Over the last couple of years, I’ve been circling back repeatedly to the questions around the intersections of anger, marginalization, oppression, and social justice. I came to it with a knee-jerk, “Of course it’s better to restrain your anger and express yourself calmly and civilly no matter the provocation” stance, born out of my own Stoic Peacekeeper personality and the cultural values I picked up from my white educated middle-class environment. I did a lot of listening to the arguments that challenge that stance, and because this is the way I develop my understanding of knotty ethical problems, I threw myself as completely as possible into the “an oppressed person should get to express themselves however they feel like, even if it sounds unreasonably hostile and aggressive to others” viewpoint. I argued that side to others and put myself into communities where it was the rule, to see what the outcomes of having that rule are.
Based primarily on those experiences, I’ve pulled back a little and am working on settling myself somewhere in the territory between those two stances. I’m still working on where, exactly, that will be. But it’s distressing to me that the majority of the conversation I hear about the issue is pretty much either “How dare you say hostile things you mean meanyface!” or “How dare you silence someone’s expression of anger, whatever [verbal] form it took!” So I loved this post by Aoife over at Consider the Tea Cosy, which had a practical and nuanced view, affirming the right of marginalized people to express anger, allowing that the anger is not always going to be contained to the immediate oppressors, and exhorting people on all sides to be aware of how much they don’t know about the people who are in the immediate vicinity.
Bits I particularly appreciated:
When the status quo is oppressive (it is), then staying neutral just keeps things as they are.
The status quo needs shaking up. Anger- even messy outbursts of I CAN’T FUCKING DEAL WITH THIS SHIT ANYMORE WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING- shakes things up. Anger is a sign that someone’s been stressed to a breaking point. Anger reminds us that something is rotten. It knocks away a little of our complacency.
It has taken me a long time to really grasp that staying calm and absorbing emotional strain doesn’t always help situations. Sometimes it just allows really bad situations to linger far longer than they needed to. I will likely continue to struggle with this — stoic peacekeeper, over here. But I’ve been in enough situations where just quietly coping turned out to be a maladaptive strategy, and some anger, even messy and poorly-targeted anger, would have driven us much more quickly toward solutions.
While as oppressed people it’s often a good idea to focus our anger at appropriate targets when we can, when we are privileged it’s our responsibility to.. deal with it. Take some breaths. If we need to stew and simmer (we’re only human!), be careful about where we direct that hurt. Understand that whatever anger we’re receiving is magnified many times by the other crap the person has had to deal with. Accept that it’s not fair. It’s not fair for anyone involved.
I really like that she handles both sides of the coin here. The hurt I, as a privileged person (in a hypothetical scenario) feel from being lashed out at unfairly, is real. It counts. It’s not nothing. But it’s also (in this same hypothetical scenario) way less than the person doing the lashing-out has had to deal with, so it’s my responsibility to suck it up and cope in a way that doesn’t create more hurt for that person.
And then there’s the cases where maybe the hurt I feel isn’t way less, because of whatever shit I’ve got going on:
If the world were divided neatly into privileged and oppressed, we could all portion out how much anger we can take (and from who) and how much venting we get to do. It’s not, though. It’s messy- messier than our anger, messier than the hurt that leads to that anger or that results from it.
As people who are hurt and angry, intersectionality, I think, reminds us that other people could be dealing with things as opaque to us as our experiences are to them. There’s no such thing as the Last Acceptable Prejudice. All prejudices are the Last Acceptable Prejudices. While they all hurt us in different ways, the fact of that harm is always there. Vent if we need to, but understand that not-in-my-group doesn’t equal never-hurt, that not all things are visible to bystanders, and that this person might have a load of microaggressions of their own tipping them over an edge you never knew existed.
This is the piece of things that had me tearing my hair out when I was active in a heavily social-justice-oriented community. Situations would arise where one person’s hurt and anger and oppression redounded on another person in a way that aggravated that person’s hurt and anger and oppression, and trying to adjudicate those situations was frankly more than I was able to cope with, especially when I was one of the people being hurt.
Read the whole piece, it’s great.
