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Disenfranchisement

An Essay on the Infrastructure of Critique

Rasmus Willig

Why is it important to take a critical approach to your work? And what are the consequences if your critical voice is suppressed? These are the questions that lie at the heart of Disenfranchisement, which focuses on the deteriorating possibilities for a group of kindergarten staff members to utter criticism and influence their work places.
The central point of the book is that the inability to criticise is closely related to a more general process of disenfranchisement that is corroding the lives of staff both professionally and privately. Through interviews with kindergarten workers, the book reveals how these processes have resulted in a widespread sense of powerlessness and paralysis.
This book is for anyone who seeks a conceptualisation of the feeling that it has become more worthwhile to keep silent than to speak your mind – a widespread impression in a time when several groups in the public sector, including nurses, teachers, kindergarten workers and police officers, report increased political control and a lack of tolerance of critical voices in a neoliberal era. The book focuses on the informal norms that determine our ability to criticise, rather than on the formal, statutory rights of freedom of speech, press and assembly.

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Chapter 5 Safety valves for critique

Extract

Much critique is never spoken aloud, but is expressed in other ways, with- out anyone really noticing it. In the introduction to this book I referred, for example, to a well-known sociological study which reveals how f light attendants, who are trained to be perpetually friendly, discharge their criticism. The study was undertaken by the American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, who discovered, as mentioned, that the f light attend- ants sometimes chew on ice cubes behind the small curtains that separate them from the passengers, in order to deal with their frustrations. They have been taught never to show anger towards the passengers, no matter how insolently the latter behave. Hochschild does not assign any particu- lar conceptual term to these critical projections, but we might call them safety valves for critique. When it is not possible to express critique, the critique cannot merely be dissolved. It does not go away. If it cannot be dealt with or suppressed, the need arises for safety valves by which it can be released. Such safety valves have the psychological function of relieving the pressure on a person who is unable to express critique, so that it does not boil over. Since human beings are critical by nature, it is unnatural for us to restrain our critique. In the long run, such a person, like a machine that cannot release its pressure, will metaphorically burn out or explode. The inability to express oneself in a critical manner can produce many dif ferent reactions,...

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