injustice

The drawbacks of anger, and some alternatives

A lot of things that are normal aren’t ok. It’s hard to notice this. We’re socialized to accept a lot of things that really ought to be unacceptable. When we try to object, we’re punished. Being punished for objecting is often humiliating and disorienting.

It’s hard to remember that these things are wrong even when others punish you for saying so. It’s hard to remember that you have rights when others act like you don’t.

One way to remember that things are wrong is to get angry about them. Feeling outraged can make it easier to hold onto your sense that, no, this isn’t ok, and yes, it is ok to object.

Unfortunately, the price of rage is high. Rage hurts. It’s physically unpleasant, physically exhausting, emotionally draining, and makes it hard to think clearly. The physical and emotional exhaustion from anger makes it harder to do other things. The fog of anger can lead to mistakes that make it harder to remember after the fact that you were justified in objecting. Rage is better than nothing, but there are other strategies that don’t hurt as much.

One thing that can help is to develop your understanding of the situation over time. If you learn to understand what you’re angry about and why, it can make it possible to use understanding rather than anger to stay oriented.

Questions like these can help:

  • What am I angry about?
  • Why am I angry about that?
  • What happened that I think is wrong?
  • Why do I think it’s wrong?

For instance, say I’m in class, we’re doing an activity, I’m not able to do the activity, and I’m feeling angry. We’re writing thoughts on big paper, and I can’t do handwriting well enough to participate. In that situation, I might think:

  • Why am I angry?
  • I’m trying to participate and failing over and over and that’s intensely frustrating.
  • Why am I angry about that?
  • Because I’m sick of being left out all the time.
  • What happened that I think is wrong? 
  • The teacher knew about my disability and didn’t do anything to accommodate it when they planned the activity. 
  • When I pointed out that I couldn’t participate, they didn’t do anything to fix it.
  • Why do I think that’s wrong? 
  • Because I have a right to be here, and the teacher is supposed to be teaching me. 
  • I’m a student here, and I have the right to learn the material and be part of the activities we’re using to learn it.
  • This is disability discrimination, and that’s wrong.

Then, the next step in using understanding rather than anger is to notice that something is wrong before you start feeling enraged. Sometimes that can make it possible to fix the problem without having to get to the point of outrage. It can also make it more possible to decide when to fight and when not to.

For instance, take the class activity. If I remember that I have the right to be there and that it’s the teacher’s responsibility to teach me, this might happen:

  • I go to class and see that there is big paper on the walls.
  • I remember that I can’t do big paper activities.
  • I remember that I have the right to participate in educational activities.
  • I remember that I have the right to learn the material.
  • I ask right away “Are we doing a big paper activity today? How will I participate?” 
  • At this point, I’m annoyed, but not outraged, and able to assert something without it hurting so much.

They may or may not respond the right way — and I might still get really angry. But if that happens, I can repeat the strategy again, figure out what I’m angry about and why. Then I can get further without depending on anger the next time. (Even when you can’t win or fix the problem, it’s still often possible to use that kind of strategy to stay oriented without rage. I have more posts in the works about that specifically.)

Anger isn’t a failure. It’s ok to be angry when unacceptable things are happening. It’s also ok *not* to feel physically angry. Anger hurts, and you don’t owe anyone that kind of pain. You don’t have to be pushed to the point of rage in order to be justified in objecting to unacceptable things.

Sometimes it might help to explicitly remind yourself of this. Some affirmations that have sometimes worked for me:

  • I don’t have to hurt myself to prove that this is wrong.
  • It’s still wrong if I’m calm. 
  • It’s still wrong if I’m not crying and shaking. 
  • It’s still wrong if my heart isn’t pounding.
  • Even if I’m ok, the situation isn’t ok.
  • Even if I’m ok in this moment, it’s ok to object to a situation that’s hurting me and/or others.

It also helps not to beat yourself up for getting angry. Anger in the face of outrageous things isn’t a failure. No strategy can completely replace physical outrage for anyone. Holding yourself up to impossible standards won’t help. Working on your skills at staying oriented in other ways will.

These strategies are harder to learn and harder to use. They also make it a lot more possible to resist and stay oriented without hurting yourself. It’s not all or nothing — any skills in this area help, and it gets easier with practice.

Happiness is not consent to injustice

Sometimes manipulative people will use someone’s happiness to justify mistreating them. It works something like this:

  • Sometimes people force or pressure someone into a bad situation.
  • Then they tell them that it’s really a good situation.
  • And that they’ll like it if they give it a chance.
  • They’’re treated badly, in ways that no one should have to put up with.
  • Then they, through effort and creativity, manage to enjoy some things even though the situation is bad and they’re being mistreated.
  • Maybe they even find a way to be reasonably happy a lot of the time.
  • Then the manipulative person says: See? You gave it a chance, and now you’re happy!

If someone with power over you plays this kind of mind game, it can be very disorienting. They may be able to simultaneously make you feel ashamed of objecting to their injustice, and also ashamed of any happiness you might find. But actually, it’s ok to enjoy things, it’s ok to object to mistreatment, and it’s ok to do both of those things at the same time. 

It can help to keep in mind that the world doesn’t actually revolve around the people who have unjust power over you. You do not belong to them. Your ability to enjoy things isn’t a gift they’re giving you; it’s something you’re creating even though they’re putting you into a very bad situation. Your life is yours, and so are the things you have found ways to care about. 

If people treat you unjustly, dehumanize you, or otherwise mistreat you, that is wrong even if you manage to build some good things into your life. They’re in the wrong even if you are ok, and even if you are happy. If you make the best of a bad situation, that is an accomplishment that belongs to you. It doesn’t make the situation ok, and it doesn’t give others the right to treat you badly. You don’t have to earn the right to object to mistreatment by being constantly miserable. You have every right to object to injustice and wrongs being done to you even if you are happy.

Finding things you can value and enjoy is not consent; it’s resistance. That’s why manipulative people try to co-opt it.

Tl;dr Sometimes people forced into bad situations find things to enjoy, and maybe even find ways to be happy. That doesn’t make the situations good. Some people may try to convince you that injustices done to you aren’t really unjust if you are happy. Those people are wrong. It’s ok to enjoy things, it’s ok to object to injustice, and it’s ok to do both at the same time.