In defense of anger

[Fair warning, given the incredibly personal nature of this post, I will be modding comments with an iron fist. Anything that even faintly whiffs of violating the comment policy or duplicating material covered in the FAQ will be removed. Period. My house, my rules.]

I am 10. For an entire school year, all of the boys (and several older boys as well) have been bullying me. The typical small-minded ten year old bullshit, but the isolation takes its toll. I try to report it to teachers (all women) on several occasions. They make comments and give me useless advice that makes it clear that being bullied is my problem.

“Boys will be boys”, “they’re teasing you because they like you”, that sort of thing. They say the same thing even after one of the boys in my class follows me to my babysitter’s and spits on me in the process. Boys will be boys, and girls should be quiet.

I learn to stop asking adults for help. Instead I bottle in the anger, try to hold it in, safely contained, since I know that any expression of anger will not be condoned by those in authority. Two weeks from the end of the school year I snap. I write the worst word I know at the time (“butthole”) on a piece of paper and leave it in the desk of the ringleader of the bullies – the one who instigates the majority of the abuse. Of course I get caught, because 10 year olds aren’t exactly crafty masterminds. And I’m the one who gets suspended.

At the meeting with the teachers, my father is there, and the teachers – again, all women – tell me things like “when I get angry I should concentrate on making fists until I don’t feel angry anymore” or “when I get angry I should take deep breaths and count to ten”. After the meeting is one of the very few times in my life when my father, a product of Midwestern stoicism – a man who never admitted to having negative feelings of any sort – told me that they were full of shit and that I was absolutely allowed to be angry about what had happened, because it was outright sexism.

This coming from the guy who refused to discuss his funeral arrangements, period, and who died (after being terminally ill for five years) without once ever having a serious conversation with his family about his death and what he wanted. He taught me that my anger was real, and valid, and important.

Twenty years have passed, and I’m working for a company that I hate in a job that I loathe.

After being pestered by one of the sales bros for the entire morning about finding a document of trivial importance for the third or fourth time, a task he is fully capable of doing himself as he possesses thumbs and knows how to operate a filing cabinet, while I am busy with critical month-end tasks, I taste bile when he turns up at my desk and all but demands that I find the document for him that instant.

I swallow my anger, forcing myself to maintain a level, neutral, professional tone. I don’t trust myself not to look angry, so I don’t make eye contact, engaging in something that gives me an excuse not to look at him. Filing. Straightening things on my desk. Ostensibly looking for something. “I have told you that I have critical tasks to complete before noon today, and that they are not done. Once my month-end tasks are complete, then I can assist you with locating the document. If you require it more urgently than that, it may already be in the filing cabinet.”

I am firm without being either apologetic or angry. Cool. Detached. But even as I do my best impersonation of an Office Vulcan, my stomach lurches. I concentrate on my breathing to keep it slow and even, will my face not to flush. I am concentrating on the performance of not being angry, because the sales bro is the one with all of the power in this situation.  The sales bro grumbles a response that I don’t entirely catch because I’m too busy concentrating on maintaining my composure.

Resolutely, I ignore him and restart the task that he interrupted. It’s hard, because my focus is shot and it requires a lot of attention to detail, but I do my best. That is until I realize that two minutes have gone by and the sales bro is still standing at my desk, and it doesn’t appear that he intends to leave until I give him the document in question. The document that he is perfectly capable of finding himself.

I steel my nerves, take a deep breath, don’t speak until I know I can keep the tears of anger that I can feel welling up out of my voice. “[Sales bro]. I have explained to you my work priorities and the timeline in which your request will be dealt with. There is no need to stand at my desk and watch me work while you wait.”

“Well there’s no reason to get hysterical,” the sales bro says, huffily, his greying mustache making him look like a grumpy, petulant walrus. But thankfully, finally, he accedes and shuffles off, grumbling.

I turn my chair away from the rest of the office and place my head in my hands, which are shaking. I take care to make it look like I am nursing a headache, since I am prone to those and that is behavior that my coworkers are used to. I feel hot all over, my skin feels too tight, I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. I want to scream, throw things. I want to show him what hysterical actually looks like.

I think about all of the small indignities. Creepy Sales Bro who talks about strippers at work and asks the younger Sales Bros about their romantic conquests. Awful Sales Bro who makes a point of saying sexist things within earshot of my desk because he finds my discomfort amusing. And Manbaby Sales Bro who is incapable of doing even the simplest tasks on his own. I think about going to my boss and telling him about the interaction I just had, that Manbaby Sales Bro called me hysterical. But I know that I’ll just end up explaining to my boss why calling a woman trying to enforce a boundary “hysterical” is grossly misogynist, and the chances are high that he won’t really understand. My boss likes me, but his response to such things is always “try not to let it bother you”.

I feel weak and small and powerless. I try to make my anger as small as I feel. I fail.

