My last post is a whole week ago, marking my kids’ back to school daze. Maybe I had to get back to school, too, before I could feel energized about blogging again? My classes started yesterday, and I think I’ve got a great crop of students this term. I’m not yet sure they’ve got a great instructor. I nearly left my notes, handouts, and class roster at home this morning! My brain is mired somewhere around August 25th – jubilant to have a moment to think without hearing “Mama, Mama,” yet unencumbered by responsibility. Ha! Responsibility? That rump brain of mine had better catch up, stat.
Anyway. I taught my first Feminist Theory class today, and the students were an absolute joy – already engaged and passionate before I did anything to ignite them. They also show indications of thinking hard and deep, and while that’s just what I’d expect, it means I’d better get with the program! I asked them to introduce themselves by going around the room and describing what brought them to feminism/gender studies, and what most stuck with them from their coursework so far. Next thing you knew, we were in the midst of an old-tyme consciousness-raising session. After the break we got back to more detached theorizing, but our mini-CR session turned into a spirited ice-breaker.
All hell broke loose when a student I know well from a previous class described her frustrations: “I just feel so angry and bitter.” The class erupted in nods and yeses and “me toos.” By that point, several students had disclosed or hinted at some difficult personal situations: assault, family violence, and the like. Even more had described becoming aware of the little, everyday things that made them feel diminished because they were female-bodied.
Their response set me thinking about anger, and bitterness, and what’s politically useful, and what’s personally poisonous.
I see a big gulf between anger and bitterness. Both are legitimate emotions, and both may need to be expressed so that we can master them before they master us. But bitterness? It’s paralytic. Bitterness springs from hopelessness and despair. Bitterness rests on the assumption – or fear – that nothing can ever really improve. Bitterness consigns us to passivity and fatalism.
Anger, on the other hand, calls us to action. That only works if we can imagine strategies and tactics that will lead us toward a better world, which is easier said than done. Anger, too, can become toxic, especially if we direct it inward rather than outward, or if we keep it bottled up, or if we hallucinate that any and every expression of anger is productive. Sometimes, anger is just stupid and hurtful. But at least it doesn’t pin us down like captive butterflies. If we combine it with analysis, it can give us the energy to make the world incrementally better.
I don’t have all the answers. This is what I said to my students: When you’re feeling frustrated and hopeless, know that in time, you’ll observe how change occurs, even if it’s glacial. The signal issue that has changed during my adulthood is marriage equality. It wasn’t even on the map in the early 1980s, when I was the age of my students. Now it’s a no-brainer even among many conservative and/or fundamentalist students.
Basically, I launched into a far less eloquent version of Martin Luther King’s famous statement: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Except my version of it featured my youthful anger at James Bond movies, complete with steam puffing out my ears (for some reason, my students found that image hilarious), and I didn’t quite dare to offer them the promise of justice, someday. Instead, I held out the more modest promise that generational change would extinguish Neolithic ideas about gender.
I don’t have all the answers. I’ve merely lived roughly twice as long as my students. Which doesn’t stop them from being further and faster evolved than I: a whole bunch of them mentioned intersectionality and trans issues as dear to their hearts. I’m blown away by their casual use of the term “cis,” which no one even imagined publicly when I first explored gender issues in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Maybe I’m less caught up in anger and bitterness only because I’m old (in internet and cat years) and a natural slacker?
If you’ve got favorite tactics for turning anger – or even bitterness – into something positive, I’d love to hear about them.