When I was at West Chester, I performed in the Vagina Monologues as part of my initiation into left wing feminist lesbianism. Appropriately, I was cast in the role of the “angry” vagina. That particular monologue began with me marching down the center aisle of the theater as intermission wound down and shouting, at the top of my lungs:
“My vagina is ANGRY!”
I went on to explain.
“It is. It’s pissed off. My vagina’s furious and it needs to talk. It needs to talk about all this shit. It needs to talk to you. I mean what’s the deal – an army of people out there thinking up ways to torture my poor-ass, gentle, loving vagina. Spending their days constructing psycho products, and nasty ideas to undermine my pussy. Vagina Motherfuckers.”
I still feel guilty for the woman who was sitting in the front row the first evening who jumped up when I shouted while walking past her. She actually squeaked out the words “Oh dear! I’m sorry!” and then flopped down in her chair.
I’m still angry. I see shit all the time that pisses me off. Even my article from earlier this week was a reaction to things that I was reading that just made me go all Mrs. White in reaction.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting mad. I’m pretty sure that getting mad is a prerequisite for getting any kind of change started. And I also think that it’s a pretty natural and acceptable reaction to having someone tell you that your cares or concerns are not valid ones.
But a lot of people seem to think that anger is a bad thing. There’s the trope about the angry feminist or the angry black guy. It’s super damaging to think of anger in that way. Anger is a necessary human emotion. Especially when you spend a lot of time advocating for social justice. But the idea of anger as a bad guy in any given situation gets used maliciously a lot.
For example, here is an argument that I see very often on the internet:
Person 1: *posts a very heartfelt comment about an article relating to an area of social justice that they feel passionately about* Very frequently this person is posting about a group to which they are closely tied (i.e. a woman posting on feminism or a person of color posting on issues having to do with race).
Person 2: *calls into question the relevance of that article* Very frequently this person is someone with no skin in the game (i.e. a man commenting on feminism or a white person commenting on issues of systemic racism).
Person 1: *responds calmly, explaining the relevance as thoroughly as possible*
Person 2: *calls into question the relevance of the article*
Person 1: *continues calmly explaining, despite rising frustration and anger at being willfully misunderstood*
Persons number 1 & 2 will repeat the last two steps until this happens:
Person 2: *continues to calmly call out the issues raised by the article and/or the relevance of it existing at all*
Person 1: *gets pissed off and starts being snarky or mean or swearing because they have had enough*
Person 2 at this point will say some variation of “why are you so angry?” or “I never called you any names” or “let’s keep it civil.” And at that point, Person 1 might as well just throw in the towel as far as the second person is concerned. Because the second you get visibly angry, you have lost the argument. I don’t necessarily think that is true, but the person who started the whole controversy tends to flounce off at that point, assured in their innocence and suffering at the hands of the big mean social justice warrior or whatever.
The exchange above is an example of tone policing, the whole concept and execution of which makes me super angry, and here’s why. It’s super easy for Person 2 to remain calm. They have no stake in the discussion. Except maybe their own perception that they are somehow losing rights to women or people of color as those groups gain rights. But that’s not how rights work, so we will just ignore that nonsense. But for people whose lived experiences are tied closely to the things they talk about and share with the world, these are not objective issues. They are the solid facts of their everyday world. And having them dismissed out of hand would be enough to make anybody angry.
As a person who frequently plays the role of Person 1 in discussions like this one, I can say that conversations like these are also exhausting. And when the other person persists in putting forth their idea that the very real bullshit you are dealing with in your life does not exist or is not valid for some reason, it’s really hard not to fly off the handle. I’ve gotten better at in recent years, but even now I will admit to having a pretty short fuse when it comes to this kind of obnoxious behavior.
So let me close by saying this: If you see someone somewhere being tone policed, call the person out who is doing the policing. And stand up for the person who is being told that their feelings are somehow invalid because they are frustrated and upset. Having those conversations is exhausting. Defending yourself and your group of humans against relentless attacks on the validity of their concerns is a battle that never seems to end for some segments of our communities.
If you want to be an ally, stand up for the people around you and help lift the burden that they are carrying when you can. Remember that you can safely walk away from conversations that they will spend their entire lives fighting about. So take some of your energy and give it to them if you are able.
Spread the love and support around when you can, kids. It never goes amiss.