Emotion and anger

“Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore…” –The SCUM Manifesto

It doesn’t really matter which row inspired me to finally write this post. It follows the same pattern every fucking time. Privileged person nakedly articulates something privileged or wrong or harmful. It pisses off those who are harmed by it–or those who know just how harmful such naked articulations of privilege can be. We express this. We are told not to be angry, or rude, to be rational and logical. It is all derailed. The privileged person fails to learn, change, grow, be better. They act as though they are the victim of some unreasonable mob, never giving a second’s thought to why people are angry.

To the privileged, an expression of an emotion in an argument is a sign of weakness. Being angry or sad, and showing it, is seen as a sign of having lost the argument, of being not worth talking to, of somehow having failed entirely as a person.

We are taught that debate must be calm and sterile. This position only benefits those who have the luxury of feeling nothing. It benefits those who have the luxury of disengaging and switching off. It benefits those who have the luxury of viewing oppression as an intellectual exercise rather than a grinding, frustrating, infuriating reality.

This society is shit. The system is shit. The future is fucking shit. It is perfectly normal to be angry about it, to scream and shout and swear. It is perfectly normal to cry tears of frustration or sorrow. It is perfectly normal to want to bellow a “fuck you” rather than try to reason with someone who is content with the way things are.

We are taught this is unreasonable because it is easier to maintain this system if we do not express these emotions, that we go on pretending that everything is up for debate in a manner which is often only accessible for those privileged enough to disengage. We are told that our frustration and fury is just the same as hate speech, when in fact it is not: it is frustration and fury against hate and oppression.

There is a gulf of difference between the anger felt upon having one’s privilege challenged, and the anger felt upon witnessing an expression of privilege and a replication of the power systems which have existed all along and nothing is changing. In both cases, these angers are legitimate. However, the former can go and fuck themselves in the eye for perpetuating this bullshit. Sort yourself out and try to be better. That’s what I did.

And yet we are stuck with, at best, these two responses being equated, when in fact they are nothing alike. At worst, the former is validated, and it is considered far worse to be called out on one’s privilege by someone who is rightfully pissed and not afraid to show it than to replicate oppressive power structures. This is the wrong way round, and you know what? It pisses me the fuck off.

Far from moaning about it, the privileged ought to understand why others are expressing emotion and not engaging on their terms. It is they, not us, who must learn to control themselves. It is they, not us, who need to improve.

We all need to learn that it is all right to feel the things we are told we ought not to feel and express the emotions we are told we ought not to express. That it is not a sign of weakness to snap in the middle of that same fucking conversation you have had a thousand times before, and this time is going as fruitlessly as the last. That this world sucks, and you’re paying attention, which means you have a panoramic view of the dimensions of suckiness.

Yes, you might not win any rows, and you certainly won’t win any friends, but you were unlikely to win these sorts of fights in the first place. That belief that everything is fine and dandy held by the privileged is unreasonable and impolite, and therefore reasonable, polite debate was never likely to persuade them.

What is certain is that we will win no wars through tone policing, and that emotion is a strong tool. This is precisely why those in power are so eager to suppress it.

26 thoughts on “Emotion and anger”

  1. Well I was rubbish at making my point on twitter, character limits etc so thought I’d make a slightly more coherent one here. Though you’re quite welcome to tell me I’m an idiot afterwards!

    I actually agree pretty much on all your points, whilst I am what I’m sure would be termed privileged I hope I can at least start to empathise with others. I can imagine there is a huge amount of pain and anger that can stem from words, even if those words are misjudged and unintentionally hurtful resulting from somebody having not thought through what they were saying. I can imagine there’s a huge temptation to vent that anger and shout and scream, especially when it happens for the n’th time that day. I can fully appreciate why I would be shouted at sometimes and I’m more than happy to be told I’m wrong and I’d happily modify my words after seeing an error, the last thing I would want to do is offend people without realising.

