Demanding Civility in Times of Cascading Calamity

Holly Wood
Aug 3, 2018 · 18 min read

Rarely are women given license to express righteous anger.

Even if the catalyst for a woman’s anger is viewed by many as valid (child murder, genocide, sexual assault, etcetera), she will only ever really be afforded as much license for expressing anger as those around her will grant her. And in my 32 years of watching women become righteously angry, I’ve witnessed very little clearance made for such expression. Instead, what I mostly see way more often is women apologizing to everyone around them for the social crime of losing composure.

Very few people are willing to make the space necessary to receive a woman’s anger in a caring way and to hold it and work with it so that she feels heard and seen and can begin healing.

Instead women are more often told to tone it down. Much heard are phrases like these:

“He didn’t mean that.”

“He’s not usually like that. He’s a good guy. He means well.”

“He’s not a bad guy, he just really doesn’t know how to talk to women.”

“Can you just lighten up for one night? Does it have to be this feminist shit all the time? Can’t you just ease up a little bit? One night is all I’m asking for.”

Millennial women learn over so many exchanges like these that while our the reasons for our outrage may be considered fair and valid, its expression is nevertheless something we must negotiate — carefully.

Women are to manage their feeling thermostat not for their personal comfort but rather for the comfort of others. There are spare few occasions where feminine outrage is ever appreciated. Mostly, women who express anger are later mocked, the subject of gossip and intragroup scorn. A women’s outrage is so unappreciated by others that an angry woman is very quickly ostracized, hystericized and blacklisted because of it. Too often, a woman who expresses too much anger in any context is very quickly made in that context a persona non grata.

Adult women count precious few occasions in their lives where they feel safe to express outrage and know that it will be received well by others. By “well,” I don’t necessarily mean welcomed but at the bare minimum I mean: when a woman expresses pained outrage, does she come away feeling that at her grievance was registered or heard? Or did people lose sight of what she said because they could not see past her anger?

I know what you’re thinking: “No one should have to listen to angry people. Angry people should learn to control themselves before they try to speak to other people.”

Or better: “Has she tried yoga?”

Many activists in the #metoo movement rightly stress the social reality that women are way more likely to be penalized and sanctioned by others for naming the men who sexually harassed them. Moreover, women who make an accusation of sexual harassment public find themselves in a fairly shitty position of having their entire character scrutinized, as if the only women who can fairly make such weighty accusations are those counted among saints and angels. Anyone who falls short will most likely find themselves written off as being “difficult.”

Case in point, as we were taking a walk uptown, a friend of mine told me to my horror that she and I actually shared the same sexual harasser. When I asked her why she hadn’t told me sooner, she said she never had the energy to tell anyone about it. “It’s so much work!” she said, referring to all the self-control and due diligence expected of women who have the audacity to make a private grievance public.

We then talked about how she doesn’t feel like she can ever just get righteously mad, that she can’t just scream and yell at the guy for being a toxic piece of shit. We both nodded, knowing full well that if she ever did, she’d be seen as foolish, an adult woman incapable of policing her tone and containing her outrage.

So instead, the expected road she had also not taken was to instead go through a very formalized channel for expressing grievance, all the while keeping her cadence calm while others scrutinize the veracity, scope and consequence of her grievance. While certainly deemed more appropriate than beating the shit out of the guy, the emotional overhead of dealing with this shit we both agreed is a lot to bother with in a time when everything we love seems to be burning down around us.

So the ultimate question comes down to this: does she feel like she’s emotionally stable enough to accept all of this on top of the demands of her normal day job, her partnership, her family, her friends and her activist work? No, she said.

Easier it is, from our perspective, to just ignore it, let it go, and move on.

And that’s why she never talked about it.

Speaking as a woman, I can attest to the fact that it requires a great deal of emotional constraint to not just get pissed off and flip tables every time a guy says something repulsive to you. And such fuckery happens a lot.

But no matter how often it happens, no matter how shitty your day has been, no matter how fucking fed up you are about dealing with men’s bullshit day in and day out, you know in the back of your head that it’s still in your best interest to keep yourself from getting pissed off and flipping tables.

And I repeat: it happens a lot.

To be a woman is to be expected to hold a great deal of everyday anger inside. This was the centering motif of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a book about a woman so fucking done with keeping up the “Cool Girl” pretense that, well, you probably know what happens in the end.

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”

Where critics thought Gone Girl did exceedingly well was to dramatize the psychic damage accrued in the life of a relatively privileged white woman who snaps when she can no longer conciliate herself to appease other people. The protagonist experienced her life as a repressive cage of expectations — to be thin, to be beautiful, to be “chill,” to be calm, to be gentle, to be accepting, to be ok with this shit. Eventually, you get to a point where you can’t, you pop off, and well, you saw the movie. Or maybe you just read Virginia Woolf. I dunno.

