Killer of Sacred Cows
Friday, August 22, 2008
  How to Handle Justified Anger
Three weeks ago, I wrote this piece on hate, and on how hating back does nothing to ease the situation when we find ourselves on the receiving end of it. I talked about self-defense, without escalation, being the best way to bring hate under control.

Events in my life since that time have raised the question: is self-defense through humor an escalation? Does making fun of the foibles of a group that has harmed you count as hate? Is that something we should also stop doing? After all, humor has often been used as a way to further humiliate people - witness racist jokes about blacks, for example, or sexist jokes about women. Are we justified, then, in making a joke about hate? Or making hate into a joke? How should we handle it when someone makes a joke at our expense? How do we deal with that anger - is there a constructive way to go about it?

Let's talk about humor, and anger, and the transformative power of admitting someone has a right to be mad.

A Jewish friend told me once upon a time that many of the original "Jewish jokes" were told on Jews by other Jews. She recounted a particularly funny, if raunchy and disgusting, joke that she had been told by a grandparent who was a Holocaust survivor. The joke involved a Jew in hiding venturing out into the occupied German city he lived in, to try to find food for himself and his wife. In the course of his search, he runs right into Hitler, who's out for a noontime stroll. Hitler, seeing the Jew, points a pistol at him and humiliates him by ordering him to eat a pile of horse manure on the road. The terrified Jew does it, but then gets the chance to force Hitler to eat manure himself when Hitler laughs so hard that he drops the gun he was holding on the Jew. The Jew takes that opportunity, while Hitler is down on his knees eating horseshit, to run away, back to his hiding place. As he gets in the door, he calls out to his wife, "Helga! Helga! You'll never guess who I had lunch with today!"

That kind of humor, turning the pain of oppression into a target for laughter, has been a mainstay of oppressed peoples the world over. I share this example from my Jewish friend because I think it epitomizes the point of humor. When the humor is at the expense of the oppressor, it transmutes the hate that the oppressed might otherwise feel into a positive emotion, something that can be dealt with constructively, rather than destructively. It's even better if, when you transmute hate into humor, you can develop the ability to laugh at yourself, and not take yourself so seriously. This is one of the backbones of Jewish humor as well - poking fun at their own foibles as much as the oppression they face.

Humor from the oppressor at the expense of the oppressed, however, is no different than hate. Those who are already beaten down by hate, such as gays, women, persons of color - making jokes at their expense is often a type of hatred, and should be avoided. It escalates, rather than de-escalates, the situation.

This is where we reach the dicey point. Is it fair for me, as a gay man, to make fun of Christians? Does this video make fun of an oppressed group, by making fun of the religious right? Certainly the religious right sees itself as an oppressed group, and would say yes, it does.

So where do we draw the line between oppressed and oppressor? When is it okay to toss off a joke about people who have actively hurt us, and when is it time for us to consider whether our privilege blinds us to what the groups we identify with have done and, in some cases, still are doing in terms of spreading hate?

It's a hard path, but it's also the right one: when we're members of privileged groups, and we hear humor with our group as the butt of the joke, it's time to shut up and listen to what the humor is saying about our group's behavior. That humor is often rooted in pain and anger, and the message is important. This is an issue I've run into numerous times with members of privileged groups, especially those which have a history of oppressing those less fortunate. They feel that because they, personally, did not participate in the hate, they should be exempt from hearing about its effects, even through the relatively gentle vector of humor. And many times, they seem to lack the ability to laugh at themselves. They take themselves far too seriously.

Each of us here is a member of a privileged group in at least one way: we have access to a computer and to the Internet. So although this is a discussion of how we, as members of oppressed groups, can deal with being hated through using humor as a pressure valve, it's also a reminder that each of us is privileged in some way and that we need to examine our own behavior and affiliations when people who feel oppressed by us have been harmed by the groups we're part of.

If a person belongs to a group, and part of that group has a long history of harming others, they're going to have to learn to deal with the fact that a lot of people see the entire group as toxic because of the loud, aggressive, obnoxious, hateful segment. Gays have to put up with this all the time - and we don't actively harm people. But we have our loudmouths, and we get judged by them. And we hear the jokes made about us and we know that when a lot of people say "those fags" or even just "those gays," they're talking about the near-naked go-go boys, the leather-clad dykes and daddies, and the spangled drag queens which is all the mainstream media ever shows us about the gay rights movement (or at least until very recently, like the last six to ten years or so). And you know what? We usually try to educate the people we care about who may have temporarily forgotten that not all of us are like that. We had to grow a thick skin if we're out, because we take a lot of abuse for being part of a group which has some very loud, obnoxious members. Hell, even if we're not out, we hear the abuse.

Now. If I have to put up with that, and I do, then people who are part of a group which has loud, obnoxious, and actively hateful members have to put up with stuff directed at their group too, even if they don't participate in the stuff that made the group look bad to others. And, like me and other gays, they also have to grow a thicker skin.

"But KoSC," you say. "I didn't do those things! I'm one of the Nice Members of the Oppressive Group, not one of the Bad Guys! Why should I have to put up with that? It makes me feel like you're blaming me for something other people did!"

That's a fallacy I also run into a lot. Unfortunately, it's just that: a fallacy. Just because you personally do not do those things does not automatically exempt you from hearing the anger about the behavior of the obnoxious members of your group. And the anger may not be about what they did, but about what you're not doing. Are you speaking up and saying that you are against what the loudmouth, hateful members of your group are doing? If not, then you're part of the problem, because by not speaking out against their behavior, you are enabling it.

