Equanimity in Activism
The other day, following two conversations in which men expressed ‘butthurt’ at my remarks on the damage caused by misogyny, I coined the phrase: Exasperated Feminist.
I am not angry. I am not a ‘feminazi’. I am not hateful towards men, and I don’t think they have no place in the conversation. In fact, I regularly try to have these conversations, although it’s usually against my better judgement. They rarely result in constructive discourse, after which both parties understand one another better. More often than not I’m told my tone is negative or hurtful, or that I lack compassion — a manipulative move coming from someone who has decided their hurt feelings matter more than the lived experience of oppression their fellow human is trying to name. Couple this regularly encountered aggression in social situations with observations of the online terrorism of marginalised activists who choose to speak out despite the risk of DOXXing, rape threats and stalking, it’s a wonder that I do want to have these conversations.
We live in an age of information, of unsurpassed storytelling. We are exposed to things on a global scale, shown the devastating impact of poverty, famine, climate change, sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, economic collapse, and government corruption. We have entered a new wave of activism, a new level of social communication and experience sharing. We can find out anything with an Internet search, following a multitude of footnotes and resources and back links to flesh out the truth. It’s all there!
I don’t want to give in to the fear and anxiety that comes along with the predictability of the aggression I will face for making my voice heard. Indeed, these conversations wouldn’t be met with such vitriol if they did not strike a nerve, if they weren’t making a difference. All I’m trying to do is add to the incredible abundance of previously unheard voices. I want to contribute to the marginalised masses as they say again and again: This is my experience, it is real, it matters, and we all have a part in changing the story. I want to be helpful, to encourage self-reflection, curiousity, greater understanding. I want people to take this abundance of information and use their privilege to change a system that only works to the advantage of an elite few.
And yet, some continue to say these systems are not social constructs, that we do have parity, that the numbers generated from repeatedly proven studies are false while the enthusiastic lies spouted by pundits are true.
I see the Exasperated Activist everywhere I go: The Exasperated Black Lives Matter blog post, the Exasperated Feminist Gamer documentary, the Exasperated Wheelchair User comedian.
Arguments against human rights, the dismissal of validated reports and studies, claims that these social constructs are ‘all in the head’ — these things are baffling. It’s just as bewildering to encounter someone who says they are angry about being blamed or made to feel shame for these constructs, and in the next breath say something to firmly establish that they hold a bigoted belief, possibly even proudly. Willful ignorance is hard to understand in the age of information.
Of course, the irony is not lost on me: I struggle to understand an inability to understand. Or perhaps the better way to put it is, I don’t know how to relate to someone who doesn’t know how to relate to me.
But I want to. I want to relate because an inability to do so is what created these social constructs in the first place. It also reinforces and perpetuates the harmful assumptions that accompany them.
A failure to relate frustrates everyone, not least because many of us have been on both sides of these conversations. I’ve been on the receiving end of harsh words when I’ve said something totally ignorantly middle-class, white or able-bodied. People have called me out, and not kindly, but also not because of me, personally. Whatever I said was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back — the last ignorant thing someone was able to smile and put up with.
Being on the receiving end of criticism like that is hard. The gut reaction is to assume we are being called a bad person, to label ourselves as such and go on the defensive to prove otherwise. So then we dig an even bigger hole, rather than using the feedback to self-reflect and change our behaviour.
When all is said and done, we’re all exasperated in one way or another. The white man born into poverty who doesn’t experience the privilege people tell him he has, feels provoked in the same way as the white woman who voices her frustration about being talked over by a man for the umpteenth time that week. The Black woman who joins a feminist group that uses white-focused language is as exasperated as the white woman who didn’t intend to make a racist remark, but totally did. The trans* person who is asked about their genitals by a total stranger is as frustrated as the curious and misguided Babyboomer.
The problem is not that anyone is right or wrong in any of these situations. The problem is that we carry around an expectation that other people should regulate how we feel, that other people determine how we feel and need to modify their language for our comfort. But we can’t know how someone is going to take what we say, regardless of how we intended it. We each bring a whole stack of propensities to any given situation — what I find offensive or rude, another person will take neutrally and yet another will find amusing. When we don’t own how we feel we get into a discussion of how something was meant versus how it was perceived, instead of having a genuine conversation about a real problem, and how to go about changing it. It’s stops being about hearing what’s being said, and instead is about how we feel about what’s being said.
Learning to remain open to another person’s experience, while also owning our emotions, is not easy. I don’t pretend for one second that it is. Compassion is a skill we develop over time through trial and error. And in writing this I am taking on a considerable challenge, as I’m writing from my lived experience of marginalisation, in combination with my lived experience of privilege. I want to ensure, when sharing my experience as a woman or as some who is gay, that it’s not an attack on the person I’m speaking to, but a presentation of a construct that’s damaging to everyone. I know I’ve snapped at people when they’ve said things that reached the edge of my tolerance — or not even snapped but just taken a ‘no bullshit’ attitude in my response, choosing not to pad it out for the sake of diplomacy. On the flip side, I strive not to take a remark about my actions or speech as a personal insult, but as commentary on a greater social issue and an invitation to cultivate greater self-awareness.
In trying to understand how to effectively communicate from such a place, to share how I experience both privilege and marginalisation together, I seek guidance from people far more skilful than me. In doing so I came across a line in a book by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel that strikes directly into the heart of the struggle I have as an activist, feminist, queer person and woman, as well as someone with considerable privilege:
“How can we be both tender and liberated?”
This question is a beautiful koan at the centre of a back and forth between seeking equality while not contributing to the hatred and animosity that surrounds us. This is what I am exploring when I contemplate what genuine compassion is, and how to embody it for all beings, without exclusion. I do not want to be a doormat, someone silent about their experience, but at the same time, I recognise that anger has resolved nothing, and violence and aggression only create enemies, not allies.
We must be willing to speak out and we must also be willing to listen. We also must reflect so we know when one is called for and the other isn’t. There is no formula for this—it is unique in every situation, which is why we take notes, why we self-reflect and discuss and research more. Ultimately it’s about learning to understand ourselves better. Because the more we understand ourself, the more we understand others.
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Quote from: Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, The Way of Tenderness (non-fiction)