Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Anger Redux: Politeness is Overrated

So, I want to talk about anger again, but this time I'm more interested in talking about anger in communication than anger as an emotion.

As you may know, I am a graduate student in a college of education. This is a weird place for me, as a queer person and someone who gets that the education system we have is killing people - queer people, black and brown people - and is still preserving privilege for its traditional recipients. I'm an outsider, erased from the curriculum, but choosing to participate. I'm constantly negotiating whether this is the right thing for me or not.

Sometimes, in academia, conversations get really heated. This happened last week, and two of my friends and I got angry because we felt like the people we were talking to weren't understanding that what is going on is a life-and-death struggle. We are worried about people dying because of the screwed up society we're in that education reinforces. So when people are refusing to get that, to see their own white privilege, we get real pissed.

What happens then is that someone stops the argument because it's getting too hot and not-nice. Abagond calls this "the tone argument," and points out that it is a logical fallacy. It's refusing to acknowledge the truth of what is being said because they don't like how that truth is being spoken. If you stop yelling at me, in other words, maybe I will listen to what you are saying. It's a derailment tactic. I don't think people will listen even when those words are not spoken loudly.

D put it better, when I posted it on Facebook:
On this I am clear - it is not tone but Truth which alienates people. If you say it silently it alienates (Ghandi), if you say it softly it alienates (Rosa Parks), if you say it strong it alienates (MLK Jr.), if you say it loud it alienates (Malcolm X). I get to CHOOSE how I want to say it, but I know the message is the problem, not my choice of conveyance.

And those of you who are Facebook friends with me may find the rest of this familiar, but why rewrite it when I said what I meant the first time:

Here's what I'm struggling to understand: Why do we have to insist on hearing things the way we want to hear them before we can accept that they are true? It's a logical fallacy and a derailment tactic. I feel as though there is some straight white middle-class way of expressing things, that we have this hang-up about being "polite" or whatever, and if other people aren't bringing their words to the table in a way that fits with that politeness, it's over, the straight white middle class doesn't have to listen. They will be hearing uncomfortable truths about themselves, and if those truths can be written off, they will be. You don't have to feel alienated when someone else gets angry. Even if they are angry with you personally. Aren't we all trying to make the world better? Can't we try to understand that anger? Anger is powerful and important. Politeness can silence people. Why do I have to meet you at your politness? You can meet me at my anger. But politeness is privileged, because it is associated with the most privileged people.

Something happened at AERA that I think of when I think of this. In one of the queer SIG panels I went to, this dude got up and (after saying some mean things about trans people, which was enough to lose the crowd) put up transcript excerpts from his interviews that he did with queer college kids. He had changed all kinds of language in the transcripts to "tone them down." He got read for that like you would NOT BELIEVE. The chair of the session said it well, I thought: he talked about how you can't change OUR words, you can't heteronormatize us, or you are trying to change US to fit THEIR system. And the heterosexist/white supremacist system is killing people.

If you see people expressing their anger or using words you don't like as a problem, it feels a lot like saying that there is a deficit in the person whose speech you don't like. It makes it easier to avoid the deficits in the dominant society that are making that kind of speech feel urgent and necessary. People are dying. I don't understand why we're not all yelling all the time.

See also this set of examples for what this blogger calls the Wite-Magik Attax.


  1. part of you struggling to understand may be that you're, apparently, thinking we're "all" trying to make the world better. i don't know about you, but the people that need to meet me at my anger are definitely not trying to make the world better. just theirs.

  2. Oh, for sure. In the context of that conversation, though, I think everyone IS looking for social justice. It's just frustrating when they call in the minorities to talk about these issues and then don't listen to what they have to say.

  3. "This is a weird place for me, as a queer person and someone who gets that the education system we have is killing people - queer people, black and brown people - and is still preserving privilege for its traditional recipients."

    I'm reminded of the Carlisle Indian School (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlisle_Indian_Industrial_School) and its ilk that sought to "kill the Indian, save the man" through (often violent) assimilation and erasure (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4929/). Nowadays Jim Thorpe is praised as a model all-American athlete while Sitting Bull and Geronimo have their lives Othered and their legacies assimilated.

    I think D's comment is fantastic in its truth (it also references more people who have had their legacies assimilated).

  4. Totally, Andrew. I really like your examples. And yes, most things D says are fantastic in their truth.