If I wish I had learned one lesson earlier in life, it’s this: it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to make other people angry, and anger can work for you. (Well, that might be three lessons, but I find it hard to disentangle them, so bear with me.)
I'd been thinking that the whole "lessons for girls" meme would be a great one to pick up when I read it, but then I couldn't think of what my lesson would be. Anger was such a good one to start the ball rolling, right? Well, I think I've got my lesson.
If I wish I had learned one lesson earlier in life, it's this: it's okay to opt out of toxic situations and conversations. Opting out doesn't mean that you're weak, nor does it make you a bad person. Sometimes, the most advantageous position is, in fact, one in which you don't resist, in which you don't explain, in which you don't try to justify your position, in which you don't bother trying to help others see your point of view. Or, conversely, in which you don't try to be inclusive, to give antagonists a forum, or to apologize to diffuse a situation.
In some ways, this lesson number two may appear to contradict lesson number one about anger. Opting out can seem, once one has embraced the power of anger, like stupid passivity. Like letting people or situations steamroll you. It can seem like you're not standing up for yourself. And if we are "good feminists," opting out can feel like giving in, giving up, or complicity.
This, in fact, may account for why this lesson has been so hard for me to learn (and why it's a lesson I have to continually work at). Anger makes sense to me. Channeling anger in positive ways makes me feel strong and powerful. Opting out? Well, the benefits aren't so immediate, and they are often much more subtle, though I would argue that they are no less concrete.
Because here's the thing: anger is an emotion that is built on energy. As Historiann notes, that can be a very good thing: we can use our anger propel us out of situations that aren't good for us or to effect necessary change in our workplaces, our communities, or the world. But sometimes, the expense of energy that anger requires actually takes us away from our goals, away from feeling centered, away from what we really value. Sometimes, it's seriously not worth it to invest the angry energy required to "opt in."
And also, just because we are women, and in particular women who are intellectuals with academic credentials, it is not our responsibility to opt in and to engage in toxic situations or conversations. While it is true that we may value the free exchange of ideas, spirited debate, a diversity of opinions, etc., that does not mean that we individually are obligated to engage with all ideas, to enter into all debates, or to entertain all opinions. We are not required to get angry and to respond with anger to any and all comers. Particularly if there is no positive way to channel our anger toward a concrete outcome.
This lesson is a valuable one in a lot of areas.
First, it's been valuable to me professionally. Imagine, for example, that you're chairing a committee charged to give a major a complete overhaul, a major that has not changed dramatically since the 1970s. As everything begins, you're all about including as many viewpoints as possible. You're transparent in what the committee's up to with the whole department, and you invite the free exchange of ideas. This is as it should be. Somewhere in the middle of the process, it becomes clear that certain individuals (a small minority) aren't about productive compromise, but rather that they want to obstruct the process altogether. Now, you can continue to court these individuals, and you can continue to try to appease them. Except they won't be appeased, because they have no intention of compromising. They have no intention of considering the majority viewpoint. Are you, as chair of that committee, obligated to spin your wheels seeking unanimity that will never happen? Ultimately generating a report that gets filed away somewhere, and failing in your committee's charge? Or is it the better course of action to opt out of entertaining the outliers, refusing to give them the energy of your anger or your time, and instead to try to complete the charge successfully, if not with unanimous agreement? I chose the latter.
Second, "opting out" can be a very valuable course of action in one's personal life. Let's think about the drama of a breakup. When the break-up happens, you both go through the trauma of figuring out that you can't be together, talking about the whys and hows of that, and (often, though not always) giving one another a lot of angry energy. How do you move beyond that in a way that is positive? For me, that means opting out. Not opting out of the person's life altogether, necessarily - but rather opting out of the trauma and the drama of the breakup narrative. At a certain point, both parties know what each other think and feel about the whole sordid mess, right? In order to move forward, you've got to move through that to the other side and then decide that you're not going to engage in conflict anymore. No, it's not easy, but opting out actually can open the door to a peaceful resolution in friendship. Similarly, let's say a friend does something, or is thinking of doing something, with which you don't agree or of which you disapprove. At a certain point, it becomes clear that the friend is on that path however you feel about it or whatever you say. You've got a choice: continue to expend energy trying to make the friend see your point of view, or opt out. Either opt out of the friendship, or opt out of the argument. Either way, once there's no change possible, the best course of action can be to just let it go.
