So, a little while ago I had a conversation with a close friend of mine, lets call him Andy. Now, this in and of itself isn’t an unusual thing, since I consider Andy one of my best friends, and he’s a feminist to boot, so we have all kinds of cool conversations. What was unusual was the uncharacteristic tension that was laced through this entire exchange. It never came to a satisfying conclusion which is why, in part, I’m writing about it here. I really want to get my opinions and thinky thoughts and feelings nailed down about this issue, because i think its important, and because when this topic inevitably comes up again I want to be able to discuss it without putting my foot in the same spectacular fashion as I did the first time around.
The conversation, or at least the tense, edgy, uncomfortable part, started with me saying to him that I thought that feminism was more personal for me then him (Oh hello there foot!). He promptly called me out on my shit, as well he (or anyone) should when i spout such ignorant baseless value judgmental bull as I did just then. This set the tone of the rest of the conversation. The tone was cemented when, in some horrible moment of senselessness, I brought up the Oh Dear God What About The Mens phenomena and explained it badly. Yea, I know. Bad move. It’s still painful to look back on.
So Shora, you may ask, why would you say something so moronic and judgmental to such a close friend of yours? To which i would reply that sometimes I’m very bad at articulating what i mean/say, especially when part of that is trying to say that i feel a little hung out to dry. The statement didn’t come from nowhere.
Andy has been a feminist far longer than I. I have only identified as feminist since the end of last summer, after discovering and devouring Harriet J’s blog (a fact that I do not doubt she would be faintly horrified to hear). As such I have been struggling with the “Great, Now I Hate Everybody,” side effect of having ones eyes opened to the myriad of social injustices that are infused throughout every aspect of daily life. I’ve also been suffering from the inability to keep from shooting my mouth off (Shock! Surprise!).
Which is where Andy and I start to butt heads, because when i see such injustice, I get angry. I don my Armor of Truth and my Breastplate of Righteousness and I dig in to fight the good fight, to confront and challenge people’s internalized sexism, to Monologue with Great Passion and Exuberance. And often I have expected Andy to back me up. And often most of what I have gotten from him is a reply varying from “Calm the fuck down” (said with utmost affection. It’s an oft used phrase among are friends and I don’t get offended by it. Much.) to “You take things too seriously” to “No dark side feminism in my house!” (once again, less offensive when taken in the mostly joking alcohol infused context it was said in.) Its extremely frustrating and sometimes a little hurtful when someone I look to for backup says I’m overreacting and also acts like I do something wrong when I get (what i feel is) rightfully angry.
He means well, I know he does. His stance is that part of fighting for your cause is making people listen to you, and he says that people aren’t going to listen when you get all Armor of Truth and Breastplate of Righteousness on them and put them on the defensive. They tune you out, and are more fighting you instead of listening to you.
And I agree with him, to a certain extent. The statement makes perfect sense, and is something most people already know. However something just…. feels off about what he’s saying. It just doesn’t fit quite right, and it makes me uncomfortable, on top of feeling uncomfortable for offending one of my close friends but still wanting to defend my point, because i think it’s an important one. At that point though it was too late, we were too closed off and defensive for this conversation to be constructive, but I tried anyway.
I brought up genderbitch’s essay on different modes of communication for activists, namely the nuker/appeaser axis, to try to ease into trying to say that maybe sometimes anger is okay, and not something to be vilified by other activists, because like, this is some fucked up shit, yanno? This is fucked up shit and its hard to be calm and cool when talking about it and sometimes, you know, sometimes the calm voice makes it easier for other people to ignore what you’re saying, or pretend what you’re saying isn’t really THAT important.
I didn’t even come close to expressing that point well, I don’t think. My ability to articulate gets shot out the window when I’m upset or nervous, and I was very much both. I ended up saying something along the lines of “Like… you know… maybe there’s room for both? I mean like, that’s what it said in this blog post… and it was really good, and stuff. No, I’m not saying you’re appeasing…. per se…. just that you’re more on that scale…. and like…. its hard to stay calm about this stuff…. and stuff”
Yea. I am the embodiment of eloquence.
