On being an activist and being angry (and sometimes messing it up)

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things quite heavily over the last week, things that I consider very important: activism, feminism, anger, compassion. Trying to incorporate all of those into my life, and sometimes really messing it up.

I’m not sure which bit to start with, so I guess I’ll go with ‘activism’ and ‘feminism’ first, because they’re still the easiest ones to talk about.

Activism has always been important to me. I don’t see the point, for myself, of being able to see things in the world around me that I don’t agree with and not doing something to try to change them. I’ve never been able to just accept the status quo, and I guess that’s what has made me an activist. I’d like to think that it’s actually possible to change the world for the better, and that I can somehow do my bit. And that in a way, I’m obligated to do my bit.

Feminism has been the main outlet for activism over the past few years, because I can see  that we live in a patriarchy that still inherently privileges masculinity over femininity and pits men and women as polar opposites, and I think that does a lot of damage. To women, but also to men, though not as strongly. It’s something that makes me angry, and something I think can be changed. There’s no point getting angry about something you can’t change, after all. So I try to be part of that change and to actively bring it about.

But what I really want to talk about in this post is anger, and I don’t think I’ve really posted on it before in depth. Because I see anger as central, as so important, and it’s something that people I talk to sometimes don’t seem to understand well.

Being a feminist for me arises out of anger, because I see how something does damage to someone, or a group of people and I’m not ok with it. I’m angry. For me, it’s that anger that gives me the energy to do something, to speak up, to act instead of just watching. If I don’t, then that anger just sits there and boils away within me, and that’s not how I want to live. I don’t want to be bitter and angry, I want to use my anger to make myself change things.

In feminism, anger in particular is vital, because it underpins the central concept of feminist activism – anger at injustice and action arising from that anger. And it’s essential that we speak up and make ourselves heard, even if we are angry while doing so, because anger is something that has traditionally been denied women (and all other oppressed and marginalised peoples). Expression has only been allowed when it fits into the dominant cultural paradigm that (generally) white, straight, cis men have deemed appropriate. As Tigtog wrote at Hoyden About Town just the other day:

The defenders of the status quo want us to stop speaking out about these inequalities. The defenders of the status quo want us to stop making our anger visible to them, with no concern for what swallowing that anger does to us as we experience those inequalities perpetuated.

We need to get angry, and we need to use that anger to fuel us when we go out and march, or when we blog, or when we speak – wherever and whenever we see something happening that hurts other people – without feeling the need to be nice and polite about it, without needing to appeal to everyone. People often say that no-one will listen to you if you’re angry, as if anger automatically negates anything of worth in what you have to say. But as Ellie Mae O’Hagan’s recent piece in the Guardian argues:

For a long time now, feminists have been told that their message will never spread to the masses if the messenger appears to be an angry man-hating lesbian shouting the odds from a gender studies seminar room. But we need to realise that popular, non-threatening feminism is destined for failure as well… When feminists decide they want to appeal to everybody, what they are really doing is attempting to appeal to men, as culture in a patriarchy is defined by male values and male norms. Feminism that prioritises popularity over its own integrity will necessarily fail.

I agree with O’Hagan completely – and yet, we also need to keep the anger political, even if the activism still needs to be personal as well.

I’m not sure if that makes any sense, but what I mean is this: it’s easy to be angry at someone for something they say that is offensive, or sexist, or racist. But a lot of the time that person is probably just repeating something they’ve seen or heard, something that the dominant system (patriarchy, or capitalism, or heteronormativity) accepts as common use, and that they don’t automatically associate with hurting someone or contributing to a harmful idea. And so compassion comes into the picture, because just attacking that person is not really going to get you anywhere in the scope of activism. If anything, it’s just going to lose you friends.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is because there have been instances in the past few months where I’ve forgotten that, and I’ve messed up in my activism. And it has cost me some friends, and a bit of self-respect as well. There have been times where I’ve directed my anger at the person, and not the concept. In some cases I’ve then taken the comments or situations that made me angry and turned them public by blogging about them. I’ve gotten caught up in how something is hurtful to a group of people and not even stopped to think about upsetting the person (or people) I’ve just put up for attack and ridicule.

For that, I want to apologise. It’s never my intention with any of my blogging to attack people personally, or to make them feel upset or hurt, but I realise that I’ve done so in the past with some of the things I’ve posted. I’m sorry.

I’m not going to stop being an activist, or a feminist, or being angry, or calling people out on things, because those things are very important to me, and I still want to do my best to change the world. But I will stand up to the fact that I mess up as an activist and as a feminist too, and I forget that anger isn’t helpful when used to attack people personally. And I’ll try to learn from messing up as best I can, and not make the same mistakes in the future. I think that’s my duty to those whom I’ve upset, and to the world.

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10 thoughts on “On being an activist and being angry (and sometimes messing it up)

  1. I don’t like the implication that the goal or at least the main byproduct is to alienate men. By saying that feminism which appeals to men is doomed to failure, that’s the consequence, intended or not.

    I have to be honest, my hackles have recently been raised (by others, not you) whose anger is expressed in a way in which it seems they believe that the moral “rightness” of their argument means they have no obligation to express it in a reasonable manner.