Third, by trial and error I've learned, the hard way, that the best thing to do when people object to "Dr. Crazy" (and really, it does come across that way - that people just object to this online identity and to the content and tone of this blog) is to opt out. As I've said, I learned this the hard way. I used to engage. I used to try to explain this space, to justify my perspective, to include these people in the conversation, no matter how awful they were. I felt like if I didn't engage that I was somehow failing. But after trying, and failing, to engage people who had no interest in engaging with me - or with a conversation on this blog - about actual posts, go figure! - I have realized that opting out is the only appropriate response. Not because I couldn't work up a hell of a lot of anger about the drive-by comments filled with sarcastic vitriol or about the blog posts that refer to me in derogatory ways (because a lot of people read the blog and so it's a way for them to generate traffic? This is the only reason I can imagine that a lot of people in this vein link to me, even though, of course, it only brings me more traffic, and so if I'm so reprehensible, why would you want to bring me a wider audience?) - but because it's not my responsibility to engage with people who aren't really engaging with me. It's not my obligation to provide a forum for people who treat "Dr. Crazy" or the blog in general like shit. It's not "feminist" to award this sort of shit with my anger, because if I were to do so, I'd be taking the energy of that anger away from things that might actually be served by it.
With posts on other blogs about the blog, this is somewhat easier to handle. I just don't acknowledge those anymore. With the commenters? It's somewhat more trying. See, if I allow them to spew their nonsense here, then you all have to read it, too. I could just delete such comments when I see them, but that's annoying as I'm not by my computer 24/7, and my readers might still have to encounter them. That would change this space, even if I did ultimately delete those comments. What to do? At this time, I've chosen comment moderation.
The haters typically claim that I just want a fanclub with the blog when I do opt out, that I'm not giving opposing viewpoints a "voice," and that I'm in some way reprehensible because I don't allow this blog to become a forum in which people are explicitly derogatory, in which they impugn my character, and in which I'm some stupid little girl who has no business being a professor. But you know, here's the thing: I like this blog to be a place where conversations - not conflicts - happen. That doesn't mean that there won't be disagreements, but it does mean that everybody basically agrees that everybody else is coming from a place that is genuine and generous. I don't have an explicit comments policy on this blog, mainly because I've never felt that one was necessary: at the end of the day, I think that the people who read and comment here "get it." It's only on rare occasions that people decide that they're going to put me in my place, tell me that I'm a self-involved ninny (dude - I'm writing in the first person - how could I not be? This blog doesn't claim to be an objective viewpoint on anything), question my integrity or ethics, or just generally insult me. I used to think that I had to respond directly to such charges. Now? Nah. I'll just refer those people to those posts to which I linked earlier. And I'll keep comment moderation on until those people go away, and if they come back, I'll put it back on.
The brilliant thing about comment moderation is that I don't actually have to read the entire comment, by the by. In other words, neither I nor my readers are infected with the toxicity. That's pretty sweet.
So, to sum up, sometimes the best thing is to just refuse to deal with the bullshit. To opt out. It's really liberating, actually. See, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if people like me. It doesn't matter if people think I'm "inclusive" or "welcoming" or whatever. It's not my job to give a voice to assholes. It's not my obligation to include all people. It's not my responsibility to justify myself to people, to give those people my anger and energy, who will never accept any justification that I might offer. At the end of the day, people who believe in their own position don't bend over backwards to please those who disagree with them or who dislike them. They don't expend energy on making those who disagree with them or who dislike them feel good.
Anger can be a source of power, but so, too, can realizing that it's not on you to listen to people or to engage with people who are full of shit.