Friday, May 8, 2015

Some Thoughts about Anger and Oppression

"Male and female stand opposed within a primordial Mitsein, and woman has not broken it. The couple is a fundamental unity with its two halves riveted together, and the cleavage of society along the line of sex is impossible." (Simone de Beauvoir, Introduction to The Second Sex)

Lately, a few unrelated causes have made me think about gender issues in the academy and the workplace in general. Beauvoir makes the above claim to explain why women have, for millennia, not rebelled against oppression. As I understand her, she is not advocating that we attempt to break the community between men and women, or even lamenting that such a cleavage is impossible. She is simply observing that some of the means available to other oppressed groups have not been available to women.

I agree, but I am worried today about a less dramatic cleavage--the cleavage that might occur when women (or members of any underrepresented group) become frustrated, angry, and finally exasperated at the barriers they still face working on equal footing with men. Let me be very clear from the beginning: I believe anger can be a healthy, appropriate response to injustice, and I have zero interest in denying the validity of such anger.

That said, I also worry about anger, for three reasons. First, expressing it can hurt our cause. It is, unfortunately, still true that women who express anger in the workplace are more likely than men who do so to be perceived as emotionally overreactive and irrational. (And yes, that is infuriating. You see the difficulty here.) Second, anger takes a toll on the person bearing it. People have different tolerances for negativity, and I can't speak for others. But my own tolerance is pretty low. I don't like how I feel or act when I'm angry. After the fact, the expression rarely seems to have been worth it. Finally, anger distorts. It narrows our vision and primes us for confirmation bias, which means that when we are angry, we risk being unjust ourselves. Raw skin inflames at even a gentle touch.

So what can we do? I suggest the following strategies, but I'd love to hear others' ideas for more.

   We can try to remember that we are guilty too. Oppression is about power, and anyone in a position of power over anyone else is in danger of abusing it. Nietzsche was probably right, moreover, that people who feel weaker than others can be particularly aggressive when the tables are turned. I want to become more aware of any tendencies I have to lord power over my students, for example. Moreover, men are not uniquely guilty of bias against women. How many women undermine all of us by tearing down other women? And even if we avoid such explicit expression, we may still have sexist (or racist) attitudes of which we are unaware. (Harvard's implicit bias tests can be a helpful exercise in self-knowledge: Any part of our anger mixed with self-righteousness should probably not survive self-exploration.

   We can direct our energy to helping others who experience discrimination. We can mentor our juniors, search with hope for young people who need encouragement, and support their efforts with enthusiasm. Here we may be able to counteract the negativity I spoke of above with one of the best kinds of pleasure.

   We can speak publicly, calmly, and generally about the real problems still facing underrepresented groups. If we feel destructive anger taking over and becoming bitterness, it might be that we have been holding in too much. Of course, oppression makes one afraid of speaking truth to power. But we can overcome some of this fear by remembering, again, that many men (and women) are simply unaware of these issues as they play out in day-to-day life and would by no means want to contribute to the problem if they were aware. Since no one likes to feel attacked or accused, general and public statements may be more effective than private conversations. If someone brings a problem to my attention in a public forum, I feel much freer to consider whether or not I am among the sources of that problem than if that same person accuses me individually.

Again, these strategies may be too little in some cases, and I cannot speak for what might work for minority groups or people in different environments. Nothing I say here seems to have any relevance for people whose safely or lives are in danger because of their race, gender, or religion. 

In other situations, however, women are surrounded by both men and women who sincerely want to nurture Mitsein--that "being-with" that means that we cannot deny that our own flourishing is inseparable from that of others with whom we live and work. They may still be completely clueless about how to promote that flourishing, and again, that can be infuriating. Sometimes anger is all we have, and it can be powerful. Given its potential dangers, however, I want to be very cautious about drawing the conclusion that any particular moment is one of those times.