Despite my white trash heritage, I, too, found myself raised in a cage of repressive expectations. Often, I was told by relatives that my intense emotions were an inconvenience, something I needed to put away, to direct into something else, something “more productive.” After all, my family was poor and it was taken for granted that our lives were always going to be hard. It would do no one any good for me to be so bitchy about it. Best to take a bat outside and smash big rocks into little rocks or whatever else we kids used to do to feel better about having no hope or expectations that things might ever get better for us.

So flash forward to college and grad school sociology courses where I learn that systemic emotional suppression has always been a tactic of the powerful waged against the powerless to maintain a hierarchal society. Those on the bottom — like women since forever — can almost universally be expected to eat a great deal of shit. And in this dynamic, literally everyone eating shit is encouraged but also empowered in a hierarchy to seek consolation for having to eat so much shit by making those below them eat their shit — yes, exactly like Human Centipede.

When your family is at the bottom, you as a kid are at the absolute nadir. Your problems are perpetually set on the Maslow backburner, behind everything else that your mom has to deal with to keep you alive. “Not now!” “I can’t deal with this right now.” “Now is not the time!” “Just shut up!” “I’m too tired. Can this wait?”

Eventually, you just realize from years of this that your feelings don’t matter.

To this day, at 32, I still struggle to listening to my emotions as they arise in my day-to-day life. Part of the reason for this is because when I developed as a very young child (think ages 0–4), my emotional needs went unmet by my parents who were both alcoholics. Alcoholics and those struggling with addiction are bad parents not because they love their children any less than sober parents but because they are physiologically incapable so often under the influence of drugs and alcohol to attune themselves to and attend to the emotional needs of their children. Children who are learning emotional regulation from their addicted parents thus grow up out of tune with themselves, never knowing which feelings are worth attending to with love and compassion because for them the experience of parental care was for them so scarce and inconsistent.

For a developing child, this lack of emotional synchronization with one’s parents is experienced as chronic trauma and often manifests in attachment disorders later in life. Because as a child I didn’t feel like my feelings actually mattered, my kneejerk response to my own emotions has to been suppress them, to sublimate them, swallow them and keep them in. I still struggle with feeling as though I have any right to feeling. In my head, it all mixes together and eventually just feels like a heavy fog of anxiety and shame.

But I really don’t think I’m alone in this. A lot of women I know feel ashamed at how intensely they feel. I think this is in part because millennial girls were mocked, beginning from a very young age, for sincerely caring about anything, whether it be horses or Harry Potter fan fiction. The daughters of privilege I went to college with bore telling scars on their forearms and knuckles that told me all I had to know about white girls’ bodies being human corsets for surplus feeling.

I think there’s something not being addressed in the #metoo movement which is the fact that even as people become more comfortable with people talking about systemic sexual harassment, we as a society really haven’t made any space for the expression for the systemic outrage it creates. And I don’t just mean twitter call-out culture. I mean space where women can be angry, sing in minor chords and still expect to be loved and taken seriously, not labeled as too crazy to function.

This lack of space is a major societal problem. Because women know they won’t ever be afforded the space to process even righteous rage, girls are trained to spend the first few decades of our young lives learning to stifle it, swallow it, and turn it in ourselves. We’re lectured endlessly about self-care because it’s implied that social care isn’t a thing anyone can reasonably expect. And precisely for this reason, girls are way, way more likely than boys to demonstrate the symptoms of internalized rage, namely: anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, panic attacks and depression.

In other words, we learn how to beat the crap out of ourselves if that’s what it’ll take to keep ourselves chill.

The thing of it all is that it’s not just women who are expected to soothe themselves. I just happen to have a lot of personal experience shoehorning my anger into the tiny box allotted to girls of my class standing. Those who enjoy even less social privilege get issued even smaller boxes. It’s fucked up geometry: the less you matter to other people, the less total volume of anger you’re allowed to express your outrage with how they treat you.

Of course, we pretend otherwise. We pretend that everyone is allocated boxes of equal size and anyone whose anger escapes our standard-issued boxes must themselves be terribly mad, out of their head, completely beyond reason.

Pretending we are all equal is the most American thing about us. Liberty, freedom, equality — we’ve been lying about this shit since our founding genocide. Honest question: does anything the Constitution says about freedom really mean anything when the men who wrote it were raping their slaves?

Our entire legal system is founded on the very basic lie that all men are viewed equally in the eyes of the law. They aren’t. That’s why #BlackLivesMatters is so important — it’s creating a public conversation where there was before only deadly silence and the gross pretense of a lie.

Who are we kidding at this point to pretend otherwise?

Right, so accepting widespread, systemic inequality as social fact, can we at last consider how precious few degrees of freedom the majority of Americans are given to express dismay at the nightmare of modern life?

