Over the weekend, my dear husband played a beautifully ridiculous game called Asura’s Wrath. It’s not so much a video game as an interactive story, and this is the way the story goes: a demigod named Asura is one of the Eight Celestial Generals charged with protecting the world from monsters called Golma. After helping to beat back the worst of these golma (a planet-sized monstrosity that bursts forth from the world’s core), Asura is betrayed and framed for the murder of the emperor he serves. This sets into motion a chain of events that spans over millennia.
The game is full of the craziness that’s distinctive to epic anime. Asura’s enemies are gods, so displays of world-shattering power are par for the course. One of the things that makes the game so engaging, though, is how each of the characters — both Asura and his seven antagonists — are fairly well-shaded. Each of the Eight Generals has a particular vice that flaws their character. Asura’s (if you couldn’t guess) is his wrath, which makes sense. He was betrayed by his brothers, his own daughter has become a pawn used to further their own ends, and he finds himself constantly demanded to accept that this is the way the world works. He rages against that; it’s what fuels his power and propels him through that quest.
But it also makes his journey so much more difficult. Throughout the story, Asura fails to stop and consider the effect of his actions. He can’t tell when someone is legitimately attempting to extend an olive branch, and his default action is to punch whatever stands in his way until it isn’t there any more. There are a few times when he gives himself over completely to his rage and becomes a force of destruction. Even though his cause is just and his heart is in the right place, his inability to focus his anger properly really hurts him.
It got me thinking about the anger being expressed by various under- and mis-represented populations online. One of the great things the Internet has done is given us a voice to share our experience of the world, to get together and talk about the various ways we’re being under-served by the culture we’re in. I’ve been exposed to experiences I never would have even thought about otherwise, and I have an inkling about all kinds of things that I’ve never considered before. These communities are now able to speak up to challenge a lot of assumptions made by people in positions of power, and get together so that their voices can be amplified. It’s a wonderful thing.
The tone of that speech is something else entirely, however. Many of the people in these communities — to which I belong — are incredibly angry over the treatment they’ve been forced to endure and the litany of reminders given to them every day that our culture is at best indifferent about them and at worst openly hostile. This anger is, of course, justified; no one likes to be marginalized, and the fact that our entire society is built around assumptions that — by their very nature — does just that is a very difficult thing to deal with. Living an existence where so much around you tells you that you’re less than is a hard one to muddle through.
I understand that frustration and in many ways I share in it. And I believe that frustration can be focused into a useful tool for change. It can motivate us to speak up where otherwise we would remain silent. It can encourage us to be persistent in standing up for the equality we seek with our fellow men. It can push us through confronting prejudices and bigotry, guide us through the stress of insisting that being disrespected because of who we are is not acceptable. Our society is not fair and just; we must fight to make it so.
What I’m seeing in my community — and quite a few others like mine, comprised of people on the fringes of understanding by the mainstream — is that the anger we feel is being allowed to simmer, to boil over, to burn anything and everything around it. Instead of being honed and focused, used as a tool, it’s being used as a bat to beat down anything we don’t like. Instead of a torch being used to light our path, it’s a conflagration that burns everything around us.
Discussion and disagreement is being actively discouraged. Attempts to find other ways to engage people outside of our communities, or suggestions of other ways to handle things are being shouted down by cries of “tone policing!”, “appeasement politics!” and “fake ally!”. The anger is burning through the system of our discourse, creating a firestorm that sucks the oxygen out of any possibility for debate and collaboration.
I think that this anger is causing us to treat other people very poorly. It’s making us lose sight of the fact that the system we’re fighting against is made up of other people who, like us, just want to be happy and free to pursue their goals. The fact that they’re part of this unjust system, that they may consciously or unconsciously benefit from it, is no fault of theirs any more than our under-privilege is ours. A lot of these people have never been exposed to the concepts that we’re forced to fight against all the time. That’s not willful, malicious ignorance or some kind of character flaw. It’s just a lack of exposure.
We could be teachers and leaders. We want to be treated with compassion and respect, we want people to believe us when we say how systemic and deep the inequality of our culture is. Yet we treat the people who would be receptive to our ideas as some kind of impossibly dense enemy. We treat all requests for clarification as a demand to justify our beliefs. We treat disagreement as oppression, when it’s not. It’s an opportunity to explain our perspectives, to illuminate our experience, to engage with people and bring them to our cause.
I know that many of my friends in minority positions of varying stripes are angry about the hatred their community received just for being who they are. I understand that. But I don’t understand how it’s possibly helpful to treat others with that same intense anger just for being who *they* are. If we want to create a world in which we’re treated equally no matter who we are, it’s very unlikely we’ll do it by burning everyone who tries to engage with us.
Mistakes will be made, of course. Our would-be friends and allies are only human. It will take a long time to relieve them of misconceptions; we’re working against thousands of years’ worth of inertia, in some cases. We must be patient, and we must be compassionate. We’re asking society to undo generations of mistaken thinking and actions based around it. If we hope to have a chance of doing it, it IS our job to lead them to where we are.
I know that this argument will come as tone policing to some. Policing implies that I actually have some power to dictate your tone or silence you, and clearly I don’t. You’re free to express your anger however you see fit, and there’s not a thing I can do to stop you. All I’m doing is asking you to consider the consequences of that expression. How does it get us closer to the world we want to live in? How does it bring people together so that we can each and every one of us be free to be who we are without fear? How does it spread tolerance and compassion?
I have to draw a line in the sand with this. I respect each person to behave in a manner that they see fit, but I can’t engage with a community that lashes out with anger in all directions, towards friend or foe alike. I will continue to work for a world where the systemic injustice we experience is understood by all and undone. But I will do so with compassion and respect for all, no matter what their place in that system might be. And I will expect my friends and allies to do the same.