don't get mad; get allied
This post is for men who are angry on behalf of the women in their lives.
One of the men who follows this blog and listens to our podcast recently asked me and Ronit,
What do you think the possible role for men's anger is in service of social justice? Particularly white men's anger? We are allowed access to that tool in a way that other aren't; besides pointing out that inequity and questioning it, is there a way that we could be using it given its power in our culture? Or is white men's anger so tied in with the suppression of other voices, into implied violence and intimidation that it would do more harm than good?
Well shit, buddy. That’s a great fucking question! And can I just say, Ronit and I are absolutely going to take credit for the fact that our listeners are hella emotionally intelligent. YOU’RE WELCOME, TIM. ;)
YES, BE ANGRY…
First of all, of course I want you to be angry. First, because you don’t get to choose your feelings and if you’re angry I don’t want you spending your energy on kicking your own ass, uselessly.
Second, I want you to be outraged when someone hurts people because anger is a fucking rational response to an act of violence against another human. I want you to be angry because that means you see me as human. I want you to feel violent impulses toward predators and scumbags. Your anger validates my anger in a way that I wish I didn’t need and maybe our children’s children won’t, but HERE WE ARE, and yes, I do need men to agree with me that men can be fully-blown-out shitty diaper trash. If you’re angry too, that makes it real.
And yes, of course, I want you to let me know that you’re angry.
… BUT NOT, LIKE, RIGHT HERE.
Here’s the twist in the pretzel, fellas… when you tell me you’re angry, you can’t be, like, angry about it. I want you outraged, but I don’t want you raging TO me, AT me, or AROUND me.
Male anger is branded as heavily as Axe Body Spray, and it’s ALMOST as repellant to experience in real life. Male anger is a weapon. So is Axe Body Spray, for that matter, but that’s a different post. Your anger is violent. It’s barely under your control in the best of circumstances, and it scares the ever-loving shit out of me.
When you get angry to protect a woman in your life from violence, that’s like throwing her a Scream-mask-themed baby shower. OK thank you for this party in my honor... but I know what that is and it’s murder.
Or maybe it’s more like serving Mad Dog 20/20 at the baby shower, like, again, okay, that’s fine but that’s not… that’s not what we’re doing here.
I have an unconscious response to male anger, an impulse to freeze that pulses from my brain stem and commandeers my limbs into stillness. “Ssshhhhh,” it says. “Don’t move.” Yes, when you get verbally, physically, yellingly angry around women, you’re tryna be this guy:
But you’ve just become THIS GUY:
Which explains why we’re like THIS:
TW: This is a story about a scary situation.
This happened a long time ago.
I was in a women’s bathroom avoiding a stocky dark-haired guy with a badly-shaven face and a unibrow. I call him the Scumbag in my mind. We’d chatted when I first arrived, and when we made eye contact, he scared me. I excused myself. I noticed that he kept looking over at me as I wove through the crowd, trying to move slowly so I might blend in. I went into the bathroom and into a stall. I heard the door open and close. I came out of the stall.
The Scumbag rushed me. He walked through me and pushed me against the wall. I will never forget the ingrown hair on his cheek. There are other things I will never forget, but they belong to me.
But nothing really bad happened (because following a woman into a bathroom and assaulting her isn’t REALLY bad, right?) (Sing it with me now, it’s raaaaaaape cultchah HA-cha-cha-cha!)
(I’m singing in a jazzy Mullally voice because I’m uncomfortable, in case that wasn’t clear to you.)
Because before anything really bad could happen, the door opened and I heard a man’s voice call, “Everything okay in there?”
The Scumbag’s hands got tighter and then things happened fast. He let go of me and backed away just as the guy that I think of as the Good Guy came in like a fucking hurricane, shoulders first through the door. I remember him like a cartoon bulldog.
And weirdly, this was the scariest part: The Good Guy grabbed the Scumbag. He grabbed him by the throat. He slammed him onto the ground. It was cartoonishly violent. I remember being afraid that the Scumbag’s spine might be broken, that was how hard he got put the fuck down by his neck. “Don’t fucking do that,” The Good Guy said. His voice was so loud and deep, and it echoed around the bathroom. I felt like I was in the room with a whole pack of barking dogs and no fence between us. He was so angry. “You piece of shit,” he growled. I flinched.
Please know that I’m not critiquing the manner in which this man disrupted an assault. Please know that I am grateful.
I don’t think there was a better way for him to handle it. What else could he have done? Walked in, tapped the Scumbag on the shoulder and said, “Pardon me, chappy, don’t much care for the way your fingers are leaving white marks on her wrists. Lighten up a bit, won’t you? Why don’t I escort the lady back to the party while you seek therapy and possibly castration, hm? Whaddya say, sport?”
I think I understand the flash point, the place where you see a problem, your adrenaline tap opens full, and your brain goes dark but for two words: KILL PROBLEM. The words flash in your mind as red and enormous as the title of a Tarantino movie on 70mm. KILL PROBLEM. KILL PROBLEM. KILL PROBLEM.
The problem with that flash point is that you hit it even when you’re not confronted with an actual living problem. The problem with responding to trauma with anger is that more often than not, you hit that the flash point when you hear about the trauma, not when confronted with the trauma itself.
In other words, you’re going to hear bathroom stories about 50,000 times more often than you’re going to be the Good Guy in the bathroom, but you respond to the stories as if you’re in that bathroom.
