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I get angry, too

Helen Keller

Recently, online, I picked a battle that isn’t mine to pick. Relief finally came in the form of an email. “My wife and I are Quaker,” the letter-writer explained; I was immediately overwhelmed.

My mother never identified Quaker as such, but when she was new to Christianity she was mentored by a Quaker, by a man called John Steiner. She spoke of this person a lot. She took certain ideals to heart and, although she would certainly tell you that her message, as transmitted to me, got all mixed up, some ideals really did glom onto me. I am anti-war; I am terribly conflict-averse; I believe in compassion and inclusion. I still identify as Christian—and make no mistake, I have several crises of faith in a single day—but none of those crises has anything to do with whether God, as I interpret Him, composed human beings lovingly in His own image. (Mostly my crises are about me being a shitty person. I am trying to learn to become more patient with myself.)

Principally, though, I am terrified of my own anger. Very few people have witnessed it, but they can tell you it’s an ugly, remarkable thing, a thing that gets away from me before I can grab back onto it and rein it to shore again. Like most people, I figure, my anger usually has something to do with an issue of “justice.” When I have been at my very angriest, my mother used to sigh—oh, my mother!—and warn me, “Jenny, don’t talk to people that way.” Now, here in her shadow, I am beginning to think she is right.

I understand the argument against “tone arguments.” I also hate tone arguments. It’s usually an unfair thing, this gambit is, demanding the other person sacrifice all emotion—indeed, all humanity—for the sake of being “calm,” “reasonable,” “rational.” These are loaded terms, denying a speaker all the emotion—which is, absolutely, another type of data, what we call “experiential data”—he or she is feeling. Women especially are socialized to couch their assertions of opinion with words like “I am beginning to think” or “sometimes I get the feeling,” which are all ways of preemptively apologizing for holding any opinion or valueset at all. Even now I’m using a type of passive speech, as a defense mechanism, certainly, so you will not feel like hitting me.

As we slowly open up and allow ourselves to discuss a hostile tech culture—or any hostile culture—it’s easy to use hostile language ourselves. This, I think, may be a mistake. If we are to make ourselves understood, I do think there is great value in “tone” as mediator. It would be peculiar if we ran around shouting, for instance, at little children, at hotel receptionists.

I don’t mean to diminish the concept of “righteous indignation,” either—righteous, because we are in the Right, and indignation because we recognize we or someone else is being disabused of human dignity. But bad behavior is not always the same thing as bad people, and “righteous indignation” is not the same as blind fury. We speak to one another with respect because we want to preserve dignity for all.

“We have many new tools to communicate,” Professor Michael Abbott writes, “but our powerful tools have outpaced our abilities to harness them responsibly. It’s just so easy to be mean.”

I would take it a step further: when a writer or speaker becomes mean, is the motive to inspire change in the person she or he is addressing? Or is the intent only to make an example of the person? I’ve been guilty of the latter (even very recently!). But to dress down individuals, make it personal—even if the person is not necessarily someone we’d enjoy lunch with—seems vindictive and cruel. Because it’s almost never the person; it’s the pattern of behavior that is the real problem. To that end, we are all, indeed, victims of our own culture.

This is all hypocritical of me to say: of course I have been uncompromising at times, and so I have been brash. I owe some apologies. But when I first decided to identify as “feminist,” I had to ask myself if I were also comfortable with friends and colleagues holding me up as an example of What Not to Say—could I be comfortable with being made an-example-of myself? I’ve continued to mull over it, and I guess I am.

I think I believe the human heart, like video games themselves, has the capacity to change other hearts and minds. The heart is made up of a lot of things—anger, fear, experience—but it is also an aggressive agent of love. Maybe I am saying this way works better for me: that anger can work but, for me, it almost never has.

For my own part, though, I believe the heart and mind should be used holistically. I believe video games are the most compassionate integration of the two because they extend to your listener, as a sort of olive branch, the opportunity to walk in other shoes for minutes or hours at a time.

[Image source: Brain Pickings – Helen Keller on Optimism]

  • Postscript (added): I feel like changes happen in two ways. They happen either in subcultures or in the mainstream, which are two potentially wildly-differing tacks. The first issue of Memory Insufficient, edited by Zoya Street, brings together some of the smartest writers working in games to talk about gender and queerness. Meanwhile, to mainstream outlets, doctoral candidate Samantha Allen presents this worthwhile challenge.

    On a micro and macro level, both defy the “norm.” Street brings a higher caliber of writing to groups under- or mis-represented, while Allen asks the mainstream to enforce a civility of discourse.

    For my own part, I guess I’m still not clear on which group I’m in—subculture or mainstream—and in any given moment I struggle to understand whom my message is directed toward. Probably the answer is, not “up the middle,” but just kind of both. It’s hard for me. I’m still negotiating it. But that does not, will not, change my message, which is one of advocacy and faith in change.

4 responses to “I get angry, too” »

  1. Stephen says:

    Anger, though a normal response, is definitely rooted in a sense a justice for most right-minded people.
    It’s to be controlled, and not control you.
    I personally think it’s always good to take things slow and make sure you’re angry about something worth expressing anger over. I don’t think it’s unacceptable in a discussion though; especially when that’s just honestly how someone is feeling.