Shock absorption: a model for looking at hurt and response
There are two different ways I’ve seen people look at anger, hurt, and response. The first is what I’ll call the “conflagration” model. People who love and trust each other, and have the right temperament for it, can get into screaming fights, yelling all over each other and maybe even breaking a dinner plate or two, and then once they’ve expressed themselves as loudly and fully as possible the anger dies down and they can hug and laugh and be close again. As far as I can tell (and I really don’t know, because this is an alien dynamic to me) the things each person said get filed away under “things I say when I’m angry” and both people know that they weren’t really meant, and don’t have a lasting hurtful impact. Maybe both people just grok that those are feelings expressed but not endorsed? The point is, in that model both people’s anger and hurt flares up like a bonfire, feeding on itself and growing for a while, and then naturally burning itself out and leaving very little residue to deal with.
Then there is what I’ll call the “shock absorption” model. In this one, hurtful things that were said and done while angry (or irritated or sleep-deprived or distracted) don’t go away… they react and rebound like shock waves. Jo, coming home from a shitty day at work, says something carelessly hurtful to Sal, who then has to do something with that hurt. Ze can bounce it right back to Jo, snapping back at hir, or ze can take it out on someone else, or ze can hold onto it and let it stew and fester, where it will likely gain momentum and fly out later at Jo or someone else with even more force. Any of these actions are going to cause an echoing effect, where the person who got hit by the rebound will then bounce it back to someone else, and on it goes. (If it’s just Jo and Sal volleying back and forth, hey presto! you have a fight.)
Sal can also do some conscious shock absorption, where ze thinks, “I know Jo is having a terrible time at work. I know Jo loves me and didn’t want to hurt me. I’m going to let that slide, and maybe bring it up later when Jo is in a better place to have a conversation about it.” This kind of shock absorption — reacting to hurt with understanding and patience — is what stops the endless cycle of hurt and anger rebounding all over the place. In the shock absorption model (which I think applies to any relationship where love, trust, and/or conflict-friendly temperaments are not firmly established, including nearly all the interactions social justice is concerned with) somebody, somewhere, has to do this before things will calm down. Often multiple people need to, as everybody takes deep breaths and works to get to a place of understanding and kindness.
A person’s ability to act as a shock absorber in this way is limited: by their temperament, by their maturity, and by the level of stress they’re currently under, including how much shock-absorption they’ve already been doing in the recent past. Once your shock pads are worn down, you’re back to Sal’s original choices in response to hurt: lash out (at the person who hurt you or someone else) or let it fester inside you, where it will only get worse and eventually emerge to do more damage. I didn’t mention it above, but sometimes if you go the “let it fester” route, the damage it does is to yourself and your own self-esteem. Taking on a lot of hurt and never dealing with or expressing it can eventually have you believing that you deserve to be treated badly, that you can’t expect any different in relationships, that this is just how things are.
When we’re talking about anger and social justice, asking a more privileged person to suck it up and deal with the occasional misdirected outburst is essentially saying, “The person who lashed out at you is likely near the end of their shock-absorption capacity. You have plenty left, so use it.” It’s saying, “One of the hazards of dealing with constant micro-aggressions is internalizing that sense of inferiority, starting to believe that you don’t deserve better. The person who lashed out at you is protecting themselves against that outcome; let them.” As long as you have some shock-absorption capacity left, it’s best to use it in those situations.
This is complicated by the fact that the apparently privileged person might also be at the end of their shock-absorption capacity, for any of a number of reasons (including having some invisible sources of marginalization.) This is what the third quote I pulled from Aoife’s post touches on. Saying, “you have to be the shock absorber here because you haven’t been hurt the way the other person has” is really, really upsetting — not to mention sometimes impossible to grant — when you’re staggering under the weight of your own stress and hurt.