    However I will add a slight caveat to all this and clarify why I still believe politeness is essential. I’m making the assumption that the ultimate objective is a society of equality, tolerance etc? Assuming that’s the goal you’re working towards and most are working towards then yes it’s essential that those in minority positions feel included and that they drive the process. However the majority of the population are still what you’d call privileged, be they white or, male or whatever they are, those people still have to be brought along too ultimately. It’s not possible though to make all people believe in a cause by shouting and anger, this will repel as many as it attracts, if not more. You said yourself you might not win rows, or friends, I’m sure you’ll make yourself feel much better but will it do any good? I’m not so sure. The more people are educated, the more people will be on your side, the more people on your side the easier it will be to change society. Yes it might mean biting your lip but when it’s people who should ultimately be on your side anyway rather than some racist/sexist idiot who probably never will be, is that really such a bad thing? Vent the anger at the people who deserve it who will always be there but those who simply spoke without thinking or who simply need something pointed out, bring them along with you rather than alienate them to the cause.

    1. The thing you’re missing here, is it’s the job of the privileged to educate themselves, and people will stop yelling at them if they do it.

      1. While true, do you think that’s likely to happen anytime soon? Most people are just living their lives in a very insular fashion, they have all their own problems to deal with. I’m not saying it’s ideal by any means, simply that it could help if there was less shouting.

        1. As I pointed out, being polite is just as fucking pointless, particularly when you’re dealing with the utter unreasonable nonsense of privilege defence.

          1. The problem is that the worst people who spend all day being arseholes aren’t bothered about being angrily sworn at, in fact they’re probably used to it. They’ve actually constructed a view of the world where other people screaming abuse at them reassures them that their views are valid.

            I’m not saying you shouldn’t get angry at the arseholes, I’m saying we need better insults or to perfect the brown note or something.

          2. I think if you judge that someone may respond to reasoned argument better than anger then, strategically, that may make more sense. It doesn’t however change the fact that you have a right to be angry and that they shouldn’t dismiss you for expressing that anger.

  2. While I agree, the most heated arguments I tend to get into are with transphobic radfems, and usually both sides believe the other is on the side of privilege. I believe they are exercising cis privilege, they believe that trans women are exercising male privilege (which I am channeling by defending trains women). Things get heated, I object to being personally insulted, I get accused of tone policing. I understand why other women are sensitive to what they perceive as tone policing, but sometimes it feels like people use that as a get-out clause for being as personal and vindictive as they like against people they don’t even know. So while I completely agree with your analysis above, when both sides believe they are challenging privilege, it leads to some very nasty fights.

    I also always find it interesting how often there’s a special kind of anger reserved for those who are ideologically close to us but disagree on particular points. This isn’t just true of feminists – I was a member of social youth group when I was younger and while we hated capitalists, there was a special hatred reserved for other socialist groups with whom we had minor disagreements. Disagreement within a movement is healthy, but sometimes it seems like we spend more time fighting people who ought to be our allies than fighting our actual enemies, and I can’t help but think that if that happens, something is going badly wrong. That said, the “oh, but we’re all feminists, let’s stop arguing about intersectionality and fight patriarchy instead” response is frustrating in the extreme and missing the point entirely…

  3. The problem with this is that “righteous anger” is frequently used as a silencing tool. You see this particularly within feminist discussions on trans issues.

    There are (very) aggressive cis-lesbians and female trans-activists who frequently battle it out in a loud shouty manner, each accusing the other of oppression. In general they are the more confident within their respective communities, which leaves others on the sidelines to afraid to discuss in case some of that anger is directed at them.

    Quite often their behaviour is lauded within their respective communities and they retain a leadership position within it, but all that it does is drive wedges between intersectional oppressions. Part of overcoming oppression is not just to attack the dominant but to make space for the subordinate.

    “Politeness” is not necessary, but respect is, and sometimes there is a distinct lack of it.

  4. Ah yes, the tone argument – straight out of Derailing for Dummies:



    I get the ‘you’re being too emotional/angry’ comment all the time on my blog whenever I post about feminism. Over time, I realised what these people were doing – derailing the discussion and evading any real engagement or thought with the topic at hand. It’s a comfortable defence-mode they can easily fall back on.

