Anger, Allies, and a Verbal Knife to the Eye Socket

A few days ago I stumbled across someone in the blogosphere who is very angry at me.

I don’t mean just plain mad – I mean red-eye raging, forehead-vein throbbing, spittle-forming-in-the-corner-of-your mouth mad. I think if I turned a corner and she recognized me for what I am, she would have offered a wide-eyed smiled just before stabbing me in the eye socket with a verbal knife.

Let me clarify – this was guilt by association only. This person doesn’t know me; she probably doesn’t even realize that I, as an individual, exist. But she is angry at a group of people because of what has been done by some of the individuals in that group, and she went out of her way to make sure her audience understood that there was no chance in hell that I was any different from the whole stinking lot.

Someone I don’t even know is angry at me.

For some reason this affected me.

* * * * *

The blog post was very, very long, but I made myself read it all the way through.  I sighed.  Many of the reasons that she is angry with me are the same reasons I am angry and frustrated and sad with the world.  I wanted to comment and tell her that I was different. I wanted to ask her if she was willing to get to know me. But she was very clear in her blog post – if you are this one thing, then there’s no getting around it.

I hadn’t felt this way for a long time, so I dug into the emotion. What was I feeling? Why was my heart racing? What about this interaction made me want to give up hope that human beings can ever truly reconcile with each other? Why did I suddenly want to disengage with everyone who even slightly disagreed with me? Then I remembered it.

I felt stereotyped.

* * * * *

When Maile and I moved to England in 2001, 9/11 was scarcely a month behind us. England had moments of silence in which entire cities would literally stop – cars, people, trains – all in remembrance of those who had died. For those first few months of our time in England, if anyone heard our American accents they would stop us and ask how we were doing, ask if we had relatives who had died in the attacks.

But then, as America began pulling England into a war in Iraq, the sentiment changed. Our friends still treated us well, but occasionally a stranger would hear us speak and ask, with a slightly repulsed look on their face:

“Are you American?”

Or people at parties who assumed we were Canadian (I guess due to our accents beginning to meld with Brit-speak) would go on rants about “dumb Americans.”

Who would ever think that a caucasian, male, American could ever feel like a minority. But I did. And I tried hard to fit in: to look British, sound British. Maile and I talked quietly, so as not to perpetrate the loud American stereotype. Yet we almost always felt out of place.

It’s not fun, being the stereotype.

* * * * *

I had a few different reactions to the woman who is angry with me. I wanted to apologize for being part of something that made her so mad. I wanted to ask her, indignantly, how she could paint such a broad stroke. I wanted to write something that would prove to her that I wasn’t that person. I wanted to get angry back.

But I didn’t. I just clicked the little X at the top right hand corner of the page and left without comment.

* * * * *

There is nothing wrong with anger. For a great reflection on that emotion, check out Jason McCarty’s recent blog on it. Anger can spur us to action, it can shed light on injustice, it can save our lives. And like I said, 99% of the things she is angry about are things that a lot of people are angry about.

But I think that if there’s ever a chance for people to meet and form relationships and increase their understanding and eventually bring about change, somehow the anger, while it’s force continues to be aimed at bringing down the injustice, must still leave room for like-minded people with different backgrounds to connect. And that’s what I felt was missing. Basically, I came away with the feeling that she was saying:

“I’m angry at you, Shawn, because you are the human form of all that I am angry with, and there’s nothing you can do or say to prove to me that we could ever be on the same page or fight for the same cause.”

In essence, this is bipartisan politics at its worst.

It’s the root of what drives every ethnic conflict on earth.

Anger directed at causes and movements and injustice makes sense to me. Anger that leaves no room for dialogue is an anger that makes reconciliation impossible.

* * * * *

I sit here and wonder. Who am I angry at? Are there people, perhaps part of movements or belief systems that I find distasteful, that I could connect with, influence, and in the end make the world a better place?

My mind has never been changed by someone directing their anger at me.