For example, I hear about HIV and AIDS all the time, because I'm gay. I don't believe I'm one of the obnoxious loudmouth pride-parade queens, and I know I'm not one of the ones who has spread HIV and AIDS (I wasn't out in the 1980s - heck, I wasn't even an adult in the 1980s! - and I'm HIV-negative), but I still get the abuse, because I'm a member of the larger group.

When that happens, I have essentially three choices:

1) Suck it up and press it down. Eventually this will make me explode, but as a temporary thing, it's kept me from getting killed or hurt more than once. This then leads to coming back when I'm calm and taking option 3.

2) Cut the angry person out of my life. This, to me, is either immature (when done knee-jerkly), or only a last resort, if I've had to continually resort to option 1 and it becomes clear that option 3 is not viable either.

3) Calmly agree that the hateful and/or obnoxious element is really nasty, and say that I understand why you're angry at that element of my group. Then, AFTER I have acknowledged that your anger is real and justified (which it almost always will be), open dialogue and start talking about how much I don't like it that some people in my group do their best to make being a member of the group an embarrassment or a hardship for me. I will do my best, however, not to blame you for your anger.

In the case of my being gay, maybe your son or nephew or brother or friend died of HIV. I can't deny that the gay community was a largish vector for HIV, and still is. And at that point, I may well be a symbol for you of the entire gay community. If I try to make your anger about me personally, I've missed the entire point. You're angry at gays because we, as a community, played a large if inadvertent and mostly unintentional hand in bringing HIV to the world. Trying to say "But I'M not HIV-positive, and I wouldn't do that, and anyway, it's not MY fault, so stop being angry at gay people!" - trying to defend the larger group - will not do a damn thing to fix the problem. In fact, it will be counterproductive. You'll probably get an even worse picture of the gay community - not only did we bring AIDS to the world, but now we try to excuse our part in it, and somehow, our membership in the group shouldn't be held against us, so we're just making a bunch of excuses for what the larger group is responsible for.

The upshot of option 3 is: Don't defend your group to someone who has been harmed by it, no matter how much you want to. Just don't. Instead, agree that members of your group have done bad things, and that you don't support what they do and have done, and that you will actively call them on it when you catch them in it or when your attention is drawn to it. That will both increase your credibility with those who have been hurt by the obnoxious, hateful members of your group, and acknowledge that they have a right to their feelings, even if you are uncomfortable that your group inflicted them. That's the de-escalating way to respond to righteous anger on the part of someone who has been hurt by a group you are part of - even if that anger is expressed through humor.

So, as part of a group which has members who hurt me, what can you do? Make it clear that you do not agree with the obnoxious, hateful members of your group. Make it clear often. Criticize them, not just when people who are being hurt bring your attention to it, but when you notice the bad behavior of these loudmouth members of your group. Do not, however, under any circumstances, tell people who have been hurt by them, and who may be blowing off a little steam about them, or a lot of steam, that they have no right to be hurt, or to be angry, or to blow off steam. That's escalation, rather than de-escalation. It's counterproductive at best, and actively damaging at worst.

Yes, it's hard to hear that some members of a group you're part of have hurt someone you care about, or someone you need to work with, or someone you have to spend time around every day and thus have to get along with. But it's amazing how acknowledging the pain goes so far towards healing it. Getting angry with someone because they're angry about legitimate injury doesn't do any good. Acknowledging the pain and doing what you can to mitigate it, on the other hand, does.

This is what Obama did, for example, when he made his "More Perfect Union" speech. He said "Hey, folks, acknowledge the anger of the groups that feel you have one up on them. In some ways, they're right - you do. And that means you have to be willing to hear their anger and acknowledge it, even if it bothers you to hear that members of a group you're a part of would do the things you're hearing about."

For example, Catholics have to acknowledge that their church has enabled a good many pedophile priests to continue abusing children over the years. Christians, more generally, have to acknowledge that many members (and leaders) of their religion, over the years and centuries, have done many horrible, abusive things and, in some cases, are still doing horrible, abusive things. Even those of us who feel like we are the oppressed still need to acknowledge when our group or community has contributed to someone else's pain, as in my example above about gays and HIV.

When that happens, it's amazing how quickly anger disappears and productive conversation about the issues can start happening. As long as we are speaking from anger, nothing gets solved. But when we start acknowledging other people's anger, the need for them to feel it often dies away. Think about the last time you were angry. Didn't it feel better if someone said that you were justified in feeling it? And didn't it help you feel less angry much more quickly than if you'd also had to convince the person you were angry with that your anger was justified? (And if you haven't had the experience of having your anger validated, try to imagine what it would feel like.)

So when you hear someone making a joke at your privileged group's expense, be aware that it may be an expression of anger, but at least it's not an expression of hatred. It may be completely justified. And as a method of dealing with anger, humor is certainly more constructive and far less damaging than, say, taking a baseball bat and laying about with it. The trick is to recognize that you are not your group, and that you may be affiliated with people who do things you would not approve of, and plan how to handle that when it comes up. This involves growing a thicker skin, and learning to laugh at yourself and at groups you're a part of, instead of automatically shifting into defense-through-attack, as so many of us so often do. And it involves learning to acknowledge the other person's anger without becoming angry with their anger, by agreeing that they have a right to be angry and hurt, instead of invalidating them through a counter-attack and escalating the situation.

After all, it's hard to create a fight out of agreements. It can be done, but it's very, very difficult to do. So instead of fighting over who has the right to anger and who doesn't, let's acknowledge the anger, and acknowledge the pain, so that we can get past it and continue to build a better world.

Imagine what the world could be like, if we validated each other a little more, and hurt each other a little less, and learned to laugh at ourselves and not take the whole thing so seriously. That's a world I'd like to live in - how about you?

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