    The way this effects me is simple but yet when I tried to explain it it seemed to be unable to be understood. Basically, I am a young white male. My identity as a person is tied up with this group, for better or worse. So when I hear vitriolic, accusatory statements made against them, whether anybody likes it or not I feel responsible, guilty, as if these statements were directed at me (much like when your primary school teacher yells at those who haven’t done their homework; even though you aren’t one you still feel bad.) And that’s the rub; I have never raped, oppressed or discriminated against anybody consciously, not just on gender grounds but on race, sexuality etc. either. I am not old enough to have been a part of the generations of human beings responsible for all of the grand grotesque acts of oppression throughout history. Not only have I not been actively responsible for these bad things, I have endeavoured ALWAYS to avoid passive occurrences of these things.

    And yet, by being a man, by being white, by being 18-35, by being straight and by being upper-middle class I am immediately associated with and accused – sometimes implicitly, sometimes not – of being “part of the problem”.

    These categories sum up my entire identity! How else can I feel about it?! When I am judged for these things before that person even knows me, I feel that I am legitimately being discriminated against just as much as anyone is for not being these things.

    I am just as horrified / upset / angry about these things as anyone else, so when people get angry and in my face about them, I get very upset, and yet they talk to me as if they’re looking at the very embodiment of the target of their own frustrations, as if I am the patriarchy personified.

    1. Hi Scoon,

      I don’t believe there’s anything in my post implying that I think men need to be alienated, or that alienating men is feminism’s sole goal. I don’t really think that’s going to get anyone anywhere. Perhaps a better word for ‘appeals’ would be ‘bends’ – if feminism starts only fighting those battles which men (speaking collectively for men within the system of patriarchy, not individual men) deem appropriate and nonthreatening, then it’s not worth much, is it, because it’s not going to change anything.

      I understand that it must be frustrating to be seen by some people as the embodiment of what you’re against, and it’s a bit narrow-minded of the people that do that to you. But on the other hand, that privilege is privilege you have, and although it sucks, it’s not comparable to the violence and systemic discrimination that the people who don’t have that privilege face. The people accusing you might have faced those things themselves, and you can’t assume that they’re just angry for no reason (just like they shouldn’t assume you’re the embodiment of patriarchy).

      Anyway, I don’t feel that continuing along these lines in this comment thread is particularly relevant to the post itself, so in the sake of not de-railing, I’ll leave this discussion to be had via email, if you want to continue it.

  2. Hi Jo. First off, I think this is a fantastic post. I think you’ve really made it clear that you intend to continue fighting for what you believe in, but also that you don’t want to harm others in the process. That is really fantastic, and courageous. That said, I have a question or two.

    First, let me acknowledge that I am privileged, as a white heterosexual, married, Christian male. The only way I could be more privileged is if I were rich. So I want to make it really clear that I do not seek to denigrate you, your values, or your achievements as an activist. I believe in the principles of feminism, though I think it would be a tad presumptuous for me to say that I am feminist myself– I recognise that the movement is primarily female, as it should be. Yet I support the principle of gender equality, as any rational person will.

    However, I question the efficacy of anger as a means to convince the privileged. Please understand, I am not trying to tell you how to be an activist. I do not deny your right to anger. Anger is a perfectly valid response to injustice. I am simply telling you how I respond to angry blog posts, in the interests of improving communication between us.

    Even in my privilege, I am not a person who enjoys confrontation. Being confronted by a wall of anger tends to provoke a flight/fight response in me, as it does in most people. Some fight, most flee. It takes an unusual level of courage for a privileged person to overcome the fight/flight impulse, and understand why the underprivileged person is angry. I can do it, most of the time. But the sad reality is, most people are not capable of overcoming that instinct. Bearing that in mind, I cannot help but wonder whether anger is an effective rhetorical platform for convincing the privileged. I don’t like getting yelled at. Do you?

    It seems like an angry blog post, no matter how well intentioned, achieves nothing but to provoke a chorus of back-slapping and high-fives from people who are already angry about the issue you’re angry about. That is important, of course, as it is wonderful to see the outpouring of such support. But at the same time, it fails utterly to convince people who may not automatically see something to be angry about. Also, anger can be a powerful motivator for immediate action, because it provokes a flood of adrenaline which enables one to act on impulse. But the type of changes you want to make are long-term, not short-term. In most people, anger doesn’t last. Especially when you don’t have to live with the reality of the problem every day. I get the impression that you’re trying to change deeply ingrained injustices, and personal prejudices. In other words, you’re trying to change the way people think, their inmost selves. I don’t know about you, but I would not make such an important decision impulsively, in much the same way one should not drive while blind with rage.

    To that end, I am far more likely to be moved by appeals to my sense of justice, ethics, logic, and above all else, my love for others. When I open a blog and find my monitor is covered with coarse language and incoherent ranting, my first instinct is to close the window. When I feel I am being deliberately provoked, I’ll walk away. Does that make sense? I understand your determination, and I think it’s fantastic. But I just… Don’t like being angry.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to tell you what to do… Accept my thoughts, reject them, talk about them with me. It’s up to you what you do with them. I hope I’m not being patronizing, and I apologise if I am.

