“The Count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well, but civil count, civil as an orange..” – William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
When I was growing up the quickest way I could I get my father to shut down was to cry. If we were having a disagreement and tears started, he would go into a rage. Tears are manipulative, he would tell me. We wouldn’t talk about this again until I calmed down. Expressing any big negative emotion, with or without tears, would get the same kind of response. Calm down. Stop being hysterical. Pull yourself together. Be reasonable. I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.
I’d like to insert here, before I go further, that this is not an “I had a wretched childhood” post, nor is it a condemnation of my father’s parenting. Compared to my grandfather, my father was a revolutionary feminist. My cousin recently told me that her mom often said of my grandfather “Wes thought women were not…” So, the fact that his son, my Dad, loved having daughters and encouraged them to be all they can be and never let anyone tell them they couldn’t do anything, is frankly massive.
But it’s also true that he, like a LOT of people, absorbed the idea that negative emotion, particularly from women, is not OK. It’s manipulative. It’s irrational. It’s hysterical. The only reasonable reaction to anger is to shut it down, to walk away, to refuse to engage. Not surprisingly, I therefore learned from a very young age that to be angry de-legitimizes whatever it is that I’m upset about. Ideas communicated in anger are rightfully dismissed. The only valid way to express an opinion is calmly, rationally and humbly. Please listen to this thing which I have reason to believe is important and here is my infinite list of facts and statistics to back up what I’m saying and I know you think otherwise but I respectfully request that you consider my perspective if it’s not too much trouble.
Consciously or unconsciously this is how I’ve operated for most of my life. It’s how I still operate, honestly. Negative emotions are WRONG. If you’re feeling anger, you’re probably being totally unreasonable. The only thing to do with anger is to stuff it down, waaaaaay down. You can’t let people know you’re angry or they won’t take you seriously, they shouldn’t take you seriously.
(On a completely unrelated note, I smoked on and off for almost 30 years. I’m on 3 antidepressants and 2 anti-anxiety meds. I’m significantly overweight, and eating my feelings is my favorite pastime. But I’m sure that’s neither here nor there.)
I’d never really thought about this as deeply as I am now until we started having this national conversation about civility. I realized it was triggering a familiar feeling. An overwhelming feeling of powerlessness, of my voice being sucked away. I am angry about things that are happening in this world. I see an organized assault on my country and my neighbors and people about whom I care deeply. I want to scream from the rooftops, but my emotional handcuffs are strong. Don’t let them see you angry. Anger is a weakness.
It’s a neat trick, convincing people that one of the most powerful emotions they have is actually a weakness. Refusing to engage or actively attacking people BECAUSE they are angry is a coward move masquerading as a power move. Anger is an energy that drives people to demand change. Yet over and over we see people in power and even community members or neighbors or ourselves, whoever it is that’s being asked for help or action, continually respond “It’s possible you have a point but we can’t even engage with you because you’re upset, AND the fact that you’re upset is actually an attack against us that hurts our fee fees so now we won’t even talk to you until you get yourself together, think about what you’ve done and apologize for hurting our fee fees.”
For the people responsible for or capable of fixing the problem, this works out fantastically well. They don’t have to fix whatever the problem is, and they get to claim they’re being victimized by their victims. It’s a sick, tidy little package.
This post isn’t intended to be a partisan accusation, although denouncing people for being rude or uncivil or threatening or angry is certainly being used a lot at present. The truth is we all have done it. I’ve done it. I’ve looked at angry protesters and thought well, I understand their motives but how can they expect to succeed if they’re so angry? I’ve shied away from engaging in political groups and social movements. As soon as members of the groups start getting angry my subconscious straitjacket is engaged. Heyyyy I’m just here for positive social change. Anger isn’t useful. Anger de-legitimizes the cause. Your anger makes me uncomfortable because anger is bad. I have to go now.
I don’t know what this thing is. I don’t know if it’s a white thing, or a patriarchy thing or a power thing or a gender thing or a human thing. Perhaps it’s some social meme* that evolved to help keep society calm and orderly. I do know that this unwillingness to engage with anger, to react as if the emotion eradicates the validity of the argument, is poison.
I have no idea how to evolve beyond this as a society. As a person, I feel like I’m about to embark on a journey. A journey that requires me to deprogram everything I’ve learned about stuffing anger away. A journey that will lead me to embrace anger and the energy it provides. People fear anger because it can cause harm. It can destroy things. I fear anger. I fear being dismissed because I’m “too emotional”.
It’s also true that I do not owe people who are being uncivil my civility. I do not owe systems designed to injure people and strip them of their rights my compassionate understanding. As a citizen of this country I have a responsibility to be angry when harm is being caused in my name.
I don’t really know what accepting my anger looks like in practice. I do know that my inability to shake off my instinct that anger is weakness has left me frozen in how to respond to the world today. I know that I do not intended to start raging at everyone who doesn’t agree with me. But I also know that energy is a gift, and we need every resource at our disposal, including our anger.
* I use the term “meme” here in its accurate meaning, which is a non-genetically determined trait or behavior that is passed down through the generations.