I hate conflict. I avoid it. I can’t watch those YouTube videos people post of other people screaming at each other at protests or what not. I mostly try to avoid rancorous debates online, and when I do get sucked in I try to exit early. On Facebook, I have friends but I don’t actually follow many people, and a big reason is that I don’t want to be tempted by debate.
Because I don’t like conflict, because I avoid debate, I have often wanted to claim this trait of mine as making me somehow superior and more enlightened. I have urged others to “lighten up”.
But the truth is, I avoid conflict partly just because I can. Because there is no aspect of my life in which I am legitimately threatened. Oh, I could pretend I was, but it would be trumped-up. I have never been in real danger of losing a job or social standing, let alone liberty or health, because of my race, creed, politics, sexuality, gender, gender expression, body type, or any other reason.
Today I live in a literal house on a hill, where I can look out over a peaceful valley every morning and contemplate the problems of the world from a comfortable remove. I have the respect of my peers, and my children are safe and healthy around me.
Being above the fray is easy for me. I’m like a conflict helium balloon: I don’t have to do anything to rise above it; all I have to do is choose not to engage. And for a long time I really thought of this ease as universal: anyone could make the same choice as me, and the people who didn’t—the people who chose to metaphorically sink their teeth in and scream and yell and argue—were in a way inferior or misled.
But the thing is, there are a lot of people who are very dear to me who don’t get to make that easy choice. They are engaged whether they want to be or not. Their bodies, lives, liberties, and opportunities—or the lives, liberties, and bodies of their children, husbands, wives, parents—are legitimately under threat, just because of who they are.
I get angry enough sometimes, just thinking of the senseless threats to these people I love. I can’t imagine how I’d deal with actually living in their skin. I think constant rage is a good start at describing how I’d react to having that kind of shitty hand dealt to me by society; and I’m honestly impressed how much joy, love, and empathy my more marginalized friends & family are able to generate.
I have friends who are angry on the internet. So angry they scare me sometimes. But you know what? Their anger comes from fear, and from love, and from caring, and from the fierce human need to create a fairer world from chaos. And praise the good lord, we live in an age when being angry on the internet can sometimes actually effect change, and we don’t always have to resort to shooting people.
So, here’s what I hope you’ll think about. If you find yourself in a position where it is easy to say “lighten up”, consider that you may not be so much enlightened as lucky. I have cake, and you have cake, but us saying “let them eat cake” may be a bit insulting to the person who is having trouble finding bread. (Where “cake” = “equanimity”).
Me, I still don’t want to want to engage in conflict. But I’m trying really hard not to begrudge my friends and family who do. Whether you scream aloud in a song or on Facebook, I need to respect the place that scream comes from.
I just visited the Statue of Liberty Museum. There was a wall of quotes on liberty from people from various times and places. Almost all the quotes alluded to a necessary struggle to gain freedom.
In some way, we all struggle for freedom to have our peace and our house on the hill.
Just don’t forget that the struggle is not the goal. And anger is an inefficient and superficial means of engaging in our struggles.
Anger is often a necessary part of the struggle. We got where we got through a lot of struggle, and a lot of that struggle was done in anger. “Stonewall was a riot” and all that.
Martin Luther King got by with very little anger. And that’s because he had Malcolm X as an implicit (and often explicit) “bad cop.”
Much of the credit for change will go to the people who aren’t angry. But much of the impetus for change will come from the people who are.
Both are necessary.
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