I don’t know what possessed me to follow the link from my blog’s traffic stats back to a forum that I know is full of people who personally wish me ill. But there is a lot of traffic from that source, and I follow it, and what I find isn’t surprising in the slightest. It’s a thread where men are complaining about a project that I was proud to be a part of (that I am still proud to have been a part of), complaining that all of this emphasis on diversity in games is ruining gaming.

The thread doesn’t go on for long before my primary harasser hijacks the thread and makes it about what a terrible person I am. Me. Specifically. Personally. I’m hateful. I’m an abuser. I’m a liar. I harass people. I’m anti-LGBT. I’m crazy, and should be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility for my own good and the good of my family. All of his claims laughably transparent and easily debunkable with a few minutes of Googling, though I know that no one there is going to make that effort.

I don’t know why I keep reading, but I do as the thread unfurls over the course of a few days. I feel hot and angry and sick. I feel shaky and tired. I write multiple closed-circle G+ posts about how furious I feel, and how helpless I feel to respond, because I know that any response will be playing into the narrative that my harasser is trying to create. I cry.

I let my anger cause me to be overly harsh in a tabletop game that is being played as a campaign with people that I’ve been playing with for a few months, and I hurt one of the players at the table. Play stops, and I apologize, feeling all the anger again but also helplessness and shame. “I’m in a really dark place right now. I should have told you about it instead of taking it out on you.” To my horror, I start crying. Giving it voice breaks the control that I’d kept over it, and I start talking about the abuse. About the things being said about me. About how trapped and furious I feel and how I have nothing to do with those feelings.

Or at least that’s what I think I say. The memories aren’t too clear.

I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to display this pain, because I’ve been hurt too many times. But my friends listen, and hug me, and don’t judge me for crying. Afterward, I feel lighter, at least a bit. I feel terrible about hurting the other player, but it feels good having my anger validated. It feels good being told that my feelings are real, and that I’m not a terrible person for having them.

It’s not any secret that sexism and misogyny in gaming makes me angry. While I’m perfectly capable of writing Vulcan-level objective analyses of sexism in games, daring to be a woman who publicly expresses opinions about games and who owns her anger attached to those opinions is an inherently radical act. So yeah, I’ll write the data-driven objective-ish pieces, but I also swear and use hyperbole and employ angrily sarcastic memes a lot. Because coming into this space, my personal blog, and telling me that I should only ever talk about sexism in soothing dulcet tones, while I hold the hands of the perpetrators and gently stroke their hair to reassure them that of course they aren’t terrible people… that is the height of bullshit entitlement.

That’s not to say that any expression of anger is automatically okay if it comes from oppression! I’ve written pretty extensively about that too. About how there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to express anger over oppression, and the line always has to be drawn at “will this do further harm?”. I’ve written about the mechanics of anger and how anger is used to create hate movements against individuals or groups. And I’ve written about my own personal experiences of anger, and the necessity of balancing my desire to express that anger with the need to behave professionally and not destroy publishing relationships or friendships out of anger.

So as much as I joke about being an angry bra-burner, or a Social Justice Barbarian, my relationship with anger is pretty nuanced.

Some people who will tell you that anger is never okay. That in order for progress to be achieved, that you must be calm. Objective. Professional. Rational. “You catch more flies with honey,” and the like. I have never found it surprising that the vast majority of people expressing that sentiment to me have been men.

There are many times in my life where I have to swallow my anger. To make my demeanor calm and soothing when I want to rage. To cry and scream and vent my frustration. So here? In my place? And in the places that I have created for myself, the spaces I curate for having the conversation I want to have with the people I want to talk with? I own my anger. I acknowledge that it exists, and I express it – always remembering that even righteous anger can wound. Even righteous anger can harm. But those open, honest expressions of righteous anger… they make me “controversial”. “Extreme”.

Because I am not willing to hold hands and moderate my tone while I talk about how my experiences of oppression affect me, there are those who say that I am toxic. Who say that I should be avoided, that I represent everything that is wrong with gaming. Because I am angry about abuse that I have suffered, I am divisive. I create strife and disunity. In short, my anger makes me “unacceptable”.

And to all of that I say simply, no. I am not extreme. I am not divisive. I am not toxic or unacceptable. I am human. And I am allowed to be angry when I am treated in ways that deny my humanity. And so long as my expressions of anger are centered on self-expression and not on harming others, I am allowed to express that anger. And so are you. And so is everyone.

Where you can, be kind. But when you need to be fierce, be fierce. You do you and fuck the haters.

13 thoughts on “In defense of anger

  1. “Where you can, be kind. But when you need to be fierce, be fierce”

    I would like this as a bumper sticker/T-shirt/etc. Thank you for giving this feeling voice.

