) beliefs might distort its outcomes (I). I then will discuss the main argument about how our current position in the world of employment activates certain deeply held beliefs and as a result creates an emotional environment that impairs our open-mindedness (II). Finally I will elaborate on some ways of how to overcome these obstacles (III).

I Some Introductory Notions about Emotions in General and Emotion-Distorting Beliefs

Our emotion system in general is a highly complex, subtle, and most of the time well suited device that ensures adaptability to the demands of our immediate surrounding (cf. Campos et al. 2004, p. 379). Whenever we face some difficulty in getting our needs met we experience an emotion which is “the process of registering the significance of a physical or mental event, as the individual construes that significance“ (ibid.). Anything that – from our personal point of view – touches upon our needs is significant and demands attention. Emotions create this attention and help us focus on things that are important to us. They alter mind and body: we feel emotions mentally and physically. Therefore, emotions help us navigate through life according to the values, life-goals, plans and needs that we hold as individuals. To work properly “the emotion process must be variable and flexible enough to permit intelligence, learning, and judgment to shape the response to adaptational business and, at the same time, to operate in accord with biological species principles“ (Lazarus 1991, p. 190). That is to say, emotions cannot simply be something that is given biologically and fixed over time. An appropriate emotional reaction to, for instance, danger is something that develops in the course of growing up: we need to learn what different forms of danger are out there and how best to respond to each of them. This knowledge, then, informs our emotion system. Although we might always feel some form of fear (including things like increased heart rate and so on), we will express and act differently depending on the type of threat, our age as well as the relational context. The result is „a system designed to inform thought and action in flexible, experience-based, statistically sophisticated, and representationally complex ways—grounding us in, and attuning us to, reality” (Railton 2014, p. 846). The surprising notions of statistical sophistication and representational complexity can be understood as emotions operating as individualised heuristics: simple and fast evaluation rules of our mind, based upon how often and how intense certain emotional encounters have been. This notion must not be understood as emotions representing the world accurately. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, depending on our emotional biography as well as our ability to reflect upon emotions and transform maladaptive perspectives. This means that even though emotions are directed at reality, we sometimes misperceive reality and act upon false assumptions about what is going on. Acting upon emotions is not a fail-safe strategy for getting one’s needs met. Ignoring emotions is also not a fail-safe strategy. Reflecting upon emotions is – if there is no reason to act immediately – usually a good idea for intelligent problem solving. Unfortunately emotions go along with an urgency to act. This urgent impulse sometimes is very difficult to overcome.

Nevertheless, as I said, most of the time our emotion system works just fine: “[i]t presents to us an evaluative landscape of the physical and social world capable of tacitly guiding perception, cognition, feeling, and action“ (Railton 2014, p. 846–847). We don’t need to spend too much brainpower to evaluate every new encounter for – in emotions – there are stored evaluations going along with bodily feelings and ready-made ideas for strategies that have proven reliable in the past. Nevertheless, I think we all know that every now and then our emotions do not prove helpful in adapting to the demands of our environment – they do quite the opposite, actually: we overreact and literally feel compelled to act switfly and sometimes violently thereby damaging our own goals and sometimes harming our relationships on the way. Some amount of anger, for instance, is a helpful ingredient in constructive assertiveness, too much anger easily leads to the escalation of a conflict. Why is that? There are many reasons why a situational emotion might not quite fit the given situation or encounter thereby leading to maladaptive strategies. Misperceptions of what is happening or false assumptions about the motivation or intentions of other people are among the most important distorting factors. In this article I want to focus on the influence of internalised and unconscious beliefs, which are one way of how misperceptions and a distorted perspective upon reality come about.

