In this fast-changing world, I’ve been so busy trying to keep up with technology that it’s taken me some time to notice that our ideas and values are morphing as well. My neurones probably aren’t firing as fast as they used to, but I’ve gradually become aware that activist culture has shifted around me and some of the developments make me a little uneasy.
I was born in the final months of the 1960s and while growing up in the material world of the eighties, I idolised the mythical decade of my birth when peace, love and tolerance were in vogue. With variable success, my aim has always been to accept everyone as they are, and not to cause offence to anyone unless it is absolutely necessary.
A few years ago I first came into close contact with young people fiercely upholding the marginally different values of the present decade. It was a large gathering of environmental campaigners planning an activity collectively and we were trying to reach consensus on our methodology. One of the proposed agreements was that if we were arrested, we would remain calm. I’ve participated in my share of civil disobedience over the years, and for me this proposal was a simple safety requirement, but a couple of young students sitting near me were outraged. “Fuck that!” I heard one whisper to the other, before they made a more official objection.
Their argument was that if a person of colour, or any other oppressed individual, had experienced trauma with police in the past, we shouldn’t demand that they suppress their anger if it was triggered on this occasion. It is true that as a privileged white woman whose clashes with the law have been fairly benign, I had not previously considered this. Sometimes fury is undoubtedly justified. However, I was also worried that if anyone did react aggressively to the police it could potentially endanger us all. There were others, including the Pacific Islanders in the room, who shared my concerns and the combativeness of the students did nothing to reassure us. After a lengthy discussion it was agreed to change the wording to “try to remain calm,” which seemed a fair compromise.
Since then I have collaborated with millennials on a number of projects and discovered the meaning of phrases such as neurodiverse, genderqueer and being called out. I find these new paradigms exciting, challenging and I completely understand how important it is to continually question our subconscious prejudices and belief systems. However, I can’t deny that I’ve been confused and conflicted by concepts such as tone policing and cultural appropriation and I think I’ve figured out that it is the rise of the victimhood culture that causes my apprehension.
Basically, my fear is that young activists may become bogged down in detail and use so much energy getting defensive over minor disputes that there won’t be enough left for the major tasks of breaking the system and building a new one. It’s a question of scale. Negative emotions are draining and best released sparingly.
The Dalai Lama, who has been exiled from his homeland for most of his life and has plenty of cause for resentment, says, “anger and hatred are the type of emotions which, if you leave them unchecked or unattended, tend to aggravate and keep on increasing. If you simply get more and more used to letting them happen and just keep expressing them, this usually results in their growth, not their reduction… anger and hatred obscure the ability of human beings to see things clearly, leading to unrealistic courses of action.”
Let me make my own claim for low-level victim status here and say that from many years working as one of the few women in the shipping industry, I understand the frustration of being in a disenfranchised minority, and I also get that my experience is nothing compared to that of many others. Of course everyone has the right to justice, and everyone has the right to express their feelings and to be heard.
The main reason for controlling one’s righteous anger in certain situations is practical. From my years in the environment movement, using nonviolent direct action as a successful tool to achieve desired outcomes, I’ve found that meeting hostility with serene composure is by far the best way to conquer it. The power of staring an opponent down calmly, with the full conviction of being on the right side of history, is immeasurable. If a person has too much rage to allow them to do this, then their time is probably better spent on healing themselves than confronting injustice directly.
Anger is certainly a valid emotion, but it is not an effective tactic for creating peace. Look at the Middle East. Palestinians and Israelis both have very legitimate reasons for their aggression. Their homes have been invaded and there have been generations of violence and mistrust between them. How could anyone ever forgive the killer of their father, for example, but on the other hand, how else is this conflict ever going to end? The only way our species can hope to mature is if someone can somehow choose to take the higher ground.
And ultimately who is going to be hurt most by the anger of the oppressed? The privileged overlords will not be the ones lying awake in the middle of the night grinding their teeth. Be angry about inequality, yes, but choose wisely how to maintain your rage. Write an essay about genocide, speak to a rally about abuse, but don’t waste precious mental strength on little insults. Release your frustration somehow, let it go and then work on the solution, or just work on your own health.
To change the world, I believe we need to rise out of victimhood. We cannot wait for our oppressors to kneel down out of guilt, apologise and hand us justice on a plate. Firmly and assertively, we need to take the steps necessary to create a fairer world, but without aggression or violence. No matter how wronged we have been in the past, the kind of society we want in the future cannot be based on hate. There is power in anger but there is greater power in truth. Using the courage and strength shown by such people as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Leymah Gbowee, we can overthrow the unjust systems and replace them with something better.