the role of anger in activism

Not too long ago, someone posted a piece of writing for discussion in a FetLife group that inspired some thought on my part. The piece, entitled “12 Helpful Suggestions for Men Regarding Conduct in Feminist Spaces,” was originally posted by Kettetastic on LiveJournal. It’s a bit long, so I’ve linked to it rather than post the entire thing here; feel free to take a gander if you want some context for the rest of this post.

I think the list of suggestions is actually quite valuable when taken solely on the merits of it basic concepts. The problem with it is that because of its inflammatory language and pissed-off tone, it’s highly unlikely to reach the people that its title leads the reader to believe it intends to address.

As a piece of satire for women to read and identify with—since most of us have probably experienced instances where clueless, privileged guys behaved in exactly the ways she describes—it definitely works. It’s not really my thing, but I get that there may be value to it. But as a piece of activist literature aimed at actually providing “helpful suggestions” to men—not so much. There is definitely a place for anger and ranting and nasty satire within feminism, and within any anti-oppressive work, but that place is not in the realm of genuine and effective efforts at coalition-building.

Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I believe that we’re all better off if we take a few deep breaths before indulging in anger even among people we know will “get it.” In my experience that tends to build frustration rather than build solutions. I’m much more interested in work that is directly useful to solving a problem at hand; angry rants are usually only going to resonate with the people who already agree. Anyone else is likely to hear them as an attack unless they’ve got a remarkably thick skin and far-sighted politics, which clearly the targets of this one do not, almost by definition. (By that I don’t mean “men” in general, but rather, the clueless jerks that have clearly inspired Kettetastic’s rant.)

If I were to put that list in far less inflammatory tones, it would read as follows.

***

(For the record, I would define “feminist space” as any space in which the predominant topic of concern is feminism, regardless of the genders of that space’s participants.)

1. Respect that the primary concern of feminism is women’s experience and women’s rights (however broadly you may define the term “woman”). While patriarchy affects all people negatively, most feminist spaces are not the appropriate space to focus lots of attention on discussions of men’s suffering. As men (and people of many other genders) definitely have a lot to gain from deconstructing and analyzing masculinity and maleness, and at learning about the ways in which societally enforced gender-polarized constructs work to keep us all trapped in rigid roles, I strongly encourage you to form men’s groups to discuss those issues. In recent years some interesting new theoretical work has been done on these topics and it’s well worth looking at.

2. Everyone holds privilege of one sort or another, whether it’s about skin colour, gender, class, economic status, marital or family status, sexual orientation, perceived attractiveness, employment, able-bodiedness, age, culture, religion, education, language abilities, or any number of other factors that cause us to hold our position on the scale of social value. In addition, the whole of a given person’s privilege is greater than the sum of its parts, as is the whole of a given person’s lack of privilege. As a man, you hold male privilege (to varying degrees and in varying situations depending on those other factors). Feeling guilty about that isn’t very helpful, and neither is pretending it’s not there. What’s most useful is if you can find ways to acknowledge it, analyze it, and use it as needed to help rather than hinder feminist and other progressive goals. It’s a complex process but it’s crucial to your ability to act as a strong and conscious ally.

3. As an ally, aim to spend much more time listening than speaking. It’s never a good idea to take up more than your fair share of space, and even less so when you’re doing ally work with a group of people who have a type and range of life experience that you don’t share. When you do speak or contribute, please respect that most (though not all) men have not directly experienced sexism and its intersections with other forms of oppression, and so your point of view is likely to be lacking a grounding in lived experience and its resulting level of consciousness about the issue at hand. As such, please speak from an awareness of the limits you face in you ability to contribute.

4. It’s unfortunate but true that many men are raised in such a way that they feel a sense of entitlement to speak and act with an authority they don’t have, and many women are raised to cede space to men even if they’re more informed on an issue or more competent to handle an endeavour. Being aware of this can help you consciously and respectfully manage the way you contribute to a discussion and avoid steamrolling over the people you’re aiming to support.

5. Try not to get defensive. Remember that women expressing frustration with the patriarchy is not a personal attack on you, and there’s no need to respond as such. If you do so, you’re likely to violate rules 1-5. (Note that this one I left intact from the original post—I think the author expresses this quite accurately. Feminism is indeed about countering a system of oppression.)

6. If you haven’t studied much feminist theory or familiarized yourself with the various sides of current feminist issues and debates, it’s wise to do so using your own resources rather than relying on the individual or collective energies of feminist activists to do that work for you. When a given group is operating with an assumption of a shared level of understanding among its members, if you notice that you’re not at that same level, do some research to figure out how to get there (this can include asking for suggestions on good places to start) but don’t slow the group’s momentum by asking them to personally invest their time in bringing you up to speed. Thousands of feminists have put their writing and other efforts out there for people who want to learn from the ground up; your job is to make the most of those resources. If you find that this idea sounds like too much work, or if you feel annoyed that the feminists near you aren’t willing to devote their energies to helping you out personally, re-read suggestions 1-5 and put some thought into your sense of entitlement or privilege.

