I was first introduced to PayPal activism while perusing a Facebook page called Grindr Aesthetics. Moderated by LGBTI+ Americans, the page is dedicated to sharing memes about being queer. It focuses on the trials and tribulations of using Grindr, a popular hookup app. The politics of Grindr Aesthetics are vastly different from meme groups I tend to frequent. For many, myself included, memes often start larger political conversations, especially those that centre on identity.
In a comment thread under one meme, a fight broke out regarding the use of the term ‘queer.’ Linguistic concerns are important, as are arguments about the appropriate use of certain words, but what caught my attention was a comment stating, “Here are my PayPal account details, pay me to perform emotional labour for you.”
In this context, emotional labour refers to the commenter putting in effort to explain a difficult concept or to sustain a political argument with someone else. As I continued exploring Grindr Aesthetics, I noticed more and more people demanding remuneration for acts of ‘emotional labour’.
Emotional labour, an idea conceptualised by Arlie Hochschild, refers to the use of emotional rather than physical or analytical effort in exchange for wages. For example, as a waitstaff I not only have to perform physical tasks like cleaning and serving customers their food but I must also maintain a desirable standard of social interaction. I must wear a friendly smile and be empathetic to customers’ concerns, regardless of my own personal thoughts on the matter. Regulating emotions is challenging, and it’s true that explaining a concept, especially one tied in with your identity, requires some form of emotional labour. Indeed, many people of colour, women, and LGBTI+ people find that constant educating has become their job.
But the problem with PayPal activism is that it replicates a system it seeks to dismantle.
There is a strange paradox when leftists call for the end of capitalism but require payment for discourse. Politically and emotionally charged conversations are draining, but discourse is essential to any movement or revolution; it is the exchange of ideas we rely on to form a unified resistance against oppressive systems. Payment for discourse blocks certain people out of the fight; it is antithetical to our own aims. It also implies those receiving payment have nothing more to learn, that their ideas are wholly correct, or that they are in a position of authority that no one else has.
When political concepts are introduced to the mainstream, they help us realise truths of society’s superstructures, but often at the risk of losing meaning. Removed from context, concepts such as emotional labour are appropriated to describe interactions beyond the scope of the term’s meaning. Hochschild never envisaged emotional labour to be a term applied to interpersonal interactions, even if these interactions are in political, online spaces, where a lot of ‘work’ must be done.
I empathise with the people appropriating the term because it encompasses our feelings. But, in this case, we cannot expect a person to receive monetary compensation for a service as simple and important as engaging in discussion. Although it can be emotionally exhausting, ‘PayPal activists’ shouldn’t need an extra, financial incentive to contribute to a cause, especially when there is always the opportunity to disengage. So no, I won’t ask you to put money into my PayPal for writing this article.