When we acquire beliefs that trigger our emotion system in distorting ways, these beliefs are mostly either the result of some level of traumatic learning or repeated contact with widespread but subliminal ideologies in society. Let me explain what I mean: the term traumatic learning refers to instances of more or less ‘atmospheric’ violence in childhood and youth, generating emotions, that
“once represented an attempt at optimal adaptation to aversive circumstances, but as circumstances have changed, they are no longer adaptive“ (Greenberg 2015, p. 75). If you have an emotionally abusive parent, you learn to believe that it is important to be cautious and that distrust in other people is a protection from being hurt. Later in life the exact same beliefs might make it harder for you to connect to other people. Not impossible, just more difficult and time-consuming. Repeated contact with ideologies, through the media, peer-group, school-system or just the make-up of the basis of your society, also make you believe in some fundamental ideas. Ideas about justice and when it is appropriate to feel and express indignation, but also ideas about which minority can be treated as subhuman, leading to disgust or hatred.

These beliefs are usually unconscious. That is to say, they are intransparent to one’s own mind, not fully articulated or put into propositional thought. And they lead to distorted emotions ranging from minor inappropriate emotional reactions in a limited number of situations (what most of us will experience from time to time) to outright psychopathology. Whatever the personal dimensions, „[d]efensive strategies and implicit procedures developed in infancy […] become aspects of character and relating that persist precisely because they are automatic and outside awareness“ (Renn 2012, p. 20; also cf. Burkitt 1997, 2010). At some point, we stop questioning these internalised beliefs. Their content appears to us simply as the truth. And these “truths” have a heavy impact upon how we perceive the world: “people carry around with them private and recurrent personal meanings that lead them to react inappropriately to an encounter with a sense of betrayal, victimization, rejection, abandonment, inadequacy, or whatever” (Lazarus 1991, p. 167). These internalised beliefs are like glasses that distort our perception of reality: we do not wear them all the time but in specific encounters we put them on and feel and act according to what the glasses present us as reality.

Usually these emotion-distorting beliefs – even those that are based on widespread ideology – arenot internalised in exactly the same way across different people, because every internalisation is a matter of degree, influenced by our personality and a variety of other external factors. The political theorist Susan Bickford says we are “complexly souled being[s]” (2011, p. 1028), and in that – I believe – she is quite right. Different people experiencing similar forms of atmospheric violence might come to believe different conclusions – unwittingly, of course, since we are still talking about emotional processes – of which feelings present the best response to this hostile environment. The same is true for our encounters with racist or sexist ideologies. We might internalise some racist beliefs but not others. This insight is important on a practical level: If you gather people together (for – let’s say – a deliberative event) chances are high that some participants will experience feelings based on internalised emotion-distorting beliefs during that event (for we are all only humans). But – given the sheer variety of these different beliefs – chances are also high, that they will not mutually trigger one another leading to emotional dynamics that might sway the group to one side or disrupt the deliberation altogether.

II How Emotion-Distorting Beliefs Permeate our Perception of Work and Self-Esteem

With these notions in mind I want to talk about a different instance of emotion-distorting beliefs. A whole system, actually, of different beliefs that very much do chain into and trigger each other and thereby leading to emotional reactions that shape our society at a fundamental level. That is, I want to talk about the work of David Graeber.

The following argument is part of his book Bullshit Jobs – A Theory in which he develops the notion of how a certain kind of feudalised capitalism incentivises jobs that does by no account have any social value – mainly in the middle management, the FIRE-Sector (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) but also in academia, the public sector and throughout private businesses to a varying degree: „a bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case“ (Graeber 2018, p. 24). Graeber assumes that everybody will intuitively have some grasp of what he means, and I can rather see his point. Nevertheless, there are receptionists taking only one or two calls a day, employees that serve merely as subordinates to superiors (for superiors need subordinates to be superiors), people filling out forms that nobody really needs or writing reports that nobody will ever read. In reality, most jobs will contain some tasks or aspects that does not serve any real purpose worthy of support. Though, Graeber did collect an impressive amount of testimonies from employees whose jobs are meaningless to a depressingly high degree. YouGov conducted a poll in 2015 asking British workers if their job is making a meaningful contribution to the world. Result: 37 % said “no” (YouGov 2015).