  2. I know what you are feeling 100% and I have also experienced those oh so subtle shitty experiences which could seem innocuous to the outsider, but fit a pattern of being bullied, dismissed, invalidated, etc by people in power, but the fucking MOMENT you dare stand your ground….no matter how coolly, calmly, Vulcan-like way you convey your thoughts, you’re hysterical. And yes, I’ve experienced middle aged man babies trying to bully me as a 16, 17, all the way on up to 36 year old. I know what it feels like and I know what it was like to be bullied and tormented relentlessly as a kid…years 10-13 were the worse and somehow the “just ignore it” or “he likes you” didn’t make it go away. So I fought them. If they are going to brand me as a troublemaker, I felt that I might as well knock their teeth out. Only when I started going apeshit on my tormentors, that’s the only thing that made them stop. And believe me, I’m all about non violence too, but I wasn’t being protected. All that anger you have towards your abusers NEEDS to be validated and expressed. It has to. Otherwise you learn to turn it inwards and end up with massive depression…./hugs to you – I’ve been there. I know what you are feeling and I hate that I couldn’t have been there to punch those assholes in the face for you. /hugs

  3. I’m not a victim of this. It does not affect me, personally. But I get so f*cking furious on behalf of victims I sometimes don’t even know, strangers on the internet, I can barely contain myself. I really have a hard time imagining dealing with this on a first person basis.

    I just wish changing the world was as easy in life as it is in games.

  4. Yes.

    When I was in 8th grade, a kid who’d been bullying me all year slapped my ass. I threw him into a snowbank. *I* got in trouble with everyone except my dad (also Midwestern, stoic) who told me I didn’t have to take crap like that, that Mom might be embarrassed at my behavior, but he wasn’t. That permission to set my own boundaries and *defend* them and be angry when they were violated–that stuck with me. If only all assholes could be thrown into snowbanks.

  5. I was bullied almost every day from 2nd to 8th grade. The boys “just wanted to play”, but when I fought back to protect myself, I was a troublemaker. I got written up, while they were told what good boys they were. And you know what, being told that didn’t make them stop. If anything, it tended to get worse and worse.

    My mom was the one who told me “I don’t want you starting fights, but if anyone, and I mean ANYONE no matter if they’re a boy, girl, or adult, attacks you, feel free to try and finish it. There’s nothing wrong in protecting youself.

    I still have the rage from back then, and for a while it was tough. But I figured out, trying to repress it wasn’t useful, wasn’t healthy, and didn’t help usually. Only by admitting and owning my anger… finding ways to USE IT, did I deal with it.

  6. More hugs and solidarity, and sympathy and well-wishings >//>

    I grew up in an abusive religious environment where having boundaries was off-limits for the powerless, and expressing anger was Not Okay because “contention is of the devil.”

    When I see people saying the same exact thing in other contexts, it freezes my insides and makes me feel like those people are still in control of me.

  7. You are welcome to express your anger at my gaming table any time. Being angry sucks, being angry and having to hold it in sucks even more. Hopefully we will be able to game together at Gencon next week. Respect.

  8. Hugs and solidarity to you wundergeek. I am male. As such I got a lot more leeway when fighting back against my bullies. My entire family told me I had a right to fight for myself and gave me advice on how to fight against my bullies.

    But I am male. And society encouraged me to be a bully too. I stalked a girl from 5th to 6th grade and nobody even tried to stop. I still owe her an apology for that. I bullied a kid in high school because he didn’t meet my standards of behavior. And I’m pretty sure that I abused the kindness of a group of girls by constantly butting into their conversations after they helped me when I was recovering from an injury.

    Your expressions of rage on this blog is what helped me to connect to, understand and be interested in feminism. Your writing helped me grow into a better person and a more critical one. So when you say:

    “Because I am not willing to hold hands and moderate my tone while I talk about how my experiences of oppression affect me, there are those who say that I am toxic. Who say that I should be avoided, that I represent everything that is wrong with gaming. Because I am angry about abuse that I have suffered, I am divisive. I create strife and disunity. In short, my anger makes me “unacceptable”.

    And to all of that I say simply, no. I am not extreme. I am not divisive. I am not toxic or unacceptable. I am human. And I am allowed to be angry when I am treated in ways that deny my humanity. And so long as my expressions of anger are centered on self-expression and not on harming others, I am allowed to express that anger. And so are you. And so is everyone.

    Where you can, be kind. But when you need to be fierce, be fierce. You do you and fuck the haters.”

    I will add that this horny asshole is better of for your expressions of rage and that you have taught me more on communication in general than any other person in my life. Thank you for being you and I honestly can’t imagine not looking forward to reading this blog of yours.

  9. I don’t really know what to say except thank you so much for sharing this. Please, don’t ever think your feelings aren’t real or do not matter. Yes, easier said than done…

  10. I agree: you’re not divisive, you’re expressive. And it’s something we all need. People don’t have to read you’re blog if they don’t like it, but you’re doing us all a solid with your honest sharing and your talent.

    You don’t need to apologize for your feelings. They’re feelings…everyone has them.

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