“You’re Not Angry Enough”: Humanist Outrage and… Grace?

“You’re Not Angry Enough”: Humanist Outrage and… Grace? July 8, 2018

Photo Credit: "Hands", Pixabay.com, CC0 licensing

It’s been a wild ride in Colombia this past week, if you’re up on your infotainment outrage. After all, Colombia lost to England in a heartbreaker of a World Cup game with baffling upsets: a 90-3′ goal to tie up a match muddled by a slew of yellow cards against Colombia; a fudged reffing call that stopped play just seconds before Colombia scored an overtime goal; and a shoot-out with a brutal cross-bar miss that turned deafening cheers across the yellow-shirted country into deafening and defeated silence.

…But also, there were the murders.

Last week, the number of social leaders assassinated in Colombia passed the 100 mark, with 19 slain in this last month alone. What is a “social leader”? Sometimes it’s an environmental or indigenous rights activist. Sometimes it’s a farmer who simply wants to work their land, and partakes in community organization to better represent her interests against encroaching political pressures. In short, not every “social leader” is engaged in active protest (not that active protest somehow makes one more deserving of death); these are also people working in good faith to improve their local networks with a fragile, healing, post-peace-deal political system. A system that, under the new president, might treat their murders as status quo.

North Americans, of course, are no strangers to this painful infotainment dichotomy. We watch the fluffy and the absurd, we embroil ourselves in arguments about memes and TV and sports, and at the same time we mark the horrifying procession of traumas the world over–like Syrian President Assad sweepingly reinstating his control after bringing about unfathomable levels of war and attrition in the first place; or a recent mass murder in the U.S. manifesting at a newspaper office; or 200 desperate migrants dying in a three-day span on the Mediterranean.

Of course, we cling, too, to the small mercies–like the ongoing Thailand cave rescue of a trapped boys’ sports team, which offers some insight into what our species can do when it rallies together–but mostly our media channels outrage, whether over the result of a futbol match or the systemic oppression of whole demographics.

Likewise, in the Western world especially, outrage has a significant role in our social discourse. There has been for so long a narrative of “tone policing”–a tactic used to shame genuinely hurting people for not being “civil” when discussing harm done to them or their communities–that advocacy for other emotional responses is now difficult to interpret as anything but the tacit silencing of anger.

And yet… sometimes the pendulum swings too far. Sometimes, when overt outrage is taken as a necessity, tone policing of an entirely different calibre emerges. What happens when you’re not seen as angry enough?

Overt Outrage and Atheism

This past week, I was challenged to be overtly outraged four times. First, one friend lectured me about not yelling at another, who had done something that caused me great pain. Then, someone expressed significant disappointment that a piece of my writing had not conveyed more explicit anger over the racism it confronted. Thirdly, a different friend lectured me for not blowing up at my roommate (who decided just one month into our living arrangement that Colombian life was not for her, and whose swift return to the US compels me to relocate ASAP).

And then, in the fourth instance, an atheist student tried to goad my whole English class into sharing in his anger with the proselytizing of born-again Christians at his company. I deflected the conversation by expressing a bit of surprise: were there really so many in a predominantly Catholic country? What denominations specifically? How many other spiritual traditions could the rest of the class name? (At which point I focused on the pronunciation and spelling of these terms in English.)

But the student continued to press his point, wanting others in the class to share his outrage that he couldn’t even go on a bus without hearing a beggar start his hard-luck story by identifying himself as a Christian.

And on the one hand, I understood my student’s implicit frustration–because a beggar identifying himself as an atheist tends to have a different experience of public charity. Still, I deviated from the lesson into Socratic method. I asked the class why they thought beggars make a point of telling their stories before hawking their meagre wares.

“To get our sympathy, our pity?” offered one student.

“So that’s interesting,” I said. “Why would that get your sympathy, knowing someone homeless or starving was a Christian?”

“Because they’re trying to tell you that they’re a good person, that they’re trying to improve themselves,” said another.

“Or that they’re part of our community,” said a third, with a cross around her neck. “Because we’re supposed to help people in our communities.”

“So do you think when someone introduces themself this way, they believe that they’re good enough to earn your help without the story? Without this promise that they are trying? Just by existing, hungry, in need, in front of you on the bus?”