Bullshit Jobs usually go along with a painful awareness of the absurd pointlessness of the task. People who have a Bullshit Job tend to envy those who do real productive or caring work. Or rather they envy the sense of purpose that, as they perceive, must go together with doing such work. Graeber also notes that those jobs who undeniably add something of worth to society usually are underpaid, have bad working conditions and are oftentimes not acknowledged. He calls these jobs Shit- Jobs. And again, I think we have an immediate knowledge of what professions belong to this category: Nurses, waste collectors, parcel deliverymen, warehouse employees, teachers (perhaps not underpaid but oftentimes unappreciated), cashiers, and many more. So, we have Bullshit-Jobs, we have Shit-Jobs and then, of course, there are a limited number of jobs that are well-paid and widely approved as undeniably serving a purpose. Graeber mentions medical doctors, although he – and me as well – have heard accounts of doctors describing how the profit motive and some regulation (for the legal protection of the hospital for instance) turn some aspects of their work into a farce by not addressing the root causes of medical problems of their patients. The same can be said about some psychological intervention centers: those who are supposed to help people are merely box ticking their standard paperwork despite the fact that this is not helping their clients. So, there might be a degree of purposelessness in those professions, too.

Given this state of the world of employment the starting point of the argument, that I want to focus on, is that on a psychological level one can observe that there is “a widespread feeling that if one does not engage in labor that destroys the mind and body, whether or not there is a reason to be doing it, one does not deserve to live“ (Graeber 2018, p. 182). This link between your right to exist and being employed in a (more or less mind-wrenching or body-crushing) job is a subtle but widespread and deeply internalised belief in western societies. It manifests itself for instance in certain institutions of the welfare state: “an enormous amount of the machinery of government, and that half-government corporate NGO penumbra that surrounds it in most wealthy societies, is just there to make poor people feel bad about themselves. It’s an extraordinarily expensive moral game played to prop up a largely useless global work machine” (ibid., p. 206). The claim that the global work machine is largely useless, as opposed to – let’s say – useless only to some significant degree, is, of course, debatable. But the point is that this belief, about the connection between one’s right to exist and paid employment, is a deeply internalised belief – subtly instilled through e.g. movies, the school-system or role-models. And as such it has the ability to influence or even shape some of our emotional reactions.

There is another widespread, internalised belief that acts in concert with the link between your right to exist and paid labour: „a deeply held popular feeling that paid employment alone can make one a full moral person“ (Graeber 2018, p. 197). If you do not have already entered the workforce or if you are unemployed for too long a time you do not have the right to meet someone on eye-level or to be treated with the same respect. You are or re-become a child. You lack experience. At least the important experience of having a job that requires your submission to an employer. And that is true regardless of whatever extraordinary talents you have. These internalised beliefs are part of the reason, I think, why professional but unpaid activism – even if it is mentally or physically demanding or require the very same skills that qualify you for a Job in an NGO or even an institution of the U.N. – does not give you the same moral standing as having any kind of paid job in the eyes of the society. To summarise: within the modern society (for reasons beyond the reach of this article, but cf. Graeber 2018, ch. 6) there are two deeply held beliefs about the importance of paid employment and the moral consequences of lacking this status. These beliefs are emotionally active, meaning they can influence our emotional responses regarding any encounter that our mind classifies as belonging to the realm of employment.

