On Tone

An argument... Mary Robinette Kowal has an excellent piece up on manners, manner, and tone policing.

The thing is… the reason that I can be “polite” and “reasonable” is because other people are expressing the anger for me. I have the privilege of being quiet only because other people are bearing the burden of our shared fury. Without the people willing to shout, the concerns would be dismissed. Look at the suffragette movement. Women had been talking about equality for hundreds of years before that, and it wasn’t until the early 1900s when women began breaking windows and chaining themselves to buildings in protest that the cause was taken seriously. Then the “reasonable” women were able to negotiate, because their sisters had borne the burden of shouting to create a space in which their words could be heard. (Mary Robinette Kowal)

It made me think. (Always a dangerous proposition, that.) I grew up with rageaholics, the sonic assault leading to or accompanied by physical abuse. I have the distaste for such displays one would expect, and I almost never use the word “anger” to describe what I’m feeling. Irritation, certainly. Vexation in some cases, pique in others. I have only been outright angry three times in my life so far, and each time my response has been to get very exceedingly quiet and start steadily moving to escape whatever situation has provoked the response. Sometimes I fall prey to hyperbole and use the word “furious,” when I’m only vexed.

Certainly I get frustrated–the kids know that when I skin my knuckles on Ikea furniture and snap, “Why can’t ANYTHING ever be EASY?” that it’s probably best to leave me alone with the offending article until I begin to feel ridiculous and start to laugh at myself. Willful stupidity and bad behaviour frustrates me as well. But anger, true anger, is reserved for other situations. Above all, I do not want to rage, because I associate rage with being the target.

There’s a certain strategic component, too. I prefer politeness and quiet requests as a matter of course. If I make the decision to escalate from there, it has far more impact if I’ve been mannerly beforehand, and I’m generally able to use much less energy/escalation to get what I need.

All that being said, I agree with Ms Kowal. I have the luxury of being icily quiet when I get truly angry; I have the luxury of using politeness as a base to start from. My own campaigns to right social ills are more of the listening-and-connective sort, since I inhabit a relatively privileged position. All the same, when one’s polite requests for an oppressive group or society to cease systematic brutality are brushed aside, naturally one’s patience will be eroded. I have the space to be quiet and polite and to be seen as fairly moderate because other people do not have that luxury and have been forced to yelling to make themselves heard. I should think, if I were in a different position, I’d yell too.

Motherhood has taught me that when you hear a scream of pain you need to ascertain what the hell’s going on very quickly, and take measures not just to relieve the immediate distress but also understand the deeper causes. I can distinguish fairly easily between a screaming tantrum (sports riots) and an explosion of justifiable anger when all other avenues for a group of people have been blocked (Ferguson and Baltimore protests). Adults throwing tantrums I have little patience for–my kids grew out of that shit years ago, and if you didn’t, now’s the time to start. Explosions of justifiable anger call for a different response.

I have a responsibility, as a reasonable (and reasonably privileged) human being, to look at deeper causes and understand them, so I can be at least a small part of the solution, not part of the whole stupid-ass problem in the first place. Saying, “Well, they shouldn’t YELL” is not helpful. Understanding why the yelling is taking place is.

Enough said.