Learning from rage

There’s a power to rage. It’s honest, unselfconscious, and (for the most part) uncontrolled. It has no interest in anyone else’s opinion, has no ulterior motive, and is unguarded. It makes you uncomfortable, and triggers a fight or flight response. You might find it terrifying, inappropriate, sophomoric, ineffective, déclassé, distasteful, or factually incorrect, but you can’t deny its authenticity. Rage draws its power from an inner truth.

People who are truly enraged are telling you something important, something that you don’t want to hear. They’re sharing their personal reality in the most brutally honest way they know how – frequently with the intention of hurting you, but also without much hope that they’ll be heard in a meaningful way. In a way, they’re shouting to themselves, reinforcing their internal truth without a moment’s belief that you’ll either hear or understand what they’re trying to say. If you have the power to listen past the anger, this can be an extraordinarily valuable learning experience.

An aside

When’s the last time you changed your mind? Discovered you were wrong, and really changed your mind on something you thought you knew? Someone, once upon a time, told you something you had no reason to dispute, and you believed it uncritically. Or perhaps you casually decided something because it was the path of least resistance. In time you forgot the origin, repeated it as truth, and felt angry when you were contradicted. Then, one day, you learned you’d been misled, that your belief was mere fantasy. How embarrassing, yet what a gift, to discover and fix this bug in your beliefs!

Back to our program already in progress

OK, this is all pretty vague, hand-wavy stuff. Let’s get concrete, and talk about what we’re really talking about. You’d have to have been under a rock for the last two weeks to have missed the #YesAllWomen uprising (there really isn’t another word for it). It came about as an outpouring of anger and grief after the Santa Barbara massacre, and takes its name as a reaction to the #NotAllMen narrative. I.e., Whether or not #NotAllMen are like that is besides the point. What’s important is that #YesAllWomen are affected by the pervasive sexism and violent misogyny in our society and the world. The messages are sad, ironic, strident, hurt, and enraged. Some discuss statistics, some describe terrible truisms, some share horrifying personal experiences.

As a man, it’s easy to get defensive when reading these, to take them as personal attacks. You feel like you’re being judged for things you haven’t done, horrible acts you would never do. So you think about what you’d say if you were confronted by such an accusation. You think that you aren’t like that. #NotAllMen, dammit! While you want to empathize, it’s hard to be open to understanding when you feel like you’re being attacked.

Reality check #1: This isn’t about you

Half the world is shouting in rage, revealing a truth that consumes them, and that’s only ever been on the fringes of your thoughts. Now is not the time to mansplain how they should go about things differently. They aren’t interested in condescending critiques of their presentation (“that isn’t an effective way to get your point across”), protestations of innocence (“but I’m not like that! #NotAllMen”), minimization (“you’re making too big a deal of it”), or invalidation (“you’ve got it all wrong”). It isn’t their responsibility to explain it to you. They’re opening up a deep well of anger truth, and creating a tremendous opportunity for you to learn.

Now is not the time for you to open up about that time in elementary school when you realized we were all equal under the skin, or to talk about how you’ve had a rough life yourself, or to discuss all the impressive things you’ve thought about diversity and gender equality. It’s not the time to tell them all the ways in which they’re wrong, how they’re misunderstanding basic facts, and don’t know what they’re talking about. Now is when you take your hands off the keyboard, shut your mouth, and listen. Not so that you can come up with a clever comment that will prove how smart you are. Not so that you can prove that you’re not like those other awful men. Not so that you can fix them. Turn off the part of your brain that needs to be the center of attention, that fits things into tidy containers, likes to make snap decisions, and wants to be right – you’ve spent a lifetime learning a very different set of lessons, and it’s going to take time to digest this new torrent of information.

This isn’t about you. It isn’t about whether you’re right or wrong, or whether your experience jibes with theirs. It isn’t about whether their stories make you feel bad. It isn’t about whether thinking about the terrible things they describe makes you feel uncomfortable (how much worse to be constantly confronted by the reality?). This is about them, and your first job is to understand what they’re saying in as deep a way as you can.

Stop talking, and listen.