But in what specific ways? Graeber discusses the phenomenon of moral envy: “By ‘moral envy,’ I am referring here to feelings of envy and resentment directed at another person, not because that person is wealthy, or gifted, or lucky, but because his or her behavior is seen as upholding a higher moral standard than the envier’s own. The basic sentiment seems to be ‘How dare that person claim to be better than me (by acting in a way that I do indeed acknowledge is better than me)?’” (Graeber 2018, p. 185). Seeing oneself as morally inferior to another is usually not a pleasant experience. Now recall the state of the modern world of employment: There are Bullshit-Jobs that do not provide meaning to someones life, there are Shit-Jobs that are mind-wrenching or body-crushing and underpaid, there are the unemployed (we should not forget about the unemployed) and then there are those employed in well-paid and meaningful jobs. Connect this observation with the widespread internalisation of the two discussed beliefs (“only paid employment gives you a right to exist” and “only paid employment makes you a full moral person”) and then let’s see how this state of affairs plays out if members of different groups come together: “such work arrangements foster a political landscape rife with hatred and resentment. Those struggling and without work resent the employed. The employed are encouraged to resent the poor and unemployed, who they are constantly told are scroungers and freeloaders. Those trapped in bullshit jobs resent workers who get to do real productive or beneficial labor, and those who do real productive or beneficial labor, underpaid, degraded, and unappreciated, increasingly resent those who they see as monopolizing those few jobs where one can live well while doing something useful, high-minded, or glamorous“ (Graeber 2018, p. 185)

No wonder we face increasing polarisation in the western societies, when there is a system of mutually reinforcing contempt and resentment. Though, of course, this is only one factor among others that might be responsible for the growing divide. Seeing oneself as morally inferior or questioning one’s right to exist is very unpleasant. Any encounter that touches upon or activates these beliefs
has an inherent negative emotional tone. And since these beliefs are such a deep part of our psychological make-up we cannot easily re-evaluate them. Instead we meet someone who we perceive as morally superior because of these unarticulated beliefs and just feel a certain tension. We might also perceive the other person (merely by existing) as a threat to our self-esteem: the encounter makes us painfully aware, that we lack the right to exist and are morally deficient. And impressions of threat create fear and anger and resentment. And if I feel and express contempt towards you, what are the chances for you to stay connected and open? And since – as I said – this is a system of mostly unconscious beliefs that chain into and trigger each other the system’s operation is rather stabilised. And that makes it a problem for society as a whole.

III Overcoming Mutual Contempt

How to tackle this problem? David Graeber argues that a universal basic income would disrupt at least some of these interpersonal dynamics. Though, it would rather aim at changing the make-up of the world of employment rather than our moral beliefs: Bullshit-Jobs might cease to exist if those trapped in such employment could just quit without having to worry about how to feed their families. And even the working conditions of Shit-Jobs might improve to remain attractive to employees (cf. Graeber 2018, p. 199–210). But his account – albeit plausible – is not the only point of intervention. One could devise more immediate responses to this problem.

First of all and on an individual level all of us can explore if and to what degree we have internalised these two beliefs that our right to exist and our moral standing as a person crucially depends on paid employment. How strongly do these beliefs influence our thinking and feeling? Have we ever experienced moral envy, resentment or contempt directed at those who have a useful job (when
we ourselves were trapped in a Bullshit-Job) or directed at the unemployed (when we were working under difficult conditions just to make a living)? Planning and carrying out deliberative events crucially demands a lot of self-awareness in this regard.

Secondly, we desperately need to advance and spread knowledge about the workings of emotions in general. Regarding emotion-distorting beliefs Richard Lazarus wrote: „[There are] individualized cognitive-motivational-relational configurations that operate idiosyncratically as hidden, irrational, or distorted meanings shaping our appraisals of interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, and therefore generating emotions that seem not to fit the observations of bystanders” (1991, p. 165). What Lazarus calls configurations are nothing but personal dispositions of interpreting certain social encounters repeatedly in similar ways. Instead of calling their operation ‘idiosyncratically’ you could easily say these patterns are strange and strangely uncontrollable. These dispositions also entail a motivational component: they generate emotions, which – as a result – provoke us to act. If, for instance, the arguments that we put fourth in a deliberation are investigated according to scientific standards, we might interpret this as an attack upon our very selves. Why? Because sometimes we identify ourselves too much with what we say. There is a hidden link between self-esteem and the way our arguments are received. Mildly questioning an argument is then seen as a threat to the self. And such a threat justifies both our fury and a counterattack: “When hidden premises and processes are at work, individuals react with intense anger, say, when there does not seem to be adequate provocation, and likewise with sadness or depression, anxiety, guilt, or shame“ (ibid., p. 165). And because these processes are nontransparent to our own mind, we cannot easily regulate or even re-evaluate them.

