I’ve written a lot about how revenge is not a worthy goal, and more to the point, not an effective way to make positive change, and therefore, we shouldn’t dwell on it. Not in our criminal justice system, not in our personal mistakes as activists and privileged people. But I don’t want to give the impression that I think people who are oppressed or silenced or ignored or have crimes committed against them should not be angry.
We all have the right to be angry when we are wronged. We do not have the right to react to the wrongdoing, to the anger, in any way that pops into our heads, specifically not in any way that violates human rights, and we would be wise not to react in ways that are counterproductive to our goals. People think anger means violence, but it doesn’t have to. You can choose what to do with it. It can incite you to fight people or it can incite you to fight injustice.
Anger is not the most pleasant of emotions to feel or to see in others, but it is a real and critical part of movements for making the world better. Just look at how many blogs are about angry people. I’m angry, too, although less now than I was when I started, simply because I’ve gotten better at recovering quickly from the rush of anger that certain stories bring up in me. But it still comes.
Sometimes people say that anger is poison, and you have to let go of it to get anywhere. There’s some truth to that, but I’m wary of taking to to the extreme. Anger is often a healthy sign of something else, like pain. People who can’t feel pain and thus find the cause of the pain, the thing that’s harming them, are at risk of getting injured very badly. People who don’t acknowledge the anger of others and look for the cause of the anger instead of dwelling on the anger itself and/or blaming the anger on the psychology of those people are at risk of injuring society quite badly. Sometimes psychology is to blame, but not always.
This is personal for me, because although the oppression I have experienced is mild compared to what’s out there, I know how much it sucks to see a problem and react with horror and yes, anger, and be told by people I trust and rely on that they care about me and hope I feel better…and that’s it. They hope I feel better about the problem, they don’t hope the problem will go away. They’re sorry that there’s something wrong with me and unwilling to entertain the notion that there might be something wrong with our religion or with society. My anger was not and is not proof of a problem, because it was based on a belief and an understanding of events that may or may not have been accurate. (I continue to believe it was accurate, but again, can’t prove it.) That’s how I went from not being angry to being angry, by changing what I believed about the situation. But I think my anger warranted at least a glance at whether or not there was something worth being angry over by the people who were so concerned about me. Especially if they respected my opinions and considered me in any way intelligent. But they preferred to protect their beliefs from any risk of corrosion.
This is an issue for all oppressed groups, as the claim that they have no good reason to be angry is tantamount to justifying their oppression and therefore key to keeping the powerful in power. The issue is aggravated when women are the group being oppressed (comment if you see ways that this works for other groups). That’s because human emotions are divvied up between men and women, since we’re so totally opposite that we can’t share anything, and women got most of the emotions, but anger was given to men. So when women express anger, it’s seen as unacceptable because of their gender, in addition to the other reasons (oppression, beliefs about the unhealthiness of anger) that also apply to others. People mock female anger (“you’re cute when you’re angry” etc) because “real women” don’t have the capacity to get really angry. They mock women who leave no room for doubt that they really are angry for transgressing gender roles (“ball-busting bitch” etc). They act like real female anger is overwhelming even when it’s a level of anger that would be considered understandable coming from a man, just because women aren’t ever supposed to get that angry (“she’s scary!” etc). They advise women not to be angry or show anger because it will lose them popularity and influence. You’re right, some people tell me, but don’t sound so angry about it or no one will want to listen to you. Yeah, I’ll try to sound like sugar and spice when I talk about rape, good idea. These are all ways to focus attention on the anger itself rather than on the cause of the anger, which helps cover for the real cause, especially when the real cause is sexism.
But it’s a really special tool of the patriarchy to tell women and others that it’s a virtue to let yourself be walked over with a smile on your face. (Other “virtues” I reject: chastity, blind faith.) People love the turn the other cheek line in the Bible. That’s the kind of stuff that makes non-Christians admit that the Bible is a good guide for how to live even if they happen to think it’s fiction. But I disagree. I reject the idea that it’s a virtue to let someone take advantage of you, to be an enabler, to support a system of oppression. It’s not always a sin, because the oppressed don’t always have a lot of options. But a virtue? I don’t think so. And I defy you, people out there, to prove that you really do think it’s a virtue. Do you live that way? Do you want to? Would it make any sense? It’s really interesting to watch people do mental gymnastics to interpret that part in a way that doesn’t mean they have to give their car to the next person who tries to steal their car radio. Once I saw a priest say that when someone hits you, it makes your face look one way, and if you turn the other cheek, you have to pass through a position of looking the person in the eye (not necessarily true, but ok), which is a position of equality, and so the message of the turn the other cheek line was that you shouldn’t let people take advantage of you, take away your dignity. He failed to explain how that accounts for the rest of the passage:
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Not quite so up for that interpretation anymore, is it?
There may be a place for this kind of reaction, and in some cases it may have an emotional effect on the “evil person.” But by and large, being an enabler is not virtuous. It doesn’t help any of us in any real way if a woman who is being abused by her husband turns the other cheek. The Civil Rights movement was more virtuous than it would have been for a black man to willingly submit to a lynching. Just because something hurts you doesn’t mean it will help someone else because life is not all about zero-sum games. (Keep this in mind when thinking about the morality of sex, please. Just because something feels good doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I know we all get that idea from the jokes about stuff that’s good for you tasting bad and vice versa, but just because people say it doesn’t make it true. Some veggies are tasty, some poisons are not.) But the belief that it’s a virtue to be so humble that you don’t even demand your RIGHTS, which is to demand that people live in a way that is fair to everyone and thus benefits everyone, this belief can and has been used to shut up uppity people. I’ve seen it in action in Christianity. A woman who I really do love and respect but who believes in things I do not once said that since being a priest is a form of service, there’s no reason to argue about letting women be priests; if you’re willing to be a servant, you shouldn’t care what kind of servant you’re going to be. That is a really difficult argument to face if you’re trying to be humble and obedient and selfless. And this ignores the fact that telling not just individuals but groups, like women, to relinquish their right to fairness, creates not just a little humble suffering for one person, but systemic inequalities that go deeper than just how important you feel as a priest or a nun. To keep with the priesthood example, the fact that women can’t be priests doesn’t just mean that sometimes they feel that their role is less important, it means that they can’t be in any part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which means they have no say in who is the Pope, and they have no say in the rules that the Church makes. Women still don’t have suffrage in the Catholic Church, so to speak. And so these things affect more than just you, and when you shut up about them because you think it’s virtuous never to be angry except when people try to sell stuff in the temple, you’re allowing other people to be oppressed. Tell me, is that the goal of selflessness?