7. When entering a feminist debate, remember that what might feel like an intellectual or humourous exercise to you might carry a much stronger emotional charge for the people who have experienced sexism and related oppressions all their lives. Some people feel that inflammatory contributions to a conversation help move the discussion along, but in reality they are often just disrespectful and upsetting. If feminists often react to you with a distinct lack of appreciation for your contribution, you may want to question whether your tone is appropriate for accomplishing the work at hand, or if it’s just serving to incite justifiably negative reactions that sap the energies of positive, progressive activists.

8. When entering the territory of feminist discussion, assume that your colleagues have considerable experience and/or knowledge on the topic at hand. Even if they don’t, it’s a much more considerate way of approaching a discussion (with anyone, not just feminists) than speaking from a place of presumed expertise. While your ideas and suggestions are surely welcome, please convey them in a tone of respect without assuming you have a solution nobody has thought of. For example, a suggestion starting with “Perhaps you’ve tried this already, but what about xyz?” will go over much better than “Well, clearly you need to be doing xyz.”

9. There is a wide range of diverse experiences and views within feminism; its hallmark is its diversity. With this in mind, avoid making (or believing) wide, sweeping generalizations and assumptions about feminism and women, as they’re almost guaranteed to be inaccurate. They’re also intellectually lazy.

10. Call out other men on sexist behavior. This is the best way to put theory into practice, and is a way to use your male privilege for good! If you’re claiming to be a feminist on one board and then laughing when your friends make sexist jokes, you should question your sincerity, and expect that feminists probably will too. (Note that I also left this one largely intact from the original post.)

11. Understand that just because you call yourself a feminist doesn’t mean that you’re exempt from these suggestions. Do some sincere critical thinking if you find yourself aligning your politics with easy-to-swallow “feminist” statements that make you feel secure in your belief that you don’t have much work to do. We all have work to do around our own privilege, and defending one’s unwillingness to engage with that work by using the vocabulary of a progressive movement is dirty pool indeed. In particular, if you find yourself strategically dropping references to your feminist politics to impress a woman you find attractive, please stop. Actions speak far louder than words. If it’s true, you’d be quite simply living it—you shouldn’t have to advertise it.

12. Follow these suggestions without expecting recognition or reward. You shouldn’t be behaving appropriately because you crave a feminist stamp of approval—you should be behaving appropriately because it’s the respectful thing to do. This doesn’t mean nobody will appreciate your efforts; surely they will. But dissecting one’s privilege is a lifelong project, not a merit badge, and behaving respectfully is a way of living, not a party trick to be performed for applause.

***

As I wrote earlier, I believe there is definitely a place for anger and ranting and nasty satire, but that place is not in the realm of genuine and effective efforts at coalition-building. For all that I’m white and hold all sorts of other privilege, I’ve also had plenty of occasions to be angry at the ways I’ve been oppressed on the grounds of being young, being female, presenting as mostly-femme, experiencing poverty, being queer, and being partnered with women and trans people. And I am definitely no stranger to the rant, both as an appreciative reader and as a writer.

But I’m also an activist, and I’ve seen first-hand that anger is often misused in activist work in ways that are counterproductive to the purpose at hand. Anger is great for mobilizing a group of oppressed people to action; depending on how it’s manifested, it can also make for great news footage. For instance, ACT-UP’s work holds some great examples of how anger can be incredibly productive when it’s channeled as a powerful creative force.

But directing anger at your potential allies as a strategy for educating them? No matter how justified the anger, that’s not going to work, apart from perhaps with some highly exceptional people who might be able to get past their own defensiveness. Fight or flight are the most basic human responses to anger and aggression, and neither of those gets the intended “target” thinking about the issues at hand, let alone sympathizing with the cause or doing inner work to tackle their own privilege. So from a very basic and practical standpoint, aggression is simply not the most useful approach.

I won’t get too deeply into the particulars of pacifist strategies for activism—I admit my own lack of expertise in the history of such things. What I can say, though, is that sometimes anger-based activism leads to situations where it’s really hard to tell who the bad guy is. If we actually look at the spirit behind Audre Lorde’s well-known quote “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” we must recognize that simply appropriating violent means (and by this I mean both physical and verbal violence) to get our point across does nothing but perpetuate a system in which violence is an acceptable way to gain power. I don’t think oppressive tactics are somehow warranted because a given group is being victimized, except perhaps in the most dire and immediate instances of need for self-defense.

