Fanning Flames, and Soothing Burns

“Anger is like ice in a high ball glass. It’s a good place to start, but it’s not going to do much for you until you start filling in the spaces with something more substantial.”

-me, pretending like I’m some sort of person who drinks from a high ball glass.

Thanks to the current state of politics in this country, I encounter a lot of anger these days. Not so much from the conservative right, since I mostly avoid those people, and not so much from the centrist pacifiers who are mainly super privileged folks who can afford to check out when they’re feeling all kumbaya and shit. I get exposed to the bulk of other people’s anger coming from leftists, radical progressives, and the marginalized. Their anger is righteous, explosive, and burns about 100,000 times hotter than any Karen-who-wants-to-speak-to-the-manager. It’s pretty glorious to witness in certain situations – exploding like Vesuvius over decrepit old opinions in favor of the status quo. Or bearing down like a freight train on “devil’s advocates” or the willfully ignorant. Or standing like a mountain before an onslaught of anti-social hate speech. Anger fuels the resistance, and it is out-fucking-standing.

So here’s a funny little thing about that last metaphor, though. Does a car with only a gas tank run? I mean, fuel is essential, but it’s not the only thing, right? There’s also an engine, full of cooperative working parts. There are wheels – those are important to make it go, and usually a driver or navigator of some sort. There’s a whole system that in addition to anger, drives the vehicle of change. And let’s not overlook the other significant aspect of some fuels, which is that they can blow up in your goddamn face when deployed in unsafe situations.

It’s not for me to define what an unsafe situation is, nor how much fuel any one particular person (or movement) needs. And I definitely don’t remark on the justification for anger, or any other emotion for that matter. Feel what you feel, that’s everyone’s right. But I’ve been reflecting on the effectiveness of that anger for change as I watch friends and allies both get singed by the authentic and intense heat of justice-driven anger, and wondering where my personal line is.

To illustrate, I’m going to use a recent quote from the actor and outspoken advocate for progressive social policies, Chris Evans: “The hardest thing to reconcile is that just because you have good intentions, doesn’t mean it’s your time to have a voice.” I’ll be honest that my first reaction was along the lines of, “Congratulations, sir, for finally figuring out that your voice is not the most important one in the room. Here’s a cookie to celebrate – please choke on it.” Because I’m angry, dammit, that after 40-plus years of being talked over, ignored, condescended to and just generally disrespected as a woman, this is a “revelation” to some. Now extrapolate that feeling outward to people of color and their lived experience, to non-binary folx, to the disabled, to anyone whose life doesn’t fit into our highly restrictive society. That collective anger is justified – by which I mean having that anger may be the only justice some of us will ever see.

But how effective is using that anger to frame my reaction to Mr. Evans’s statement? Dude has a twitter following of almost 9 million. That quote was in the New York Times, which reaches over nine million readers. Even assuming that crossover is nearly 1:1, that’s nine million people who were exposed to a successful, admired celebrity saying that sometimes it’s best to shut up and listen. Not everyone will take his advice to heart, but I’ve also learned that when it comes to changing minds, a “spray and pray” approach to getting the message out is just as necessary as targeting strategy. So while my reaction to his statement is initially born of anger (even if the expression is more like eye-rolling annoyance), what’s the alternative? That he never say anything? That he just be born knowing how to dismantle the cis-heteronormative, racist, ableist, profit-driven and acquisitive society that gave him that platform? Or that he stay silent in his knowledge? In modern parlance, the guy is becoming woke – and I know from experience what a painful, awkward process that is in private, let alone when it happens in front of millions of people. What does denigrating his process accomplish?

Which isn’t to say that his process needs to be celebrated. It’s not a binary system, that if you’re not criticizing, you’re lavishing praise. But there are so many things to be angry about – why waste fuel on a car that’s already powering itself down the road?

I’ve been attacked and criticized for this point of view. I’ve been told that I’m giving the undeserving a pass, or that I’m engaged in some sort of convenience-morality whereby I cherry pick my causes. And you know what? There’s some truth to that. Because at this stage in my life, I’m aware that I don’t have an unlimited supply of energetic anger and that I’ve greatly benefited from being given an undeserved pass – both things informed my journey to where I am and probably continue to do so. Another aspect that informs my journey is my privilege, of which I have an outsized serving. As a white, cis-het woman who can pay her bills every month, the only way for my invisible knapsack to get any bigger would be if I was a gender-conforming male. I am not often the vulnerable target, and I think my non-negotiable moral duty is to communicate effectively on behalf of the vulnerable. Sometimes that means curbing my knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes I AM the vulnerable target, and I need others to communicate effectively for me. “Others” like rich white straight dudes with a massive platform.

My social circle includes a lot of activists who are angry a lot of the time. Mostly they’re a lot younger than me, which I think probably has its own post worth of material which I won’t get into here. The horrendous emotional and physical toll our country’s direction is having on them is heartbreaking to watch. Their anger bubbles over often and sometimes I make the judgement that it’s inappropriate. That’s dumb. The anger is theirs to have regardless of my arbitrary internal scale of acceptability. But it’s also true that other people I care about, allies not so far along in their process or genuinely kind-but-clueless friends and family are getting torched in the fire of righteousness. Some will come out stronger and smarter (most, probably, because that’s just the sort of person I associate with), but relationships will be hurt, too. The relationships that we’re all going to increasingly need as the fight for equality, access, and visibility lengthens and worsens. I’m not here to call anyone out – my observations of this phenomenon simply inspires me to share my perspective. And tomorrow I may post why sensitivity is misplaced when social justice is literally life or death.

For today, though, I want to be kind where I can.

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