Anger doesn’t help me, but it’s not about me

This week in the blogosphere, we get a little breather from sexual harassment and the conversation is once again about anger and styles of activism. We have the twitter hashtag #fuckcispeople and some discussion about that. We have JT Eberhard’s post scolding Bria Crutchfield for scolding another woman who asked a racist question, and plenty discussion about that too. And that has me thinking about the use of anger in social justice activism.

When this conversation comes up, a few people always speak up to say, “I’m glad people got angry with me when I fucked up. They yelled at me until I got it through my thick head that I was wrong and they were right. I’d never have been convinced otherwise.” Angry activists, clearly, have been effective at getting people to change their minds, to listen, to see where they’re wrong. But that’s not the whole story.

Anger is not a helpful learning tool for me. When someone is angry in my direction, when someone is hostile or declares contempt or enmity for me, I shrink into a little ball of social terror. At those moments, everything in my brain is reacting with panic, with the need to make it stop. And my two default ways of making it stop are 1) to give in, to totally accept and go along with everything they’re saying because it’s the fastest way to end the assault, and 2) to harden myself against them and draw a big sharp line of not-caring between myself and them. Both options are bad. The first one might look like what the angry activist wants, but it’s not an honest change of heart from my perspective: it’s a terrified capitulation, an impulse to go along with what the other person says so that they’ll stop hurting me… and then subsequent rationalizations to convince myself and others that of course I genuinely, sincerely agree and came to that place of agreement through rational thought. Although it comes from a different source, internally it feels very similar to the way I accepted and rationalized my past religion: not from sincere consideration and self-examination, but because I knew the social consequences of not doing so would be too dire to contemplate.

On the other hand, I am eager to understand other people’s perspectives, to consider where I might be wrong and where I might be missing something. If someone sits me down and explains to me why X thing is harmful to Y group, I will listen. I will consider it. If it doesn’t make sense to me, I won’t argue back; I’ll hold onto it, chew on it, observe the world and listen to other people until I understand it. That’s me. That’s how I learn. Anger: very unhelpful and counterproductive. Calm explanation: very helpful and productive.

So from a personal standpoint, I much prefer the Professor X approach. But I also recognize laurelai’s point that I’m not typical, and that for many people the Magneto approach is the only thing that will get them to listen. I’ve heard enough people tell stories of being convinced by angry activists that I’ll accept that it’s effective in many cases, and that just like anger doesn’t work on me, calm explanations don’t work on many others. In light of that, I’m working on developing my own coping tools to be less raw and reactive in the face of anger, and I bow out of discussions when they’re headed toward a shouting match.

But all of that is about anger as a tactic, anger as a tool for change, and that’s only part of the story. The other piece of it is anger as simple self-expression: oppressed people have many, many reasons to be angry, and telling them to curb their anger and express themselves in a way that’s polite and acceptable to those who are profiting from the system that oppresses them — well, many words have been written on how wrong that is, and I agree with them. Anger is only sometimes, and only partly, about creating social change; it’s also about letting the damage be real, and be heard. It’s not about me at all; it’s about letting someone who’s been hurt just fucking react honestly to that hurt.

Now, of course I don’t think that pure, spontaneous emotional response is always and everywhere a good decision. There are plenty of times we need to rein it in because we know expressing ourselves fully will do damage we don’t want to inflict or incur. For many of us, it’s also worth taking a critical look at our overall emotional palette: is anger becoming a crutch, is it masking something, is it controlling my life in ways I don’t want? BUT. It is 100% not my business to go around making these inquiries of other people’s anger, especially people I don’t know, people whose specific source of anger I don’t experience. Balancing emotional expression, personal growth, and social change tactics is a complicated enough equation for me as an individual. I don’t have nearly enough information to weigh in on how someone else with a radically different position in the world should balance the same factors. Conversations about, “Will expressing this anger bring about results that we want? Is the way I’m processing anger damaging to me internally?” should definitely happen, but they’re conversations I only have with people whose anger I profoundly understand, whether because I know them intimately or because I share its specific sources.

So. We need to remember that anger is a useful and necessary tactic for some people. That it’s a harmful and counterproductive tactic for other people. And that much of the time, it’s not about tactics at all, but about expressing pain, and if we’re not part of the pain we need to shut the hell up about how it’s expressed.

One thought on “Anger doesn’t help me, but it’s not about me

  1. Anger can be very important when there’s an audience. It may or may not be the right tool to convince the target of the anger that he or she is wrong, but it’s necessary if you want to convince the audience that anger is justified. Sometimes it’s even a moral imperative to make clear to the audience that anger is a necessary part of any appropriate response to a situation.

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