Reality check #2: This is entirely about you

In her article on why #NotAllMen is such a problematic meme, Jess Zimmerman proposes, almost as an aside, a model for how individual men develop a social conscience. It has the simplicity of an uncomplicated truth – whether you’ve experienced them yourself, or just seen them play out in the pseudo-intellectual melodrama of freshman dorm room discussions, each of these stages should be instantly recognizable.

Perhaps men arguing on the Internet (though not all men!) follow a developmental path that echoes an individual man growing a social conscience, which in a very simplified form goes something like this:

  1. Sexism is a fake idea invented by feminists
  2. Sexism happens, but the effect of “reverse sexism” on men is as bad or worse
  3. Sexism happens, but the important part is that I personally am not sexist
  4. Sexism happens, and I benefit from that whether or not I personally am sexist
  5. Sexism happens, I benefit from it, I am unavoidably sexist sometimes because I was socialized that way, and if I want to be anti-sexist I have to be actively working against that socialization

Is it possible “not all men” rose to prominence when the level of online discourse moved from stage 2 to stage 3?

– Jess Zimmerman, Not All Men: A Brief History of Every Dude’s Favorite Argument

Where are you on this list? Do you believe the stages above your present level are valid? Maybe you aren’t sure. Or you actively disagree with some of them. That’s ok, that’s why we’re here. We’re trying to learn from rage, and part of learning is to understand the dimensions of the problem. As discussed above, your first step is to listen. Really, seriously, listen. Don’t talk, don’t interject, don’t try to make your own point and redirect the conversation. Just listen.

Read through #YesAllWomen. Don’t ignore the trolls (it’s astonishing that they don’t see that their posts only serve to reinforce the larger point). Read the blog posts, and the articles. Keep reading after the hashtag dies down. The conversation didn’t start with Santa Barbara, and it won’t end with it. Listen, read, and try to understand.

The next step is to talk about it. Specifically, talk to other men about it. Tweet about it. Write about it in your blog. Discuss it with other men. Share your experiences. Start a reading group, in which you pass around interesting blog posts and articles. Don’t let other men get away with offensive speech. Sometimes, all it takes is to ask, “what do you mean by that?

You see, there’s another stage, a sixth stage that Zimmerman doesn’t mention, and getting there is hard. Most men won’t, because it requires effort, time, a small amount of risk, and the acceptance of personal responsibility. To get to the sixth stage, you have to take an additional step, and work against the system that simultaneously gives you special privileges while crushing half of humanity. The sixth stage is:

  1. Sexism happens, I benefit from it, and the only way for me to be anti-sexist is to actively work against sexism.

That’s it. To be anti-sexist (not just theoretically against sexism, or anti-sexist in your heart), you need to actively fight the sexism pervasive in the system.

This is kind of a bummer. It feels like it should be enough just not to be personally sexist. Why should you have to pay for the misdeeds of others? There are two main problems with this. If you accept that sexism is real, that you benefit from it, and that you are unavoidably sexist sometimes due to your socialization (i.e., stage 5), then you have to accept that sitting on your hands means supporting the status quo, which indirectly benefits you.

This might make you angry. It should. It makes me angry too. Furthermore, you’re busy, I’m busy, and the last thing any of us need is another item on a list that’s already way too long. It’s inconvenient (though not, let’s agree, as inconvenient as being unable to walk outside after dark). And let me be clear – I make no claim to moral superiority, and certainly don’t present myself as any kind of model for right behavior. I’m lazy. I make mistakes. I’m vain, headstrong, and selfish. I prefer to take the easy path. Thinking about an injustice this big makes my head hurt, and drives me to the tender embraces of mint chocolate chip. Unfortunately, this isn’t a fight we can walk away from. It isn’t enough to understand. We don’t get any brownie points for thinking worthy thoughts or not being rapists. Not being awful people isn’t good enough. We need to act. We need to look for ways to make a change, and put them into effect.

Reference material

Here are some links to get you started. Some are long, some are short, but all are worth your time.

Final note

Reading is easy (if sometimes uncomfortable), and starting to discuss these issues with your peers is a good next step. But we need to do more. I need to do more. I have some ideas, which I’ll be exploring over the next couple months. I’d be interested to hear yours.

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