Recently, I watched through a few televised interviews of Samaria Rice in the wake of the police homicide of her 12-year-old son in front of her home in 2014. In this interview with Joy Reid filmed in 2016, Samaria is carefully portrayed as a seriously aggrieved mother, but never a mother carrying a serious grievance. She can be “very disappointed” with the Presidents’ inaction in the state-sponsored murder of her child, but she’s never shown as being angry with him.

Now, you could assume from this interview that perhaps the reason she does not express visible contempt is that she has risen above such pettiness and has forgiven her son’s uniformed assailant. After all, is that not what society expects from aggrieved women? To move on and get over it?

But it’s 2018 and I’m still not over the police homicide of Tamir Rice. So it’s hard for me to believe that this would an accurate representation Samaria’s real range of emotions so soon after a grand jury found her 12-year-old child guilty of getting himself killed.

Why do I think that?

Oh, because immediately after that jury failed to indict any officer involved in Rice’s shooting, her family released this fairly damning statement:

“Prosecutor McGinty deliberately sabotaged the case, never advocating for my son, and acting instead like the police officers’ defense attorney,” the statement said. “In a time in which a nonindictment for two police officers who have killed an unarmed black child is business as usual, we mourn for Tamir, and for all of the black people who have been killed by the police without justice. In our view, this process demonstrates that race is still an extremely troubling and serious problem in our country and the criminal-justice system.”

Oh, and also because she gave this speech at Kent State that same year where her emotion was not expected to be modulated for the benefit of liberal white people.

While in the interview with Joy Reid, she’s made to appear exceedingly calm. Nevertheless, she describes herself and her daughter as experiencing anxiety, panic and depression since the loss of her son. Or, you know, the symptoms of having to keep so much anger inside for so many years while the justice system completely fails you and your family.

I highlight the case of Samaria Rice here because I followed the story for so long and rarely saw her portrayed as anything close to being an angry Black woman. I’ve seen her portrayed as a mournful woman. I’ve seen her portrayed as a somber woman. But never have I seen her portrayed as an angry woman. Great care has always been taken by producers and editors at ostensibly Liberal media outlets such as MSNBC to portray this grieving mother as calm, even stoic about the police homicide of her innocent son.

Was she actually calm about the murder of her son? No, plainly not, if you look at how clarion is her expression of outrage in other contexts.

In my view, it makes sense that humans would get angry when someone is hurting their people. To be angry when a child is murdered seems to me the most genuinely human thing in the world. I get it. Like I said, I’m still angry. I’m angry every time the a cop kills a kid and there’s no justice. I’m angry when they die by the bullet and I’m angry when they die by the bomb. I’m angry that we can only seem to make space to talk about police homicide inside of hashtags.

But it wasn’t the Right-wing media establishment that needed Samaria Rice to be seen as civil. Those inglorious gasbags spur on incivility at every opportunity, trying every day to use the daily news as fuel to inflame an all-out race war. Ann Coulter, Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Nancy Grace, Laura Ingraham, Alex Jones — this fridge pack of Diet Nazis is paid a disgusting amount of money to blow that dogwhistle loud and clear. Their producers are tasked with building up whatever racist pretext they need to orchestrate a nightly two-minute hate. They would never dream of censoring a Black woman’s righteous anger because seeing a person of color in pain the stuff rabid racists are tuning in every night to see.

So, counterintuitively, it was the “smart” Liberal outlets that needed to cage in the narrative. They need to just show enough grief with injustice that people tune in, but not too much so as to incite arousal against the system. Just enough emotion to elicit sympathy, but not so much as to inspire mass mobilization against the racist police state that murdered a child. A delicate balance for the producers to strike, for sure.

You will have never seen, in all their coverage of police murder, Liberal pundits spending any time helping viewers learn how they can join their local chapter of #blacklivesmatters or instructions on how they can foster a culture of civilian oversight in their communities. You’ll never see antiracism programming on Liberal media because they don’t actually care about the systemic wounding and rewounding of racism. White people who watch hours and hours of Maddow are still calling the cops on Black kids. Nothing about their coverage strategy these past five years has altered how most of white America is responding to systemic police murder of Black people.

I mention a lot in my political blogging that I think The Daily Show conditioned much of the Left to lean into a posture of chronic defeatism, responding to all injustice with snark and derision. And around the same time, libertarian South Park was coaching generation of mostly young, male viewers that anyone who cares too much about anything should be made a target for mocking scorn. (Eventually, white men fed on both would grow up to be what we today call Irony Bros.)

What I have admittedly thought less about is how the conscious filtering of Black emotion out of the news narrative has enabled white supremacy. Watching through these interviews of Samaria following her son’s murder, it’s painful to see how many times she pauses to take in a deep breath to collect herself, knowing in that pause, despite knowing she has every right to show anger, she nevertheless feels she has to tone it down for the benefit of white people.

