Anger isn't an effective form of activism.
But you can't tell much of the population that right now. In fact, I felt pretty overwhelmed this week by how much anger and aggression I see out in the world at the moment. And more than that, I worry that people think I don’t see what’s going on and, worse, that I don’t care.
But I DO care. I care about the Earth and racism and gender equality (for ALL the genders—hi, not just women, cool) and animal factory farming and…all the causes.
I care so much it makes me pretty angry to see how angry activists are hurting activism and the causes they claim to care about.
It’s because I remember being that angry activist. That’s why I understand it all so well.
Is the anger more than it was before?
Is it because of one person?
My mom asked me what I thought today. I told her it’s absolutely the collective suffering of all human beings that’s being reflected back to us right now. And the angry activists are equally responsible, even if they think they aren’t.
She kept talking about one person who is making it all happen.
I don’t think she heard me when I said one person isn’t responsible. It’s ok. I stopped trying to drive my points home a long time ago because I learned from doing it so angrily that it doesn’t work—and it only made things worse.
As someone who practiced angry activism from my early 20s through my mid-30s, I totally understand the concepts and perspectives being shared around social media.
In fact, I’ve been doing the “work” of environmental activism and racism and gender equality and so on for so long (over 20 years, actually), it’s interesting for me to see more and more people wake up to ideas I’ve known about for two decades.
It’s a good thing they are waking up, but it’s a hard thing to witness. An essential stage of waking up is anger as a response to the sadness for how long you were asleep and didn’t see what you see once it’s brought to your awareness.
Anger isn’t a feeling though, as I learned from my therapist. It’s a response to a feeling. Anger covers sadness, quite often. And that’s what overwhelms me when I look out into the world right now: the profound amount of sadness that is bringing human beings to the brink of their own sanity.
And coming to that edge and feeling so helpless and hopeless. they resort to anger and rage from their frustration at feeling unable to stop the world from spinning in a way that feels so out of control.
What an incredible desire to help, I think.
What a beautiful feeling of fragility and vulnerability.
But when that beautiful desire is covered up by a reactive, explosive, alienating, derisive, vindictive ANGER—all the beauty of the intention is lost. That reactionary anger adds fuel the fire of animosity and resentment and selfishness and suffering.
When I realized this, I was standing in a room at a Buddhist retreat facing one of my favorite teachers, Ani Pema Chodron.
After years of feeling so angry as a learned behavior to deal with pain and finding a community of individuals who justified that anger as a means to change and “social justice”, I had begun to see the fault in their argument. The doubt had crept in. How did anger help reduce anger and evilness? How would self-righteousness bring about justice?
It didn’t. It never could and never would. Anger isn’t love, no matter how one tries to justify it. Anger is valid to experience or feel as a human being but it’s never a mature reason to behave like a bratty teenager because people aren’t being nice to one another or being racist or homophobic or eating meat.
I mean, really? You’re mad at people because they don’t eat what you want them to eat?
You’re mad at people because they don’t understand how race was created and lingers in society because they never learned that?
You’re mad at me, random woman who posts her preferred cis pronouns to show the world she’s “woke”, because I shared my honest opinion on my friend’s Facebook post? My opinion as a feminist trans* person?
MMM. Yeah. That one really got to me. Hetero cis white women behaving as performative allies are the folk who get my goat, these days. I thought it would be men who might give me the hardest time when I transitioned. Nope, it’s semi-woke white gurls. Going to write about that one…soon.
And this behavior is what I’m speaking to. It’s the glaringly obvious reason why anger hurts activism. Especially that last example. I wondered how she’ll feel when she realizes she’s attacking a person from the very “community” she claims to be an ally for.
I wonder if she’ll ever find enough humility to wonder…
When I step back, this is why I feel sad and that sadness turns to anger and then I feel incredulous about how many activists sit on their arrogant high thrones, judging and casting stones at the very people they claim are the wrong-doers or hurting the very people they claim they want to help (or look good pretending to). With all their awareness, they seem to lack the self-awareness of that irony.
I feel incredulous. I feel sad. I feel ANGER at them. I feel that anger because I was them. I am them, before I catch myself and bring myself back to my better nature.
I think of myself back before I had that realization in the room with Pema Chodron when she clearly explained why anger could never be an effective means of activism.
It would never bring about the result people wanted because it only sets up a reaction in the “opposite side” instead of bringing them around toward the critical tipping point needed to shift society toward a positive change.
Love does that. Kindness. Compassion. Understanding.
I once thought of these as weakness. I, too, would have been someone to use the #resist hashtag because I would have been hanging out with people who felt that way and my behavior would have been influenced by their opinions that justified rage as appropriate resistance.
But I’ve learned and grown so much to see that true courage, true strength comes from Loving what feels unlovable, being kind to who seems evil and showing compassion toward what seems unforgivable.
Anger is easy. It’s a defense the ego uses to push away and reject. But the rejection of others stems from self-rejection which is a snake chasing its tail. We can never love what we don’t love in ourselves. This is what hurts activism and the causes it seeks to rectify in our society.
Embracing sadness and choosing a different response is harder but much more effective.
How do I know?
Well, after years of alienating my mother (and many other people) with my angry activist ways, she still calls me and asks my opinion on important activist causes and matters and she listens to my new viewpoint. She may not believe her ears, actually, because I’m such a different person than she knew years ago. Back when I was a person who was so self-righteous about my beliefs that I wasn’t listening at all to the people who were trying to understand or who just didn’t want to agree with me.
And that’s ok. It’s really good actually. It’s proof that change takes time and it reminds me of the long game of activism that ends up changing us in the process of the causes we strive for.
Want more help with this topic?
Read more about my interaction with Pema here.
Read another article I wrote on Medium called Your Anger Won’t Save Us.
And listen to my interview on the ONE YOU FEED podcast by clicking here: