Compassion & confrontation – breaking the cycle of anger starts with you

I biked in Critical Mass a couple of months ago here in Berkeley, child on my back pumping my legs to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden as 35-40 of us paraded our alternative transport model around town. I was having an excellent time that within moments developed into an angry assault and an a reactionary extravaganza.

We were blocking an intersection in the heart of the Telegraph strip when an irate motorist drove head-on into three stopped bicyclists. I was witness to a driver react with rage in a physically violent manner that could have seriously injured 3 or more people who were directly impacted.

Following that I watched as a slew of people reacted violently, trying to chase down and kick the car. The group then moved on, fueled by adrenaline and anger and behaved in ways that isolated many other people who were hoping for a bike ride not a battle. In the end rather than raising awareness in the community we alienated ourselves and distorted our message.

This chain of events epitomized the lack of empathy and the disconnect between effective communication skills and political engagement. It crystallized anger as an issue of vital importance for me personally, but also as a significant issue for the larger radical community and society at large.

We should all be angry and outraged at the injustice and violence that is killing our kin as well as the ecosystem. From that anger we need to grow something useful, we need to use it as an energy source for anti-capitalist struggle. If we don’t try to bring about change from a place of compassion we are only going to replicate the same dynamics as those used by our oppressors. Learning to know ourselves and to deal with our difficult emotions of despair and anger in healthy ways in combination with learning to communicate with others in emotionally responsible ways is a necessary step in creating a cohesive and positive social change movement.

This is not to say that I have always interacted in non-violent ways in my activism, nor that I am advocating non-violence as the only effective means of change. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I identified as militant and fought in front lines like we were going to have a new society tomorrow goddammit! My words were volatile, my spirit was screaming and my actions reflected this. I have no regrets. What I remember more precisely is the quality of the feeling inside of me: despair, rage, destruction, adrenaline, and idealism all mixed up in this maelstrom totally lacking self-discipline and internal balance. Coming from a place of anger fueled positive action but in many ways I blew my load everywhere, too early without much forethought. Speaking of blowing my load, let’s consider gender as it stands in relation to anger.

Everyone gets angry but there are often differences in how men and women experience and manage anger. Our culture plays a major role in shaping our behaviors. An angry woman, a loud woman, an assertive woman can easily be invalidated as a crazy bitch or emotionally unstable, but a man with these same qualities is often seen as a powerful champion of an important cause. It is in line with our cultural norms for men to exhibit toughness, violent words and actions, and to seek revenge. Anger in men is often viewed as “masculine”. Women often learn to internalize their anger, creating an unhealthy stew of pressure-cooked emotion that eats away at mental health and self-esteem.

In social situations such as critical mass, demonstrations, meetings, and the like it is common for men to externalize aggression while women draw back. While this is not true for every person it tends to be a common manifestation in group behavior. In ten years of activism I have seen woman after woman driven away by overbearing male figures in the movement (including myself). I have been thanked many times by women quieter than myself for being an assertive and fiery voice in situations where they felt uncomfortable or silenced.

It seems that the majority of events and actions in our radical communities that are direct action oriented are often treated as parties or opportunities for reactionary explosions. They are not strategic or thought out attempts to communicate a message or challenge the system, but the expression of feelings and ideas that have not been very well processed or articulated. If we are to educate or inspire or even dream of making a substantial dent in the system we need to start considering what that takes.

What would a less reactionary, more compassionate movement look like and what would it entail? In my vision of a more cohesive and effective movement I see people who have spent a lot of time learning to be emotionally responsible, how to communicate in non-abusive ways and how to manage conflict and stress. I see strong community support for people invested in this type of work. There would be a communal validation of our human experience as scary and confusing in a world that seems to be on the verge of collapse. It would entail individuals working very hard in support groups or with mentors to address issues of privilege, socialization and communication. It is not enough to advocate for issues that are a symptom of capitalism — it is integral to address the deterioration of community engagement and that is directly related to the erosion of trust for one another.

What does that mean for me right now? I think a great deal about anger, my actions, thoughts and their implications. I try not to allow my anger to propel me forth into action without thought. Most importantly I aim to act out of compassion. Sometimes it’s the only thing I can do to create positive change and break the cycle of violence that is consuming our lives, our society and our planet.