    I think this pretty much says it all: http://portraitscollection.tumblr.com/post/39369705944/sunili-you-should-have-been-nicer-to-the

  5. One of the problems with expressing powerful emotions is that the person yelling is not always the person who is necessarily right – or with less privilege. Anger is also used to bully (and sadly, is the most common use of anger in my experience). In this cause, anger drives people away, or if they feel they can’t escape, their personal integrity is seriously diminished. If you have a legitimate gripe, sometimes, raising the tone of the argument could seem appropriate, if it were not for the fact that there will always be someone who can out bully, the most bullish of us. Anger is not necessarily an indicator of being right, and it often sets a bad precedent in my opinion.

    If we allow anger to become a legitimate means of expressing ourselves, how is it that we demonstrate we are any better than the bully who does this to intimidate others into appearing to agree with him and do what he says? If public debates become spaces where we can vent our anger at injustice by throwing insults at people who we think represent that injustice, how will they learn to be any better? Are we actually gaining any ground in this way – or are we simply destroying the capacity of social movements to grow beyond a marginal group of ultra-righteous radicals?

    Do you really believe that everyone who tells someone else not to be angry and rude is derailing a legitimate complaint? Some people can deal with anger more than others. Many of those who can deal with anger had to deal with it in their childhood (often due to difficult circumstances – but not always). Still, it is wrong to assume that everyone who can’t deal well with angry outbursts is privileged and should be forced to deal with it.

    Yes, certainly many of us have every right to be angry – but only by learning to channel our anger into strategic action will we effectively fight injustice. In most causes, I just don’t think rage directed at an individual will work to create a more just world. Although it might make you feel better, it can also do awful lot of harm by alienating people who might otherwise be sympathetic. I agree with Mhari, politeness is not necessary, but certainly respect is essential. In world where we desperately need to build solidarity, more respect – less unchannelled anger, would help.

    Finally, I should admit in all honestly, if most people I knew read this (they won’t) they would be astonished (as I am known for getting angry). I really I do try to repress this into more effective action these days. Anger is an powerful force – but really only if we can use it with extreme caution.

    1. It’s interesting, though, because to repress and to channel are exactly the same thing. It sounds like you’ve internalised a lot of the nonsense fed to you by the privileged. Understand that it’s OK to feel angry, and to express it even when you’re fully expecting it not to achieve anything.

    2. Its much easier to be angry at someone less privilaged overall – (so a white middle-class woman who goes apeshit at a Black toilet cleaner for calling her “love” say), than it is to express that anger at someone truely privilaged (that same cleaner expressing the same level of anger at the boss of their company when they make a racist remark).

      The ability to be angry and to face no serious repercussions for it is in itself a privilage.

  6. I think there’s sense on both sides – we shouldn’t be excessively angry/rude, for two reasons. Firstly, the person we direct anger at might not actually deserve it themselves. The anger from being mistreated is rarely justified at an individual. Secondly, it usually doesn’t help with making our case.

    At the same time, I would never say someone is wrong to be angry. Well, not never, but rarely. It depends how extreme the reaction got. Not doing exactly the right thing isn’t the same as doing wrong.

  7. Male, straight, middle class – I’m about as privileged as it gets. It was the anger expressed in such a discussion from people I respected that made me sit back, and think again about what was being said – about what *I* was saying. It made me shut up (For a little while) and learn. I’ve probably still got a way to go, but sometimes anger works.

  8. Jezz Stavvers, that’s a great place to start. Actually I have ‘not internalised lots of nonsense’ thanks. I repeatedly said that we have a right to be angry – so I don’t need to be told that I need to ‘understand its OK to feel angry’. At the moment for example, I am channeling my anger at you for having replied to me like this – as I find it extraordinarily condescending.
    Nevertheless, I know you are serious and well intentioned, so I will continue to try and make my point. Just because it is alright to feel anger, does not mean we can unleash our anger at individuals who have provoked us for some reason. I simply don’t think this is okay.