And on the flip side, a lot of people who have the capacity to absorb hurt choose to rebound it instead. Absorption takes work, lashing back is easy. This is one reason I’m wary of the extreme “marginalized people get to express themselves however they want!” position. In some cases, I think it can turn into an abdication of any responsibility for acting as a shock absorber when you do have the capacity. This especially happens with people who are somewhere in the middle of the privilege ladder (assuming such a thing is a sensical concept, which it’s not, but it’ll do for the moment.) It is impossible to know what’s going on from outside: whether the person lashing out is doing so because their shocks are worn too thin, or just because they feel entitled to lash out. But I will say, that of the many and varied outbursts I’ve seen, statistically some of them are almost certainly being perpetrated by people who could have healthily chosen to absorb the hurt instead, and that just increases the strain on the system for everyone.
It’s even further complicated by the fact that, if you’re an internalizer, it can be hard to tell the difference between internalizing the hurt so that it festers, and absorbing it so that it dissipates. Impossible to tell the difference from the outside, and not always easy from the inside. If you’ve gone through most of your life acting as a shock absorber for other people, you can slide from “productively exercising patience and understanding” to “self-destructively internalizing hurt” without even noticing it. Another dynamic I’ve seen play out in social justice circles is that a bunch of people who tend to externalize are loudly rebounding hurt all over the place, while the people who tend to internalize are just getting quieter and quieter and eventually slip away from the circle, when they realize they’ve crossed that line and participation is becoming self-destructive. The people who externalize hurt are not always the ones most deeply hurt, but this tends not to get recognized in the conversations about anger and social justice.
Sometimes a situation is so tense that there’s just not enough shock absorption capacity to handle the level of hurt that’s bouncing around. When things get to this point, there’s nothing to be done except back away; any interaction is going to cause more damage, whether it’s internalized or externalized. If the connection is valuable enough, and the parties involved are able to replenish themselves elsewhere, they may be able to regroup and try again. But maybe not. I’m convinced that the main reason many relationships and communities fall apart is that the total shock absorption capacity of the group is worn too thin to handle the next wave of stressors.
Implications of the shock absorption model
What does this mean, both for social justice circles and for relationships? The guidelines I’m tentatively staking out are these:
- In most situations, if you can be a shock absorber, do. If you can react to being hurt with patience, understanding, and kindness, and do so without damaging your own sense of self-worth, do that, because there are likely plenty of people in the situation whose capacity is lower than yours.
- Recognize that for some people in some circumstances, letting hurt rebound so that it strikes someone else is the healthiest option. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, per se, but it’s the best way to deal with a bad situation. It also doesn’t mean that you personally deserve the attack that was sent your way. Draw a line between, “this person needed to vent their hurt toward me” and “I deserved what they said/did.” You don’t have to draw it publicly, in fact you shouldn’t. Just note that it’s true, and go seek reassurance and comfort somewhere else if you need to.
- Work on being self-aware about when you absorb and when you don’t. If you’re an internalizer, get smart about the signs that you’re unhealthily internalizing rather than productively absorbing, and find ways to express your anger when you’ve hit the limit of your absorption capacity. If you’re an externalizer, don’t take “I get to express anger however I want” as carte blanche to throw your hurt around. Again, if you can be a shock absorber, do, because the fewer shock absorbers there are in a situation the more likely the whole group is to reach critical dissolution point.
- Be wary of making judgements about how much absorption capacity the people around you have. The less you know them, the less clue you have about what’s going on with them and how thick their shock pads are at the moment. What matters (to you) is your hurt and how much you can take. You get to draw boundaries to protect yourself whether someone is willfully and carelessly throwing hurt around, or reacting in the only way possible to them.
- When everybody’s shocks are wearing thin, the best thing to do is back away. Let everybody go off and replenish their emotional reserves. Sometimes, getting a situation resolved right now is not going to happen, and continued attempts are just going to wear everybody down even further. One of the sucky things about certain kinds of oppression is that it becomes very hard to find a retreat space where you’re not constantly being worn down by new stressors and microaggressions. This is part of why “safe spaces” are so important, and why people shouldn’t complain about being excluded from them. Having a space to vent and express and restore makes it easier for someone to come back and have a conversation that will be productive and healthy on both sides.
- And my overall, foundational principle for these kinds of discussions: Be excellent to each other. We’re all hurting, in various ways and at various times. Wherever it’s possible, let’s do what we can to make less hurt, not more.