A friend linked up this article on the oppressive subtexts at work when men dismiss women’s behavior as “crazy.” While this abusive behavior is certainly present in many relationships, it is also a big part of how I understand our society’s attitude towards marginalized communities.
I have been in multiple meetings with decision-makers or ‘sympathetic allies’ and seen so many fellow activists told, essentially, “Stop acting emotional and focusing on sad issues if you want to be taken seriously.”
From the link:
“The subtext to everything I was saying was simple: ‘You are behaving in a way that I find inconvenient, and I want to you to stop’….By telling her that she was reading too much into things, I was framing the situation as her being irrational…
Gaslighting — minimizing their feelings, reframing them as being unreasonable — is classic abusive behavior. It’s telling someone that they don’t have a right to the way they feel because what they’re feeling is wrong. Their feelings or their concerns or behavior isn’t “rational.” Once you take away their right to their feelings, it’s that much easier to manipulate a person into the way you want them to behave.”
I was in a Senator’s office once when an aide, trying to be helpful, mentioned that if our group didn’t approach the issue from such an emotional angle, that might help us get more traction. This was after several people detailed losing their land and all family savings, assets and history to mountaintop removal all while dealing with multiple cancers in the family. Though I have had countless conversations along these lines, this was one of the first, and years later I can still picture his earnest face and feel a fresh hot wave of seething rage.
Please tell me, what sort of sociopath is not emotional in these circumstances? Would this Senator’s aide be totally calm if his children were being poisoned? Lord knows I have been screamed at and seen friends threatened enough to know that the coal industry is definitely allowed to have emotions on this issue. Lawmakers and agency officials get to feel attacked, insulted and hurt that we are putting them on the spot by telling them how people are being poisoned. Seems to me everyone is allowed feelings except those most impacted.
This aide was, essentially, repeating the coal industry’s propaganda that we were “crazy,” and recommending that we avoid being “crazy” if we want to be effective. This is bullshit. What is “crazy”* is that 300 million year old mountains are being destroyed, and entire communities wiped out and poisoned for a few hours of electricity. A sane and reasonable response is feeling sad and angry that you have cancer, your home is destroyed and the government doesn’t care. Flipping this narrative so that the community is the bad guy for daring to care that they have cancer is an amazing bit of acrobatic re-framing.
Dismissing emotions not only downgrades the urgency of our issues, but it is a way to dismiss and alienate entire cultures that display their emotions differently than stoic WASPy Congressional Aides – effectively denying them entry into the decision-making spaces. This happens in our government, but also in NGO’s which do earnest work, but seem to generally prefer to avoid dealing with the messy parts of an issue. Complicated feelings can get in the way of efficiently creating flawless dry erase board 5 year workplans. The people most impacted are not considered experts on the issue, essentially because they are emotionally invested in their own lives.
Emotions are “unprofessional” because they are uncomfortable – especially when they are true and the truths they expose are complicated and massive. But emotions are a powerful and effective tool. If we lose our heart, we lose our movement.
I grew up in a rural midwestern farming community. Expressing emotions was not a priority in our community (massive understatement!), so I do (definitely!) understand some of the discomfort. I despise fake-sentimentality and syrupy false ploys to manipulate audiences. I also think that excess anger can cloud our judgement. But the reason that the industry wants to marginalize emotion is because it is one of the most powerful tools in our toolbox – as well as an incredibly important part of experiencing the world as human beings.
Our emotions are real and they really matter. They are one of the ways we learn what we know about a situation; feelings are an avenue to the truth in a world of lies and propaganda. Our gut can see clearly through miles of lies. You can talk facts to me all day, but you will never convince me it’s ok for little kids to get cancer and workers to die in careless explosions to increase your profit margins. Our emotions, when respected, transform us into stronger, wiser people and they make us brave enough to take a stand. Ask a person how they got involved in a movement, and you’re likely to hear about a transformative moment that involved emotions.
It’s not like we don’t need scientists doing vital work – dozens of emotion-free scientific studies have outlined the health risks associated with the coal cycle and these studies have helped us protect ourselves and our community enormously – but it hasn’t ended coal nor created the societal transformation we need to get at the root of environmental justice issues. It is not only false to think citizens need to be experts in all geo-political, historical and chemical aspects of an issue in order to make change (my friend Mattie has some great thoughts on this), but it is a deliberate manipulation that holds us back.
Whenever federal agencies open up a comment period or seek input from community on an issue, they always seem to mention they prefer “science-based arguments” over emotional arguments or narratives about the impacts of issues like mountaintop removal or fracking. I don’t know how to get an EPA Environmental Impact Study to consider these sacred emotional truths, but I definitely don’t know how to explain the impacts of coal mining without including its impact on our community’s emotional well-being.
*’crazy’ is a hurtful word often used as a weapon and I do generally try to avoid it, but it seemed ok in this context of making a point.