    Well done again on such a great post, and I will talk to you soon. 🙂

    1. Hi Futurus,

      thanks for your well-considered feedback on my post. I’m glad you liked it overall! Apologies that it has taken me this long to respond to you, as you know I’ve been rather busy, and I didn’t want to leave a half-hearted reply.

      I think you’ve raised some very pertinent issues about the way activism is done, which I believe sometimes help to account for why activism doesn’t always get us where we want to be. It can be hard as an activist to acknowledge that the gulf created by privilege can make communication difficult, especially when people inevitably take things personally. While I don’t necessarily agree with you on the point that most people aren’t capable of overcoming the fight/flight instinct when challenged (because I have a great deal of faith in people, even highly privileged people, and their abilities to step into another’s shoes), I can see where you are coming from.

      In a way, and angry blog post can be a lot more effective than an angry one-on-one conversation or outburst, because it’s something that (ideally) still maintains a degree of impersonality – it’s not you, the reader, that the writer is getting mad at. That should, ideally, be more effective than writing an angry email to someone. (And I acknowledge that this is where I have failed in the past – in making posts on specific topics too personally directed.) That said, sometimes people need to be made a little uncomfortable for any message to have an impact. Emotions can effect things that logic and reason alone can’t always manage (as Cicero has taught me). Especially with issues around sexism, racism, or any inequality, a touch of personal and emotional investment is often not only effective, but necessary for someone to start thinking about something in more depth. You can’t change someone’s inner way of thinking without challenging them to some extent.

      I also think there are more and less effective ways that anger can be channeled, though, and perhaps I didn’t make that clear enough in my original thoughts. As you say, anger at a person specifically, especially at a person with a higher level of privilege to you, often doesn’t achieve much. And I don’t really advocate anger in close interpersonal interaction, because I know that doesn’t end well. There are times when measured rhetoric are much more effective. At other times, in less personal contexts (such as rallies, protests, writing for wide audiences), anger can be pretty effective on public display, as long as it doesn’t lash out at people specifically. I guess this is what I mean by political anger. And yes, anger in this context is also a means of showing support and solidarity, though you may find it’s not always as self-congratulatory as your comment seems to imply (though I’m sure that wasn’t your intention).

      There really is a difference, however, in being angry and expressing yourself through anger. And it’s the first that I think is important. As I said in the post, anger is a motivator, a show of solidarity, a call to action. However, one can (in most cases) control the expression of anger. You’re perfectly right, yelling at someone will probably just make them want to yell back or run away. But I can be angry and still communicate effectively, if I use my anger as the thing that motivates me and keeps me going rather than as my platform. I’d like to think that most of the time, I manage to do that with this blog, and in real life as well, and that my posts aren’t just ‘incoherent ranting’ and filled with coarse language. It’s not always easy to be angry and yet still be patient, but it’s very doable. I want to provoke people into thinking – even if that means pushing someone outside their comfort zone a little – but I don’t want to deliberately provoke them.

      It seems that even though I’ve had days to think about this, I’m still not doing a very good job of putting my thoughts into writing. I hope that you can find something in here that makes sense, though.

      1. Hey Jo,

        Thanks for replying. I really appreciate it. I see what you’re saying. Let me just qualify a couple of things, though. First, I in no way meant that solidarity is self-congratulatory, and I’m sorry if that was the implication. I will admit that ‘back-slapping and high-fives’ might not have been the most apt way of expressing the idea. That’s a good example of a rhetorical flourish gone awry. I simply mean that anger seems to be more effective as a rallying point than as a means of convincing the privileged. That’s just as important, of course, but I wonder if maybe one’s rhetoric is more effective if more sharply tailored to suit the demands of the receivers. It’s difficult to convince privileged people AND reach out to those already convinced at the same time: perhaps it is more effective to make it clear what your intention is. Does that make sense?

        Next, I want to make it clear that I didn’t mean to suggest that your blog consists of incoherent ranting, or primarily consists of coarse language. Admittedly, coarse language does appear here on a semi-regular basis, but your words are entirely your prerogative. Your posts are, on the whole, very coherent, and I have not seen you lash out in unmitigated rage here.

        Anyway, I meant no disrespect.

      2. I didn’t think thast either of those would be the case! Thanks for clarifying, though. Your point on audience and rhetoric is a very valid one – I definitely think this has made me realise that a lot more clearly! And I will endeavour to keep thinking about it in the future.

        I didn’t realise that I actually do swear an my blog sometimes…. It’s funny, because when I do I always feel really self-conscious about seeing it in writing. Hmm.

        Anyway, thank you again for taking the time to respond and help me sort this topic out in my.head! 🙂

  3. I often feel like I mess up sometimes too. But just because you get something wrong, or someone you respect disagrees with you, is no reason to stop trying! You do great work here, please keep it up 🙂

    1. Thanks, canbebitter. Getting things wrong is definitely no reason it stop trying – if anything, it makes me more determined to keep at it and get it right in future.

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