As human beings we are prone to such processes. It literally happens to all of us sometimes. That can be tragic, even leading to the escalation of a conflict, but, ultimately, it is part of the human condition and – as such – calls for acceptance and compassion. That does not mean we should stop exploring and transforming our emotion-distorting beliefs. Beliefs about the connection between employment and self-esteem, or – for instance – all kinds of prejudices, for they, too, are based upon internalised and emotionally active but unarticulated beliefs. If we are aspiring to create a just world, evaluating one’s own beliefs and abandoning those that we do now consider inappropriate or simply factually mistaken is a necessary step. Only, we need to be aware that we as well as our opponent will not always be able to do so – at least not quickly. We must know that we or our opponent might need time and support (including encounters of different perspectives upon an issue) to reflect upon internalised beliefs: „Reflexivity occurs when we bring some externally mediated knowledge to bear on the process of self-reflection and interpretation, and also try to take a more distanced view in the monitoring of our actions” (Burkitt 2012, p. 469–470). In other words, Burkitt proposes open-minded dialogue about emotional processes. If we overreact we might not know that we overreact. In that very moment, our reaction “feels” appropriate (otherwise we would behave differently). But if an opponent, in whom we must have some amount of trust, tells us that she or he is surprised by our reaction, we might be able to see that hidden premises might be at work. For that to succeed, of course, we must develop the abilities to explore the workings of our own minds: “Here, emotional relfexivity comes into play, such as emotional intelligence and other practices of the self that reflect on habit or habitual emotional patterns and responses. But breaking these is hard as they are the basis of our very selves“ (Burkitt 2012, p. 470). And although we are fully responsible for acting upon any such toxic beliefs and equally responsible for critically re-assess our beliefsystem, we are not fully responsible for internalising them in the first place. That is true for the beliefs that I discussed in this article as well as, for instance, for racial stereotypes or misogynist patterns of thought. Critical re-assessment is crucially important but it needs to be initiated with respect and gentleness. Open-minded dialogue in an atmosphere that promotes trust, the willingness and ability to reflect upon the workings of our own minds as well as some amount of (self-)compassion that reflects the difficulties of this process are among the most important faculties for the success of this critical re-assessment. It will come as no surprise that one possible and quite effective framework for exploring and reevaluating our beliefs is deliberating about fundamental values. In reaching out to marginalised groups or those who are politically alienated, like long-term unemployed, the dynamics that Graeber unveiled need to be carefully attended to. Moral envy, anger, distrust, resentment and contempt must be treated as clues for the existence of some unarticulated beliefs. These beliefs – that, by the way, might also exist in the facilitators of the deliberative event, subliminally influencing moderation style or setup – need to be mindfully raised to the surface without any moralising. If and only if we can observe what separates us on an emotional level, we can take a step back and critically reassess these detrimental forces.

Which brings me to the final point. As important as it is to enhance our knowledge about emotions in general we also need to spread knowledge about Graeber’s findings in particular. His book has been well received, though especially the subliminal influences of these beliefs and the associated strategies of tackling the problem have not been sufficiently discussed. Making these hidden dynamics transparent enables us as a society to collectively rethink the strong connection between paid employment and self-esteem, our right to exist and our moral standing. Faced with the destructive dynamics that emerge when these beliefs persist in a world of employment that encompasses Shit-Jobs, Bullshit-Jobs, unemployed and a few good jobs (that are fiercely fought over) we need to ask ourselves if we want to hold on to those beliefs.


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YouGov. 2015. 37% of British workers think their jobs are meaningless. URL:

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