Everyone shook their head, and one of them said, “Yeah, that’s messed up”, so I didn’t press the point. After all, we had an English vocabulary in logistics to build that day… but also, we had diffused the pinpoint precision of overt outrage into a more comprehensive understanding of systemic injustice. Was the anger gone? No. But what would have been added if I had performed overt outrage in response to my student’s own?

Okay, But What About the Racism?

Obviously, though, there are differences between these four examples. In the first and third, people told me how I should feel about things done to me, while the person in the second, who articulated disappointment with the register of my writing, comes from a set of communities that has to do the lion’s share of “being angry” to effect social change. Of course it is exhausting when someone who belongs to the dominant culture is not shouldering the weight of overt outrage, too. How lucky I am that I get to choose when explicit anger becomes my main mode of response!

Just the other day, a mailout from Poets.org containing Hanif Abdurraqib’s How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This discussed this very theme. In the author’s note, Abdurraqib sourced the title to a tone-policing question overheard from a white woman at a black man’s reading. The poem answers that of course flowers are part of the struggle–for how could they not be, if the performance of black experience isn’t supposed to include them? No wonder, then, that someone might be frustrated by my use of tools that aren’t uncontestably available to other demographics.

Meanwhile, overt outrage is a vital tool, a necessity for transforming society. But when faced with situations in my “wheelhouse”–like the conversation with a fellow atheist in my class, or when deciding how best to respond to people in my life whose actions have impacted me–it is a tool I do not use in isolation.

Your anger is allowed to be inclusive, too.

This Atheist Suggests… Wait, what? Grace?

Before the class in question I had been reading about the relentless horrors unfolding for vulnerable families in North America. In the wake of the now-well-known border atrocity of caged children, it’s not just the U.S.’s new “denaturalization” task force, invested in a mythology of illegitimate U.S. citizens, that angers me. Nor is it simply the 273,000 American-born children imperiled by the move to rescind Temporary Protected Status from thousands of El Salvadorean, Honduran, and Haitian immigrants. It’s also my home-province of Ontario, where newly elected Premier Doug Ford has advanced a dangerously nationalistic narrative of “illegal” asylum seekers. It’s the Western plague of divisive language becoming status quo. It’s the fixation on labels and attendant denial of underlying human complexity.

And it cannot be fixed overnight. It requires, instead, a long-term approach to re-evaluating the debates we choose to enter into, and the hills we choose to die on.

We understand this, more or less, when it comes to choosing our news with caution, and being mindful of social media’s non-altruistic motivations. But have we thought enough about how even the framework of some debates trains us to think in tribalist terms? Have we considered how, say, Bible-shaming and similar fish-in-a-barrel pot-shots reinforce the same exclusionary rhetoric often central to our critique of religion itself?

When and where do we rise above?

The notion of “grace” refers to many things, some of them specifically divine–but in the meaning is a quality of smoothness, a unity of action, that can be applied to outrage, too. I am angry at many devastating realities in our shared world. And I can be angry at a system that values a Christian over an atheist beggar, while also being angry that the suffering feel beholden to disclose (or lie about) personal beliefs to receive aid at all.

Less overt forms of outrage are sometimes harder to pinpoint, but they manifest in our choice to stay informed about the issues, choosing to listen to others’ experiences, to learn and to be present for the society-changing work that requires all hands on deck. Your anger is not lesser if it is focused on direct and co-ordinated action, or if it does not involve explosive response.

No, not everyone has the luxury to employ these “quieter” forms of outrage and still be seen. Like the social leaders who try to work with the system and still get assassinated, there is almost no way for certain people to manifest their outrage without criticism, or even direct threat to life and limb. But for those who can choose the time and place of our overt outrage, we must.

Sure, it’s fun to talk in binary terms about sports matches, and cracking jokes about other demographics (political, religious) is often rooted in a healthy venting of personal frustration. But the entire online outrage industry, which creates profound information silos and foments the ugliest political ideologies, relies on our everyday willingness to reinforce routines of oppositional thinking.

…Can you imagine a world where maybe, just maybe, we don’t?


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