Quite often, when I log on to Twitter, I’ll see comments like the following: “What are we angry about today? Did I miss today’s Twitter outrage? I don’t know what we’re supposed to be angry about this week, but I’m outraged just in case.”
These tweets are a comment on the volatile (and fickle) nature of social media, the swift-acting “Twitter lynch mobs” and the fact that online anger, while intense, usually blows over quickly. This is all well and good, but there is a problem: We need to stop dismissing legitimate anger as hysterical “outrage”.
Because I am human, of course I believe that the things that matter to me are the things that matter most. I was not particularly upset about Cecil the lion (it was sad and shitty but I didn’t really connect to the uproar), but I was absolutely furious about the Marie Claire #InHerShoes campaign, the ridiculous Bic ad, and the Sowetan’s transgender gaffe. My emotional focus is on social issues, so even though I care about animals, those are the things that grind my gears. This doesn’t mean I can dismiss others’ rage about the lion.
Anger is a necessary emotion. Several years ago I came across a quote by activist Barbara Deming, who said: “Our task is to turn the anger that is affliction into the anger that is determination to bring about change.” That sentence is tattooed on the inside of my brain. The key thing, though, is to harness our anger effectively.
Women did not get the vote because they asked nicely and the men in charge decided oh gee, guess we should give the little ladies a say in how we run the world. They fought tooth and nail for their rights. Suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst were imprisoned and force-fed for their efforts.
Apartheid didn’t end because anyone asked nicely either. In fact, the struggle turned violent precisely because passive resistance did not work. The Women’s March to the Union Buildings in 1956 might have been peaceful, but their message was not: “Now you have touched the women you have struck a rock; you have dislodged a boulder; you will be crushed.” If that isn’t clearly directed fury, I don’t know what is.
I’m not suggesting that angry tweets are on a par with the women’s rights movement or the struggle. What I am saying is that there are many things wrong in the world, it is good and necessary to be enraged by them, and Twitter has become one of the platforms where we are able to express that rage.
My particular cause, the one for which I will take up my torch and pitchfork and storm the castle, is feminism and women’s rights. I’ve become attuned to sexism and misogyny; it’s virtually impossible not to notice (which is terribly annoying when you just want to watch a popular TV show). And while big things like South Africa’s rape statistics are horrifying and deserve as much attention as we can possibly give, that doesn’t mean that casual sexism – like Bic’s campaign – isn’t damaging or that it can be ignored.
Women are used to having their anger ridiculed, as anyone who has been asked “Are you on your period?” can tell you. (Because women are incapable of having valid opinions and only experience emotions in response to hormonal fluctuations.) I have been called “feisty” on more than one occasion, which to my ear sounds a lot like, “Aw cute! The ladyperson is stomping her feet!” It concerns me that this dismissive attitude has spread to social media, where those who are unmoved by a particular topic feel able to pass judgement from their lofty throne of indifference.
The flaw in the “internet outrage machine” is that it often involves anger without action, and I understand why that is frustrating. It is easier to retweet someone else’s argument than to get up and do something. But that doesn’t mean that the things we say on the internet don’t matter.
Fighting ignorance and casual bigotry comes down to informing people and trying to change their minds, and this is where social media is valuable. Twitter is an excellent tool for explaining, for discussion, for calling out people and brands for irresponsible actions. Criticising Bic online is not a “storm in a teacup” or the domain of “angry feminists”; it is an appropriate response to a patronising, sexist act.
(As an aside, can we drop the “angry feminist” line now? It’s as condescending as comments about burning bras.)
We should be responsible in expressing our anger, yes. But for the most part, I don’t believe we should swallow our rage. Light your torches. Storm the castle.