At this point, I knew I had lost him completely. He was frustrated with me, I was frustrated with him, and we were sitting in the car with this giant clusterfucky ball of frustration in the air and about five minutes from the house we were meeting the rest of our group of friends at. Finally I say desperately,
“Activists, especially feminists and people from marginalized groups, are always expected to keep calm no matter what, even in the face of willful ignorance and some matrix style dodging to avoid the point. We are never ever allowed to be angry, even in the face of some pretty anger inducing shit.”
To which he replied
“Welcome to being an activist.”
And the conversation was over.
And I’ve been thinking about this conversation a lot since it happened. I’ve been thinking about his stance and mine. I’ve been thinking about how what he says seems to make so much sense, but I feel like there’s something really fucked up about it, just below the surface, that I just can’t put a finger on. I’ve been thinking how frustrating it is having someone who’s opinion i value criticize me for getting angry on things that are pretty fucked up.
Are activists really never allowed to be angry, even when confronted with injustice they are so passionate about fighting against? Do we really have to hold the hands of the privileged, smooth their hair back and whisper lovingly in their ear about what’s going on with people who are not privileged like they are? Are we supposed to ask pretty please could your please examine your behavior and the behavior of those around you and do deep soul searching and be brutally honest to yourself about the privilege you posses and do the difficult, endless work of constantly examining yourself and look for and dig out all the shit that society has put there and ask the hard questions and admit you were wrong and give up some of the increased social power you have enjoyed as a result of your privilege even if it would be easier to just not think about this stuff every and go about your life as usual pretty, pretty pretty please with a cherry on top? Are we supposed to be endlessly patient when we are dismissed, ignored, silenced, asked the same ignorant and offensive questions over and over again? Are we supposed to pander to the demands of the privileged to educate them for them instead of telling them to put the work in for themselves? Are we supposed to feel guilt when out temper breaks and we snap and snark and yell at someone who has never examined how their words and actions affect the world around them and have therefore unwittingly hurt others? Will doing any of this guarantee that people will listen, or will our soft, calm voices just make us easier to be ignored by those who don’t want to hear?
Why is it up to the marginalized, the activists, to say exactly the right thing in exactly the right tone while privileged get to enjoy their ignorance by saying offensive and ignorant shit and laughing it off as “Oh it’s not racist, I hate everyone equally! har har har!”? Why do the privileged get to whine about political correctness, but activists aren’t allowed to ruffle any feathers when they talk about being marginalized or oppressed? Why are we never, ever allowed to hurt the feelings of the privileged, when the privileged hurt the marginalized a hundred times over and not only don’t realize it, but often refuse to?
Activists are activists for a reason; we see injustice, and we are passionate about stopping it. But somehow we activists are only allowed to express that passion in set and narrow ways dictated by the privileged and what makes them comfortable? No, fuck that, I don’t believe it. I belive that anger, righteous anger, has a place in activism right next to calm collectedness. I believe it is certainly good to be compassionate, to not step on the toes of those who would be allies. I believe that when that doesn’t work that anger and passion have their place too.
There should be more of a burden on society to take accountability for one’s actions and to evaluate ones internalized lessons and think, really think, about whether they are right or fair or moral. I think there should be more of a burden on people to listen, really listen, to those who say they are depressed, without the obnoxious derailment tactics that seem to dominate the current discourse in anything, but especially feminism. Many would say “Well, in a perfect world, of course, but this isn’t a perfect world, so you have to work with reality” To which, once again, i will agree only to a certain point. People wont hold themselves accountable unless they are expected to, and they won’t be expected to as long as activists try to hold their hands and walk them through their cause and avoid at all costs hurting feelings. Our job is not to make our activism easier on those who, wittingly or not, marginalize or oppress. Our job is to stop oppression. And in order to do that, yea, sometimes we will speak calmly and logically and try to appeal to as large a group of people as possible. And sometimes we will shout the fucking house down, because it’s a shitty house built on shitty foundations. Because we’re activists, and that’s what we do.