Primum non nocere
To the person with a hammer everything looks like a nail.
At times, writing this column is like performing open heart surgery on myself. I have to take off all the protective armor and all the defense shields that I’ve learned to put up, and I have to sit down and gear myself up for speaking truth. Writing about the journey as I experience it, as I walk it in this field I’ve chosen to work in, is not always easy.
When I first sat down to write this column on anger, I wrote it with the distance of a writer approaching an abstract thing. At that time, it seemed the best way to do it. Who wants to write about anger? Who wants to talk about it? Who wants to expose the ugly part of self and admit that anger is also a companion, a familiar face, a weapon that I fall back on when I am at my wit’s end?
Growing up, I had to learn how to curb my expressions of anger.
If I did not get my way, I would sometimes stamp my feet. I sometimes resorted to angry tears and accusations, I would also shout. I had a way with words and I could use them very cruelly indeed. It was also not above me to threaten my elder sister with something terrible if she did not do as I said. Not that my sister was without a temper of her own, but still, I cannot even begin to count the number of times I got reprimanded by my mother and my father—because anger is not becoming. It is untame and unladylike. Anger just because I didn’t get my way was not excusable.
I wonder now if my parents ever despaired of me. Would this willful child with her outbursts of temper still be the same when she grew up?
I like to think that I have outgrown those outbursts; that I am no longer given to lashing out when the rage comes upon me. I like to think that I will be able to think first and control myself, that I will always be able to measure my words and consider their impact before I speak. But while I try my best, I am still human, and my anger lives very close to me just like it lives close to everyone who speaks up against injustice.
For many of us, anger is a shield. It is like armor that we can put on and know that nothing can touch us as long as we’re dressed in it. For the marginalized writer, anger is sometimes our only recourse. It is the refuge we go to when we are overwhelmed by the injustice of history, the grief of loss, and the agony of knowing we were born without power and without privilege. Here we are, occupying a world that runs on a system that privileges those born with privilege and all we have on our side is our anger.
It is anger that pushes us to go forward. That gives us the drive to keep fighting for change because we don’t want to see future generations struggling for breath, fighting for air, expending all their energy again and again in the same struggles we engage in today. We don’t have the luxury of retreating or giving up, and we cannot surrender the field because there are already too precious few of us standing here. And so, we draw on our anger and take our stand because, when you are at the end of your rope, sometimes there’s nothing else to reach for.
In this field that we occupy, in this glorious home of the imagination that we call science fiction, we need our anger because without it we might easily give in to the persistent voice that tells us we must be quiet and tame and civilized in order to be acceptable. In this field where there is so much noise, our anger gives strength to lift our voice and speak loud. And oftentimes loud is what we need to be so people will know that we want the room to breathe, to be seen, to be heard; that we need air and we refuse to be overlooked.
Anger is not tame. Neither am I. Neither are you.
But in the course of my own journey, I’ve also come to recognize that like all things, anger has many sides. Anger can move us to create change or anger can cause us to destroy. The question we need to be asking ourselves each time is this: What am I angry about? And what do I want to achieve with my anger?
Until recently, I’d never been much interested in awards except when I had friends who’d made it to the awards lists or when there was a particular author I was happy to see on there. When I heard about the Sad and Rabid Puppy slates, I didn’t pay much attention. What are the Hugos anyway? To someone who’s grown up outside of fandom and who came to fandom late in life, the significance of the Hugos didn’t come home to me until this year.
As the names for this year’s shortlist were announced, I witnessed the devastating effect on the fans who were present at the announcement, and I understood the pain and the resulting anger that comes when something you love is hacked into and turned into a farce.
The Sad and Rabid Puppies had struck at the heart of fandom, they had struck at the place where joy resides and taken away the joy from those who had made it to the shortlist by turning this event into one that was all about politics rather than the love of story.
Reading through the various blog entries where those who adhere to the Sad and Rabid Puppies campaign justify their slate approach, I see anger. It’s not the kind of anger that’s driven by the desire to build worlds and create stories, it’s a kind of anger that’s driven by frustration. I understand frustration and I understand anger, but I fail to see how an act driven by selfishness and pride could in any way be justified as being done out of a sense of wanting to see things done right.
A lot of posts and arguments have been written around the puppy slates, but how do you justify an act that brings harm to fans, to readers, and to colleagues in the field? How do you justify an act that harms the very thing you claim to want to protect?
I recall one vivid scene from childhood when my sister and I had to take the long hike from our home in the mountains to the elementary school that was down in the valley. I wasn’t a particularly agile child (not as agile or as quick as my sister), but I didn’t want to be left behind. That morning, my sister was in a rush because we were already late, and for some reason, I was dawdling. There was still time to get to school and if I hadn’t been such a baby, my sister would have made it on time. However, I felt that if I was going to be late, then so should she. The exasperation in my sister’s voice, the look on her face, and the shame I felt remain with me to this day.
It took a lot of lessons, a lot of talking to, a lot of discipline, before I understood that gaining success at the cost of another is no true success—that destroying a sibling’s beautiful thing doesn’t bring any satisfaction, only shame.
I’m not proud of the child that I was and I am thankful for the patience it must have required to teach me the valuable lessons that remain with me to this day.
When in a temper, stop and think. When angry, first consider. And above all, avoid doing harm.
