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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Patriot with a capital P.

A few weeks ago I was meditating on the word “respect” and what it means, in practical terms.

And then Colin Kaepernick.

That narrative completely overtook both my swirling thoughts and the media message at large. So many opinions, so much vitriol. There are a lot of responses already on record, many of them succinct, adroit, or powerful in ways I could never hope to be. But I did come across a viewpoint that made me pause.

Someone said that a soldier who left part of themselves (literally) behind in service to this country was honestly and intensely hurt that the flag and ceremony that represents so much honor and sacrifice to them could be “disrespected” in that way.

First, I’d like to address the disrespect issue. Not participating is about the most respectful way to publicly protest. It interferes with no one’s observance. As an atheist, I don’t pray but when I find myself in situations where others do, I wait for them to finish. I can be militantly anti-theist in certain situations. I’ve been known to blatantly attack religious beliefs when and where they actively cause harm. But in a peaceful gathering of non-combatants (so to speak), I find that simply refraining from engaging in their ritual is enough to respect my own identity and keep the peace. I’ll be damned (again, so to speak) if I’m going to fake an observance to something that offends my intellect. The point isn’t that the ritual has no meaning, I’m fully aware of the intensity of meaning to the participants. Sitting it out makes a very clear statement about my own feelings on the subject, without inhibiting their ability to engage in their activity. Non-participation is the height of respect to everyone involved.

Let me say again that the point is not that the ritual has no meaning. It absolutely does. When it comes to the national anthem or pledge, I understand that for some, standing for the flag isn’t just rote indoctrination – it’s a symbol of sacrifice to something greater than themselves. I’m not so logical that I don’t recognize the value of symbolism. I get chills when I see missing man formations fly overhead, I get angry when I see a Nazi swastika. So I understand that the flag is a powerful symbol to those who’ve been steeped in the culture of American service.

Let’s go over exactly how “steeped” I am: I was married to and lived the military life with an enlisted career Army man. My brother proudly served in the Army. My father was in Viet Nam. One of my grandfathers was a Korean War veteran. My great-grandfather was a WWI veteran. My point is that when it comes to military service I’m well versed in the responsibilities and rituals that go along with that. Fortunately for me, part of my family culture is about honoring responsibilities, so while there is a healthy dose of American exceptionalism that overlaps military culture, I was also exposed to an equally healthy dose of personal responsibility and honoring one’s oaths. It’s not all guns and glory for me and mine – it never was. I’ve since diverged from my upbringing in precisely what I think my responsibilities as an American are, but that’s a different conversation.

I know good, decent, non-bigoted people who are truly hurt by the idea that someone could sit down in defiance of a ritual that, to them, affirms what is great about our country. I respect their emotions are real. In fact, that’s the point.

The point of choosing this very sensitive, ritualistic ceremony to highlight your dissent is to BE HURTFUL. It is meant to target people at their most vulnerable, their most unquestioning. Because that is how you challenge the status quo. I hate to break it to anyone who still has a romanticized view of the American civil war or civil rights movement in the 1960s, but those changes were not made via comfortable acts of politeness and respect. No oppressor was ever moved to change by the gentle supplications of the oppressed.

Telling Colin Kaepernick, or anyone else, to be respectful with their dissenting opinion is the same as telling me to pray because it makes people uncomfortable when I don’t. It’s the same as a man telling a woman to smile because it makes him feel better. It’s the same as telling people they must accept their lot simply because that’s the way it’s always been. Respect is not some magical, pre-defined set of rules that everyone agrees upon. Respect is defined by those in power. What happens when we don’t do those things? We challenge those in power.  Not standing for a pledge or an anthem challenges the power structure – and yes, that’s supposed to hurt.

Once more for the people in the back: You don’t change things by keeping everyone comfortable.

Comfortable is where complacency lives.

Complacency breeds contempt.

That’s a lot of slogans in a row, but I stand by every one of them. Unless I’m sitting during the anthem.  Rights are also responsibilities, and at the moment, Colin Kaepernick is the most patriotic man in the country.