But recently I have found my mind changing regarding things I had once felt so sure about. Not because the issue has changed or the people I once disagreed with have changed their minds.  Not because they’ve gotten less angry. But because we have both deliberately set our anger to the side so that we can exchange emails, share a meal, get to know one another a little better.

By all means, let your anger motivate you to change the world. But don’t let your anger alienate you from a potential ally.

* * * * *
For similar posts, check out:

Stop Long Enough to Hear the Story

Where Have All the Candles Gone?

Democracy: An American Christian’s Prop?

6 Replies to “Anger, Allies, and a Verbal Knife to the Eye Socket”

  1. Shawn, please do understand that the stereotyping you experienced in Europe last decade, while really not fun at all, is relatively harmless. You stepped back into your privilege of being the Default Citizen — the straight white Christian male — when you came home. Nobody denied you a job, I hope, based on your US citizenship; contrast that with the study done some years ago in which the same résumé, with the same experience and credentials on it, was sent as a response to job ads variously under a “neutral” (white) name like “Emily Smith,” and under an African American-sounding name like “Lakeisha Washington.” One of these two got FAR more calls back. It wasn’t Lakeisha.

    The facts are these: As a SWCM, it is easy for you to find books, TV shows, and movies in which people like you are depicted as hero and romantic lead. You can be confident that people in your category are represented in history books, again as the Good Guys. Nobody will ever ask you if you got a job because of affirmative action. You are far less likely than a Black man of the same height and build to get followed around a store by employees who see you as a theft risk, even if the other guy is dressed better. You can be quite confident that jobs and public schools will grant time off to celebrate your faith’s most important holidays. 43 straight white Christian men have been president.

    The anger directed at you for, one assumes, being a Christian (if that’s not actually the basis on which the blogger was dissing you, my apologies) is as nothing compared to the blind, unreasoning hatred turned on Muslims in the US since the tragedy you mention. Nobody suggested that you were evil and subhuman, I hope, immediately after Timothy McVeigh’s attack on the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Nobody will ever try to prevent you from having a gathering of Christians two blocks away from the site of a tragedy. In fact, nobody will ever suggest outlawing your type of place of worship altogether.

    Of course it hurts to be stereotyped. But you can certainly understand where that unreasoning anger comes from when you know that people who bomb health clinics, or murder doctors providing legal services, have claimed to do so in the name of that socialist Jewish hippie you all see as one person of the Godhead. If we, as a nation, can call on moderate Muslims to denounce 9/11, surely we can also call on people like you to repudiate the Fred Phelpses, the Timothy McVeighs, the clinic bombers. Or maybe we shouldn’t expect this at all! Perhaps, unlike the blogger you refer to in this post, we can learn to grasp the idea of such people’s being statistical outliers, and that people in your category can bring significant positive contributions to a given cause.

    Granted, it’s easier to be lauded for your contributions if you are Jimmy Carter and can muster a peaceful army of people building houses for poor folk. But all you can do, really, in the face of what you experienced, is continue to be yourself and do all the right things you possibly can. (As with most people, I suspect that’s more than you think it is.)

    1. Thanks Gwyn. I knew you would respond to this post! I appreciate your comments.

      My concern is less with being the target of someone’s anger, or feeling stereotyped (which as you accurately express will never, ever, no matter what the situation, be close to what others experience).

      I think what got me thinking about this topic of anger was how this person’s anger, because it was directed at a “group,” actually alienated the two of us from ever working together to solve problems which we actually have mutual anger about.

      I just read quickly through your comment but am going to read it again. If anything else comes to mind I’ll send you a message on Facebook.

  2. I try very, very hard to separate my anger at ideas from anger at people, precisely because I know that most people, even the ones who believe things that, to me, are really abhorrent, are probably people who are generally nice, agreeable people. And ultimately, I know that if I want to influence people, I need to understand them and I can’t understand people if I’m angry.

    Of course,, if I start to understand someone, there’s a chance that THEY might influence ME. I think that sometimes that is the biggest deterrent for some folks to work at understanding those different from them.

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