    ‘Channelling anger’ ≠ ‘represssing anger’. Certainly, repressing anger is harmful – to your psychological health and even your physical health. Channelling anger means that we feel anger and use this anger to motivate us towards doing something we feel strongly about that might be very difficult. Anger certainly drives most activism in my experience – but the best activism is when it is not random angry rants but organised, unflinching, dis-illusioned, fearless, non-naive, devoted, critical, trained and equipped. I think that anger, when it is not channeled effectively, can get in the way of properly organised activism and social movements. So this is why I responded to your post in some detail.

    You make a few assumptions based on my comment that are simply untrue. My point was that we must aim to try to communicate with each other with respect; not jumping to conclusions and throwing insults is a good place to start. You did not answer any of questions, so I wonder if you took my comment on board at all? I can only assume that you are convinced that you are completely correct.

    1. That’s better, you’re sounding a little crosser now, and I’m sorry if you felt silenced! 🙂

      (however, your dismissal of “random, angry rants” is a little baffling, as so many dismissed many expressions of rage as just this, see Tahrir Square, e.g.)

  9. No, no, NO! You’re all being angry wrong! I’m the only person who knows how properly express anger! The way I do things is right and healthy and proper and helpful and my advanced understanding of emotions and individuality allow me to judge you all, and find you all lacking! GAZE UPON THE PERFECTION THAT IS MY PERSONALITY!

  10. I’d say the opposite. Anger is a luxury; being able to detach and use your head is a necessity.

    You have the luxury of being angry in the example you give – “privileged person expressing something wrong” – is not particularly threatening. It may be hurtful or perpetuate harmful ideas, but if you respond to it in the wrong way there will be no particular consequences. It isn’t a matter of life or death that you convince this person or other people watching the exchange.

    This is why you can say things like “strategy is a luxury” and “express it even when you’re fully expecting it not to achieve anything”. When there’s no immediate cost to failure, you can tell yourself that success is optional.

    One does not immediately associate the Viet Cong with calm and humility – more with jungle booby traps and the torture of GIs – but from what I’ve heard, they raised humility to an art form. When your life depends on convincing the people of the village to support you and not the other side, success, strategy, calm, and humility are not optional.

    Expressions of anger are useful, but generally only when you’re already winning. Today homophobic behaviour can be cowed with anger; it is increasingly seen, along with racism, as a violation of social norms. 30 years ago it was homosexuality that could be cowed and pushed into concealment via expressions of anger, and quite effectively too. 150 years ago, a black person could be hanged for “conduct unbecoming of a slave” if they expressed the hope that the Union army was about to free them.

    The powerful could express their anger, sometimes to the point of murder, without consequence; the powerless have never had that luxury.

    You say that reasoned argument doesn’t work, that it’s a fight you cannot win. I say that argument is *hard*. It is difficult enough to have given rise to a myth that discussion on the internet never solves anything or convinces anyone. But that does not make it impossible.

    For something to become a widespread, serious issue it must be something that is not easy to resolve between people; or it would be resolved quickly and without much fuss. Therefore the obvious, natural, statistically probable response is invariably one that has already been tried, to no avail.

    Anger at perceived injustice is an obvious, natural, and statistically likely response. The correct response to deal with any substantial issue, by contrast, is usually going to be a highly improbable response, one that has not already failed. To come up with such a response, we need to detach, listen, understand, and above all, think.

    1. Seriously, mate, detaching is a fucking luxury. I wish I could.

      They keep us down precisely by demonising our anger.

      1. Fer fucks sake, is this conversation still going on? Are people still arguing that there is only one way to express anger? Can you really complain about tone policing and then tell people they’re not really angry unless it results in them screaming “FUCK YOU ALL” and kicking over a table? Does it matter if someone venting their anger is ‘unhelpful’? Is it not possible that different people have different ways of dealing with their anger?

        FUCK YOU ALL!!!

        *kicks over a table*

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