So now put yourself in my living room when I’m telling you the story of the Scumbag in the bathroom. It’s just you and me here, and I’m telling you that I was a teenager and he wore a uniform, and I’m telling you that I only ever told one person about it until now, and I’m sneaking glances at your face and trying to crack jokes and minimize what happened (ha cha cha cha!), so you’ll be comfortable listening to this uncomfortable story.
You’re listening to me talk and wishing you’d been the one to put him on the ground. You’re wishing that motherfucker was here right now so you could show him what a man does to the skeletal structure of scumbags who attack girls in bathrooms. You’re furious. I can see it. (It’s my job to see it.)
Aaaaaaand now I’m alone with this guy:
The Good Guy in the bathroom solved the problem of physical invasion, but he also contributed to the secondary problem of my terror. If I had to choose, I’d choose to be terrified and sovereign, of course. He saved me. He also scared me. His anger kept me stuck to the wall.
When it’s just you and me in a room and I’m telling you my story, there is no problem of physical invasion, so your anger only contributes to the problem of my terror. Please don’t do that.
Does that make sense?
Yes, be angry. Yes, protect me from your anger. Let me come off the wall when you’re in the room. And then,
INTERROGATE YOUR SHIT.
Question the ease with which anger slides out of its sheath (unintentional wiener metaphor there but whatever, I’m not sorry.) Question why such a simple instrument feels like the most reasonable solution to so many complicated problems. Not every problem can be killed.
Interrogate what sits under your anger. What’s the nature of the pain that puts anger in your hand so instinctively that you don’t even choose it anymore?
Anger is a shield that you hold up in front of other unpleasant feelings. I get angry when I’m afraid. I get angry when I’m heartbroken. I get angry when I feel guilty. I also get angry when I have to pee or the bottom of my foot is itching inside my boot. Sadness or guilt are that itchy foot. You can get mad all you want but eventually you’re gonna have to unlace your shit and scratch the goddamn itch.
Anger is the hard, battering thing you take up to deflect attack when you know you’re exposed. Anger is what you use to defend your soft, hurt parts, and a shield is useful when you’re under attack. However, when you’re not the one being attacked, and you pick up the shield anyway, well... that’s less useful.
Pick up the shield of your anger when we’re the ones under attack, and it makes you harder for us to reach.
The shield of your anger puts you and I on opposite sides, and it forces me to focus not on communicating with you, but on defusing you. Your anger, even if you pick it up to show me that you care, scares me. A shield necessarily reminds me of wounds. It makes me wonder where the threat is, right now. Is it me? Will you attack me to defend yourself? If I am the one who told you the story that made you feel sad, ashamed, guilty, maybe I am the threat. Maybe I just attacked your copacetic night with a story you didn’t want to hear.
I’ve seen what angry men do to threats. I will want to stop being the threat. I’ll reach for silence so instinctively it won’t even be a choice.
Most importantly, the shield of your anger puts a wall between the Good Guys and the Scumbags, and that wall might comfort you but doesn’t do shit for the people you love or the Scumbags who hurt them. Interrogate that shit! Why do you need the barrier of anger between yourself and the scumbags? Why can’t you stand close enough to touch them? Is there guilt under there? When you put up that wall, you’re signaling to the rest of the troops that you’ve picked your team and you don’t play for the fucking scumbags, but maybe you haven’t earned the right to distinguish yourself yet.
When you’re with women, bring your gentleness, your humility, and your love. If you want us to feel safe, you need to put down your shield and sequester your anger.
AND NOW, A SMALL BUSINESS IDEA!
But what if you’re still angry.
Even though we all know it’s not the most useful feeling to feel, even though we know it’s getting in the way of genuine connection, you’re still angry. OK. I don’t blame you. I’m still angry too. Side note, do you ever feel like you’re tired of being angry? I do. But then I lean over and peer into the well of my anger, and I drop a penny into it and it never hits the ground. It’s remarkable, really. How angry I’ve been this whole time. That shit goes deep.
How about, instead of bringing your anger to the women in your life who just honestly can’t do your anger with you, you do this:
1. Start a men’s boxing class set to women’s triumph anthems.
2. Hire a trainer and a therapist to run it together. Ideally, do it in a studio where there’s some one-way glass and a viewing room with a wine bar up in there. Pop in some cozy loveseats.
I would 100% get some girls together, bring a bag of popcorn, and pass an hour on a Friday night watching guys kicking the shit out of punching bags to “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” and “Who Run the World?” and “Roar.” Feel angry. Get it.
3. Between songs, at random intervals, play recordings of women telling you things that have happened to them. Hit the bag. Hit it harder. You’re going to hear the voice of a child. When you’re exhausted, sit down on the ground and cry.
4. When you see someone sitting on the ground, go hug that motherfucker. Hug him gently. Hug him hard. Tell him you see him. Let him put down the shield and be what he is, which is sad.
5. Sweat and yell and figure out what the fuck is under your anger in that room where you can hit things and cry, where there’s a trainer and a therapist and a whole lot of men figuring their shit out in a Full-Human Workout.
6. At the end of class, run a talk session where everyone sits in a circle and makes “I Feel” statements. Imagine all those men, sweating, having just spent an hour wailing on a heavy bag, sharing their feelings with each other.
“I feel scared because I don’t know if I can protect the people I care about,” and “I feel ashamed because I know I’ve hurt women in the past and I don’t know how to make it better.”
I joke, but I DO NOT JOKE. I think we’ve just stumbled upon the next generation of the Thunder from Down Under… Emotional Intelligence from the Guys Next Door.
I mean, we need to work on the title, but holy nutsack, that’s the stuff.