A lot of history is painful reading. It’s particularly painful when you understand that there are no quick and easy solutions, that not much has really changed, and the anger that you feel and the grief you feel at the injustices that have taken place cannot be so quickly addressed. It becomes more complicated when you understand too how the injustices of the past cannot be put on the shoulders of those who have inherited that past, when you acknowledge that there are people who also struggle under the weight of that heritage and who wrestle with complex feelings at having inherited so much privilege.
When the system you’re working in is filled with a lot of sharp edges that prod at those places where grief and sorrow dwell, it’s easy to be provoked into anger. When you’re constantly faced with the injustices of daily life, when you understand that the system is skewed and will always be skewed to privilege the already privileged and that you who live outside of that system will always struggle and will continue to struggle for every square meter of oxygen, giving in to rage sometimes seems to be the only recourse.
How do you breathe? How do you struggle? How do you even talk about growing and achieving the pinnacle of success when the system is built to stunt your growth, when there are no in-built mechanisms that will nurture you and help you along the way? How do you fight for justice without surrendering to bitterness, without allowing yourself to be consumed by hatred, without doing harm?
In the struggle for social justice, some justify harm done by saying, “This harm that is inflicted is justified because the person on the receiving end occupies a position of privilege.” I’ve seen this kind of argument used to justify vitriolic attacks, personal threats, and dehumanizing language while failing to consider the effect this kind of argument has on those who are listening in on such reasoning. What does it then say about us if we embrace the same kind of language used by those who imposed colonization upon us? Have we truly shed the shackles of colonialism if we embrace the same mindset, justifying whatever means we use in order to achieve an end?
I think of a history of letters, of servicemen writing home about the slaughter of Filipino soldiers as if they were nothing more than cattle. I think of the kind of mindset the colonizer embraced in order to achieve an end—the subjugation of a country.
I find myself thinking that true change cannot take place if we make use of the same hierarchies, if we make use of the same tools, if we follow the same pattern as that which upholds and supports the current status quo.
To dismantle the Master’s house, to create a lasting change, it’s necessary for us to look at the structure with new eyes. It becomes necessary for us to divest ourselves of the imperialistic and hierarchical way of thinking that has been imposed upon us by patriarchy and colonization. It becomes necessary for us to reach for other tools.
We all have our defining moments and for me, 2011 was one of those years. It was the year I began an intensive journey into decolonization. I was angry about many things. I was a third-world migrant in a first-world country, a brown woman in a predominantly white society, I was a volunteer for an organization that reminded me time and again that no matter what place I had occupied in the home country, here, I was stripped of that. Here, I was simply another brown body—a body occupying a place that was somewhat less than the white bodies that have occupied this space for a very long time—a body that must learn to fight for space, for room, for the right to stand where I choose to stand.
On the surface, the Netherlands is a progressive and tolerant society, but beneath the surface, tension simmers. The attack on the twin towers reverberated throughout the world, and in this progressive and tolerant society, fear of the unknown manifested itself in more blatant shows of discrimination and prejudice.
There is no established language for racism in the Netherlands, and the words that are used in America are not sufficient for what needs to be discussed in this country. Conversations around race can never be narrowed down to one axis. There are so many other things at play, and to make use of the same discourse would erase what needs to be talked about and confronted here.
Delving into history awakens pain, and being confronted with a structure that reminds you of that history is also pain. Rather than confront that pain, it was much easier for me to lash out in rage—to demand a destruction of the system, a tearing down of patriarchy. The slightest thing was enough to set me off. I was angry at the racism I saw, angry at the injustice that was being acted out, and I felt powerless because I didn’t know how to fight it. Far easier to lash out, to shout in anger than to admit that I did not know how to enact change. I firmly believed that I was doing good—that it was only right to talk about destroying the patriarchy and the status quo, but I did not think beyond that destruction. There was no room for thinking beyond when rage occupied my mind.
I don’t know if I would have continued on that path. I don’t know what I would have become. But a precious pioneer woman confronted me at a crucial moment and asked me a question that has become the touchstone that I return to each time I am tempted to rage.
“What is it that you want to achieve?” she said. “And what alternative do you have in mind?”
If our anger moves us to destroy, then we must also think of how we wish to rebuild. If we rebuild the structure in the same manner with different people on top, we are simply replicating the same system of privilege and oppression. To create true and lasting change, it becomes necessary for us to pause—to mindfully consider where we are going with our rage and what alternatives we can offer so we do not fall back into the same patterns as those inflicted on us.
In lobbying for change, we need anger that propels us to create a different future. We need more than rage to bring into being a future that is better than the present we occupy.
To imagine that kind of future and to bring that kind of future to pass requires a visionary kind of thinking—requires imagination, requires love. Where else can we envision that possibility first? Where else can we speculate and create the models on which a future progressive society can be built than here where all advancements are first imagined?
The challenge to us becomes this: are we willing to stretch out our hands and work towards making that future more than just something that we dream about or imagine?
Where does your anger come from? What are you doing about it? What’s your alternative?
- Thanks to Tade Thompson, E. P. Beaumont, and Kari Sperring for reading and giving feedback on this essay.
- This essay is one in a series. “Taking Stock,” which was published some two months ago, serves as an introduction.
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