How We Use Anger In Activism


I’m going to begin by saying that I’m coming from a point of being JT’s acquaintance—I’m likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don’t agree with how others in the movement have chosen to write him off or dismiss his comments because of his stances. So, I’m here to sort of defend his position. My views don’t necessarily reflect on the rest of the Skepchick people and I suspect many of them disagree with me.

Since I hate writing background information for a post and because I assume many of you keep track of what’s going on in the movement, I’ll just recount the meat of the issue and provide relevant links as we go along:

At the Great Lakes Atheist Convention, a white woman asked a very ignorant, racist question of a speaker during her Q&A. The speaker handled it well. During a different speaker’s Q&A, this woman Bria Crutchfield stood up and addressed the woman who asked the initially racist question. JT described Bria’s response as an “angry tongue lashing” and a “long diatribe” during which Bria “screamed at” the woman. He wrote that he pulled Bria aside later and told her that he thought she was out of line.

A couple months prior to JT’s writing about this event, he also wrote about the internet’s response to Ron Lindsay’s terrible talk at CFI’s Women in Secularism 2 conference. The basic idea is that Lindsay’s comments were misguided but his intentions were positive. I don’t necessarily agree on that point, but I do agree with JT’s sentiments in general about feminism and how we respond to seemingly anti-feminist positions.

In both of these cases, others in the community have called JT out for “tone policing” and have pointed out that his privileged position as a white cis guy could potentially generate ignorance in his views on racial and gender-related issues.

Okay. First of all, I want to say that there’s a huge difference between tone policing and pointing out inappropriate behavior. I agree wholeheartedly with JT’s sentiment that not everything done out of justified anger is in itself justified. And I do think that Bria’s anger was justified. However, I don’t think that yelling at someone in public, during an unrelated speaker’s Q&A, is justified. Here’s where I think conversation about the issue *should* diverge from the racist details of the situation.

If I exchange any other issue for the race issue, a response like Bria’s is still not justified. If it were a trans* person indignantly responding to an invasive question about genitals, it would still have not been justified. If it were a woman indignantly responding to an ignorant question about what women do to prevent rape, it would still have not been justified. You see, the *anger* in each of these situations is not only understandable, but just. The way the anger is used can be problematic.

(Question: Is it now okay to verbally abuse a stranger so long as they’re being racist?)

The way we use anger to fuel our activism can be one of the most pivotal things about changing people’s minds. If we give impassioned talks or write fiery blog posts, that is productive. If we shout down dissenters for being ignorant, that is extremely counterproductive. JT agrees that anger is essential to activism and social justice if we’re going to make any progress. But we can’t be irresponsible with how we handle our anger.

If it is our goal to change people’s minds, we sometimes have to keep our anger in check. Especially in public places. Especially in meatspace. This is due in part to the fairly simple social rules we have against yelling at people in public. It doesn’t seem farfetched that we should have a reasonable expectation of respectful discourse when we’re meeting with other atheists AFK. It certainly doesn’t feel like I’m being unreasonable in expecting not to be yelled at while attending an atheist event. (This is a huge part of what feminists are trying to say about being sexually harassed; it’s not unreasonable to demand respect of our fellow atheists, especially in meatspace.)

One might say that it’s a reasonable expectation of civility when discussing heated issues.

It certainly seems that one’s race shouldn’t disqualify them from having an opinion about how we handle disagreements in public, and how we treat each other. I hope that people don’t take me being a white person as an automatic disqualifier to my opinions about rational, respectful discourse. Pointing out that Bria’s behaviour was disrespectful doesn’t also imply that she was wrong for being angry. It simply is a critique of her methods.

As activists, we have volunteered to do the job of educating people. That doesn’t mean that it’s our job, or that we should feel obligated to do this all the time. I’m not even sure if Bria considers herself an activist, so this may be unrelated to her entirely. But if our goal is to change things, education is a huge part of that goal, and education doesn’t happen when you yell at people. You’re more likely to turn them from your cause.

Which is one of the biggest takeaways I’ve had from JT in the last several months: If you want your movement to be successful, you have to be deliberate in how you handle ignorance.

If you treat every person who makes a sexist comment as though they’re a sexist or misogynist, you are going to lose people. Not only will you lose the person who made the comment, but others who read that and think that we make assumptions and are quick to alienate people who disagree with us.

If you treat every person who makes a racist comment as though they’re a racist, you are going to lose people.

It’s important to point out that our culture is shitty in that it seeds bad ideas in us before we have the opportunity to think critically about them. Sometimes people get the idea that women are responsible for rape and don’t have the chance to critically challenge that idea until we bring it to their attention that this view is wrong. If we immediately treat that person as though they hate women, and not as though they haven’t been introduced to the idea of rape culture, we are significantly less likely to help that person see through that blind spot.

Sometimes people get bad ideas about racial minorities before being introduced to the idea of intersectional oppression. If we immediately treat these people like they’re racists, and not like they were raised in a culture which systematically disempowers racial minorities (while simultaneously erasing this struggle and pretending it doesn’t exist/it’s the fault of the minority), we will not be able to change their minds.

Let me point out that I’m NOT saying anger has no place in our discourse, or that anger is inherently disrespectful. There are ways to be angry without being counterproductive to our efforts as a social justice movement. Like I said, you can give an impassioned talk, or write a fiery blog post while still being productive. You can even publicly criticize someone’s ignorance in meatspace while still being productive. But yelling at people is not only counterproductive, but ultimately disrespectful to everyone there who had the expectation of respectful discourse.

Everyone makes mistakes, and of course our emotions are not in tight control at all times. (Believe me, as someone with a mental illness, I get that.) Making a mistake does not make you a bad person, and I mean that as a statement which applies to the woman who asked the racist question, AND Bria for losing control of her anger. But we can learn from our mistakes, and do better in the future. If we want to change the pervasive culture of oppression, we have to be deliberate and work together. I don’t expect anyone to hug their oppressor, but I do expect everyone to at least make an attempt at finding common ground before we start casting people aside as racists, misogynists, or faux allies.


Cross-posted on Teen Skepchick; image cred

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