I’ve also frequently seen anger being used as its own form of privilege in activist circles. Activists who use it inappropriately often steamroll discussions among their own groups and shut down or exclude the people who might propose other strategies for action; the one who rants loudest is often seen as the most politically progressive when in truth they’re just taking up all the space (and sometimes all the resources). I’ve also seen anger-instead-of-education approaches devastate the efforts of some really excellent groups that wound up completely fractured and in fact alienating the very people they were created to support.

I’ve watched activist endeavours turn into absolute train wrecks because of rampant infighting between people who had varying degrees of education on certain issues when the more educated couldn’t simply take a deep breath, employ some patience and outreach skills, and help their less-educated peers along the road to a better-fleshed-out understanding of anti-oppression work. I can’t even imagine how dismal the success rate is of such holier-than-thou activists when it comes to effecting real change in the rest of the world if they can’t even show some willingness to work with the people who are already on board with the cause. In a very real way, some anti-oppression activists set up a hierarchy in which they feel entitled to belittle and attack those who are less aware of oppression issues—a poisonous and insidious repetition of the very types of oppressive power structures those activists purport to be challenging, bolstered by self-righteousness and a sense of moral superiority that frankly disgusts me.

Does this mean I would deny the victims of oppression the right to feel and express anger? Not at all. In fact, if those of us who’ve been battered by an oppressive world don’t find a way to let out the anger that builds up from the experiences we’ve had, it’ll eat us up inside, which means we’re basically perpetuating the victimization our oppressors have inflicted on us. I simply argue that anger can be expressed in healthy and productive ways, and that the strength that comes from anger can be harnessed and channelled into a fierce determination to heal, to care for ourselves, and to change the world. Anger most definitely does have its place, but that place is not in attacking our potential allies.


4 thoughts on “the role of anger in activism

  1. Excellent! Yes, it’s important to channel anger the right way. People who could otherwise learn something and improve their thinking and conduct often simply become defensive when they are called on their behaviour in angry, vindictive ways. It’s important to remember that, in many cases, people who seem to have no clue . . .really *don’t* have a clue. It might not be malicious, they just haven’t been exposed to another way of behaving or thinking.

    All that being said, I think that everyone and every group is entitled to little rant sessions : ) We all have to vent sometimes to get it out of our systems and move on to more productive things. I do it sometimes and I can’t stand when people tell me that I’m taking things the wrong way, etc. I spend the rest of my time fighting ignorance in a painfully patient way (I deal with young adults who often think they know everything) so I feel entitled to my little rantings in small doses, around friends who will hopefully understand🙂 And I support my friends in their little rant sessions as well.

  2. I actually liked the original, but I like your rewording much better. I’d recommend male allies actually read both, in reverse order (e.g., the rewording first).

    One of my first experiences in activism, when I was younger and had less self-respect, was when I was told forcefully by a non-activist lesbian whom I respected that I had authority and entitlement issues, and should not play an active role in pro-LGBT/feminist activism. I shrugged, assumed she was right, and backed away.

    Then 8-10 months later I was asked to serve as a NOW officer, and I pretty much decided that any unresolvable authority and entitlement issues I might have were probably ones that I could put to the service of feminist activism. I like to think I’m a reasonably effective ally; my fellow local activists certainly seem to think so.

    There was a NOW meeting Saturday where I–as usual–had a lot to say. What I intentionally did, though, was wait until everyone else had finished speaking to say it–not because that was my strategy as a male ally, but because I was interested in what they had to say. And I think that’s the key for male allies. It’s not that you have to shut up, hate yourself, behave like a submissive, wall off, back off, fuck off, or otherwise disengage. It’s that you just have to learn how to care more about what other people are doing and what other people are saying and what other people want. Make that the focus of why you’re there–treat everybody like a scholar-celebrity, in other words, whether she’s a 70-year-old retired chapter president or a freshman NOW-CAN member–and the Thou Shalt Nots that male allies hear when they read articles like the original draft will come naturally most of the time.

    This is a skill that men need to learn anyway, I think, whether they plan to get involved in feminist-identified spaces or not. It’s not about silencing yourself because it’s not about you in the first place–pro or con. It’s about being genuinely interested in other people’s lives and words and values. To male allies who aren’t interested yet, I would say fake it ’til you make it but plan to make it–because it’s a much better way to live, IMHO.

    Of course I’m referring mainly to face-to-face interaction. I pretty much suck on the blogosphere because there’s no way to actively listen in a written medium–you read, then you respond. The interaction is limited. I’m much more comfortable among actual flesh-and-blood feminist activists than I am on feminist blogs, where nobody will ever really get to know me as a person.

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