    Anyway, as long as you don’t mean to hurt someone( and only that), then there’s always room for understanding and forgiveness there.
    Though it’s not always simply the issue that brings up anger, and sometimes it’s the person: If your aim is not to hurt/humiliate them, but to instead fight for justice; well them, fight on!

    Or in the word’s of Tupac “Shit, I’m with ya, I ain’t mad at ya.
    Got nothing but love for ya. Do your thing”.

  2. Matthew says:

    With things like this, I always go back to my sometimes weird relationship with my dad. I love him to death, but he genuinely believes that homosexuality is a choice and a disgusting perversion that rebellious and juvenile kids get up to when they’re at parties and are having fun disobeying their parents and, of course, God.

    Naturally, this is appalling to me, but I can’t just be like, “Wow, dad. You’re an ignorant piece of human garbage. Why don’t you go die in a fire. People like you make the world a worse place to live and we’d be better off without you.” I feel like that’s what the internet would do, but that’s super ineffective. Believe me, I’ve had heated exchanges on this subject with my dad in the past, but yelling at him and suggesting that there is something wrong with him as a person effects a change that is exactly opposite of what I’d wish. The fact is, when you try to bulldoze someone, even if you’re totally right and justified, they realize it. But people have agency, and they are protective of it, and when you try to bulldoze them into believing something, they dig in their heels and plug their ears. When you say disrespectful things to them, even if you are right and even if they deserve it, they tend to just disregard you. (Sorry, keepers of the formal rules of argument. Human default mode is emotional, not logical.)

    The only way I have managed to make any progress with my dad is by separating what he believes about homosexuality from him as a person. That belief is something he possesses, but it does not define him. Despite his unfortunate ideas about homosexuality, he is otherwise one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever known. He is not this way on purpose. He did not wake up one day and decide, “I’m going to take up hating gay people.” His life has moved him down a certain path, introduced him to a certain set of people and experiences, and through a combination of it all, he somehow ended up this way. But that doesn’t define him as a person. And should I just assume it’s hopeless?

    People have to choose to learn for themselves. They have to decide for themselves what they are going to believe. Aggressively backing them into a corner or pushing, pushing, pushing at them just makes them push back. Granted, sometimes you DO have to slap a person to get their attention, but slap them because you LOVE them and want to HELP them, not because you’re declaring war on them and want to hurt them.

    I’ve made some progress with my dad, but I’ve done it mostly by just asking him difficult questions. He either harumphs and doesn’t answer them or gives an answer reflecting his current beliefs. But if I do it right, he answers less confidently than in a hostile exchange. He makes more concessions. Although he harumphs and doesn’t answer, he takes that question away with him, and when he’s lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling in the privacy of his own mind, he makes a secret decision about what he believes. I can never infiltrate that part of him and manually override the system to make the changes I’d love to see in him. But I can slip questions into that brain of his like little trojan horses, and then wait, wait, wait.

    Not that I’m suggesting that the approach I’ve taken with my dad is some kind of one true way. The approach to helping a person with stuff like this is case-by-case. But it is always, always, always about caring for the person and wanting to help them. Also, hella patience.

  3. Jimmy Vark says:

    So, I’ve already thrown a couple of things out on this over on Twitter but there’s one thing in particular I’d like to go over in a little more detail; the whole ‘making it personal’ aspect, the naming and shaming.

    I think where people who could be described as high profile role models are involved, it becomes vital to break down the notion that they are setting an acceptable example. As such, it is necessary to loudly state “hey, this person you respect, who has influenced you; they are just flat wrong here”. There is no avoiding it, as the damage their actions will inflict is directly tied to the power they wield as personalities.

    Further, when the personality involved is someone we admire, the responsibility falls upon us not to merely seek a way to avert the spotlight from our heroes, but to in turn influence them in a positive way. I have always considered callouts to be a means of showing concern, more of a warning that missteps of this nature will lead to painful falls than an outright condemnation. The condemnation only comes when thoughtless hurt continues to be inflicted on people even in the face of attempts to highlight errors.

    I had to call out someone I greatly admire on Friday. It sucked, I’m not going to lie. But I consider it far more important to help everyone possible to be a better person, and in the process risk discovering they don’t live up to my expectations, than to stay silent and kid myself they’re perfect when they’re not. Nobody is, I find, but people can be imperfect and still be good, this is the important thing.

  4. Switchbreak says:

    There is a lot to think about in here, and definitely a lot that I’ve been mulling over myself too.

    I always feel like I’m riding the wrong side of the line on both sides of these things. So many times I feel like I’m keeping quiet out of pure cowardice, not speaking up to defend my friends or myself when some jerk has decided to make me or people I respect or care about their target of the week. And then sometimes I find myself frothing with righteous anger without stopping to remember that I have never been righteous, that every person in my life who has hated me for who I am has done so because they thought they were being righteous.

    I feel like neither person is who I want to be. I don’t want to be the person who is telling others that are angry and hurt after being harassed and dismissed that they should let it go or get over it or be reasonable. I don’t want to be the gay friend that people will point to as their justification because I never told them that joke they love sucks and is hurtful. And I also don’t want to be a person who holds grudges, who retaliates out of spite or who writes people off because I think I’m better than them.

    I dunno. I really don’t.

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