I’m not pretending to know Samaria Rice’s inner world. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a mother or to lose a child. I have no idea what what was said to her before these interviews or who (if anybody) offered her media coaching to prepare for them. But it’s hard to watch these and not see how much she’s viscerally struggling with not being able to say many of the things she says she feels in other contexts. It’s hard to watch these and not implicitly know how much work she has to do to censor her anger for public consumption.

Because civility is always what is expected of the powerless. It’s because civility is just another way of saying the oppressed need to keep eating shit.

Stories like Samaria Rice’s are why I think it’s so critical that Leftists with privilege not fuck whatsoever with civility policing. White cops murder Black children in the streets with impunity and we’re expected to be measured in our response to it? The government is caging children in abandoned desert Wal-marts and we’re supposed to be reasoned in our dissent? These suits own stock in the bullets that American soldiers shoot into brown kid’s bodies and you’re telling me to respect them?

To a very large extent, respectability politics have led us into this mess. Marginalizing and discrediting the aggrieved because they refuse on principle to tone down the tenor and intensity of their grievance so as to fit within the narrow parameters of acceptable discourse is the political function of Liberalism.

Since Clinton and Blair, the playbook of Liberals seeking power under the reign of neoliberalism has been to maneuver themselves to the right of the Left and to the left of the Right to entrench themselves as society’s rational nougat center. Too much concern, too much emotion — demonstrated by anyone — is what they argue invalidates one’s claim to authority.

Which is why Bernie Sanders, who (let’s be honest) can only show one emotion — anger — was so ruthlessly dismissed by insider pundits on the campaign trail. They asked, very often, how someone so angry could possibly run a Presidential campaign in an election where, clearly, the most reasonable one always wins.

Of course, we should know better — and yet this aspiration to be seen as reasonable is exactly the fallacy trap West Wing Liberals keep falling into, election cycle after election cycle. You would not be too off in thinking that the ever-lengthening primary season just seems like a bad season of the Bachelor, a sham pageant for identifying the most placid suit in the room by making everyone who cares too much about anything seem batshit by comparison.

But I gotta tell ya, this courting of an imaginary center hasn’t been working well for Liberals. Since the election, Gallup finds that only 1 in 4 adult Americans identifies with the Democratic Party. This is a historic low but it shouldn’t surprise you.

As an organizer with the Democratic Socialists now these past two years, I reflect quite a bit on the value of anger and rage in the Socialist revival we are now experiencing. At least in 2016, when the majority of our members joined DSA, obvious it was to me that what we shared in common was a bone-deep frustration with the Democratic Party. Our generation has been crushed by the contradictions of late capitalism and we feel that the elders of Party have adamantly refused to make our crisis a central plank in their policy platform.

Only Socialist Bernie made the effort to speak to the pain millennials felt and as a very predictable result, Grandpa Bernie ran away with the youth vote:

Hillary Clinton tanked young peoples’ demands for free college education and healthcare as a petulant child’s demand for a pony. In her book What Happened, she accused Bernie Sanders of being a wrecker for even entertaining such demands as universal healthcare and free college. If the poor kids are righteously pissed off, the worst that could be done in her mind was to listen to them.

Clearly, civility policing in times where anger is most appropriate is a tactic used by the powerful to discourage public outrage. But there is a straight line connecting Liberal mayocracy to the fascism of Donald Trump. In the Liberal mindset, the centre must be made to hold. But by continually dismissing the legitimacy of public outrage, Liberals just lost biggest significance contest of our lifetimes.

Bleaching the anger out of our civil discourse is a disservice to the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. It’s an arrogant exercise of power to protect the legitimacy of unequal institutions. It’s a last-ditch effort by the powerful to disburden themselves of accountability for making ours a society where basic demands for human life aren’t being satisfied. Because infinitely easier it is for lazy leaders to dismiss the downtrodden than it is to take responsibility for their role in perpetuating a system where so many are being crushed.

Organizers talk a lot about meeting people where they are. But that’s just lip service if you don’t think that’s going to mean meeting a lot of people who are really angry and very ready to tear fresh assholes into the people fucking over their families.

If you can’t make the space for incivility in your organizing, then maybe it’s time to admit that you’re championing the perpetuation of something else.

If you can’t listen with an open heart to what incivility is saying, maybe it’s time to admit you have no idea what it feels like to be perpetually crushed.

If you demand civility as a prerequisite from the people you’re organizing, then maybe it’s time to accept that maybe you’re not cut out for the work of organizing the working class.

This isn’t a classroom. This is a class war. Act accordingly.

Holly Wood

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Documentarian of the absurd.

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