With quite a number of pieces about anger and its relationship with toxicity, there is naturally pushback, complications, and a need to turn around and look at the other end: civility. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone in social justice wants to do away with anger entirely, or even at all; mostly, are we using it purposefully? Are we using it to attack the systems that oppress us or the people it manipulates? As the saying goes, are we being consistent with criticizing people’s actions, and not the people themselves?
On the other end, when does the criticism of anger, or toxicity, creep into taking away survival tactics from the oppressed? We are on a journey to find where the line between anger and toxicity is, anger being a productive tool and toxicity being harmful to innocents. It is prudent to point out that this discussion comes out of concern about peer abuse. The reason we are now questioning anger and toxicity isn’t necessarily because privileged people are wringing their hands (though, I will address this), but because anger is being used to silence and harm other minority community members. I think it’s important to reread a lot of these critiques of toxicity under that light, since most critics are reacting to them as policing their activism. On the contrary, toxicity against the community is policing their existence.
In particular, there is the idea that taking away meanness takes away a defense from those who are afraid to speak up. I don’t think meanness is needed, and as a counterpoint to that argument, Kat Haché creates a great allusion through watching Breaking Bad and people watching her rip into opponents. Just because we revel in our current methods doesn’t mean they are the best, nor the most healthy to have. Again, it’s a given that sometimes violence is the only defense a person has, but overall, bloodsport is used too often, for show, and without meaning. What people who want unmoderated meanness don’t really supply is a path for reconciliation, change, and healing when that anger strikes the wrong people. Having been on the side of this anger myself (not from Jeff), I can tell you a simple apology doesn’t fix it. How do we fold in people who’ve learned from their mistakes? How do we control behind the scenes abuse? How do we handle people who are, honestly, hurting more than they are helping? Controlling others with fear is some dark side shit, especially when you’re supposedly speaking on behalf of the people scared shitless of you. It would be really encouraging if these critics could extend their position to include maintaining a healthy community this way.
What I want to dig into, and outline to respect, is the experience that Kim Delicious describes here in response to anti-toxicity articles. It’s a conflict between legit anger, anger that is cathartic and deserved, and understanding that it will wall off communication and education to another person. It shows where being an activist and simply existing as a minority identity blur.
I am now speaking to people when they are in places of privilege on the wrong end of someone’s anger. As we move forward crafting what discourse around social justice looks like, integrating productive methods to continue educating the privileged and defending the vulnerable, it is extremely important to understand the experience of a minority expressing their anger at you. So let’s go through some points and a process to deal with anger coming from social justice and how to pull your weight in solving issues. In essence, this is how the privileged can act civil in confrontation that respects the position of a marginalized person calling them out.
Anger is always justified
It may be expressed in a way you don’t like, but the feeling of anger is only misplaced when there is a misunderstanding. Very often, there isn’t a misunderstanding. Understand that when someone gets confrontational, they aren’t sitting around waiting for someone to make them spark. They go through everyday life dealing microaggressions and outright oppressive abuse. Poverty and health issues are weighted disproportionately against people with marginalized identities. Your trip-up? Could be the last crack needed to break a person’s feeling of self-worth or security. Were you human and fucked up? Yeah, but they are also human, and to expect people to not feel raw because of your ignorance is asking for inhuman strength. When someone’s at the end of their rope and you accidently knock them off, you can’t expect them to react nicely when they hit the ground, hard. Bottom line: people are suffering while the privileged are complicit in the system, educating themselves at their own pace as people are violently oppressed every day. Don’t deny them their catharsis.
The conversation is always in the favor of the privileged
A common misconception when there is discussion around oppressive behavior, is that the people involved are on equal footing and debating as equals. Even though they didn’t ask for it, the privileged always goes into a conversation with an advantage. For example, the marginalized will always be assumed to have misplaced anger. Rhetoric such as being sensitive and illogical come into play, where on top of their base argument, they have to prove they have the ‘right’ to be angry. They have to first convince the privileged they are allowed to be angry, when the privileged doesn’t have to legitimize their feelings. Their feelings are considered the standard. And because they are in a privileged position, there is a whole cultural backlog of excuses and derailments available that society uses to silence and brush aside minority voices. Their argument seems more ‘natural’ while the marginalized are always actively trying to legitimize their existence and right to be considered equal by a system that doesn’t treat them this way. Recognize that privileged thinking seems essentialized into universal truth or common sense. You might think that your lens is logical, but often it is colonial and marginalizing.
You need to apologize. Quick
When you are in a place of privilege and you find yourself being called out by an oppressed person, you should be racing towards an apology, even if you don’t quite understand what you did wrong. Firstly, for your continued, if even understandable, complicity in their oppression. We are only human and we can’t solve things like ableism and racism all on our own as individuals. But we can acknowledge this and apologize that it continues, and that our limitations as honest but unsure people contribute to the continued marginalization of others. It’s hard, but it’s true. You might be creating a video game with usual tropes of sexism but have your hands tied because of financial security. The complexity is understandable, but an apology is still warranted. Here is a good video on how to apologize I think everyone should watch.
Now, it’s good to recognize that everyone is coming into this discourse with varying levels of understanding and confidence when it comes to social justice. So here is a simple process to go through when you’re being accused of things you don’t quite understand and the air is tense:
This should be obvious, but often our first inclination is to react to anger and accusations. But what you really need to do is find out what exactly the problem is. Who is bringing this to your attention, and why? Remember, it is really brave for a person in a marginalized position to speak up against someone in a place of privilege. You might think you are speaking as equals, but what is really happening is someone from a socially deemed lower class speaking to someone of a higher one that wields more power. Recognize that they are sticking their neck out and will probably get harassed for doing so, even if you don’t directly do anything to encourage it. This isn’t a time for you, it’s for them.
In the heat of the moment, you need to do your best to believe everything a person in a marginalized position is telling you about how you are enacting their oppression. Believe that they’re hurt, believe that you hurt them, and believe what they say caused that hurt. No matter what, their feelings are legit and you need to recognize that. They are feeling that, whether you meant to evoke that or not. There is also time for research, fact-checking, and education later. This isn’t about being right, it’s about undoing harm. People with lived experiences, thinking way longer on these subjects are going to be better judges at seeing oppressive actions and attitudes that people in places of privilege. And even if they are wrong about what they’ve accused, it doesn’t erase that there’s still inequality, and they must always be on the defensive to survive.
If you’ve followed through everything before, by this time, there will most likely be people who are willing to at least point you in the right direction for education on what happened. Asking people questions for you to better understand the situation will work when you start off by telling them you believe what they say and you apologize genuinely. Ask how you can make it up, ask how you can have better relations with marginalized communities, ask how you can do better. The only way you’re going to learn not to fuck up again is if you hear it straight from those who know best. Then, go research and reflect on the event. If you need to make a rebuttal, don’t divorce it from systemic oppression. Really figure out how your actions either did or did not perpetuate the system.
There’s also a selfish reason to want to do things this way. It avoids meanness. Sure, if the initial offense is bad enough, you’re most likely going to get people being mean. But if there is anything that can quell anger, it’s a genuine apology that has an informed plan of action for change. If you step on someone’s toe, don’t begrudge them if they are grouchy, even while you try to make it up.
I hope we can raise the bar of these conversations, so there is less pain on both sides and a chance for learning. If it becomes common practice to own mistakes and apologize, we can get to solutions quicker with less casualties. Meaning, the community overall will learn easier and we can make progress dismantling systems of oppression. If we understand that mistakes are going to happen that hurt the oppressed, then we need etiquette in place respects the position of the marginalized and leads to a productive conclusion.
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