In Defense of Rage

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August 24, 2012 by WAR

by Madelyn Peterson

I keep having the same conversation. Boiled down, it looks like a handful of questions:

“How do we sustain ourselves?”
“How do we survive with our souls intact?”
“How do we continue to work, to fight, and to love?”

I still struggle to answer these questions, but most often, my response is: we continue to feel, we take care of ourselves and each other, we do not go-it-alone. We allow our rage. We hold rage and love in the same hand, and at times, they are one and the same.

Rage is the fire in our bellies. We are truly filled with rage when something is so wrong it grates against our skin and twists our stomachs like dishrags. We feel it in our bones, that something must change, no matter the means or the cost. Yet, too often, we temper this feeling to please those around us. Or we run from it, afraid of the power of our emotional response.

We are taught to deny our anger, to hold our tongues and sit still, to speak on the plane of cool reason. We are told, “getting angry doesn’t solve anything”. We learn to suppress rage—any powerful emotion, for that matter—because it will invalidate our story—no, not our story, our “argument.” Political discourse in our society honors the non-emotional voice of “reason” (a patriarchal construct in and of itself) and calls those who speak with emotion, story, and experience “too emotional,” “militant,” “manipulative,” “biased,” “uneducated,” or simply “invalid.” The question of rage is one of entitlement: how much emotional space can I take up? How much am I entitled to feel and to express in the public sphere? And rage is a question of liberation. bell hooks, a black feminist activist/author, speaks about the silencing of black rage:

“[Black folks suffered] myriad abuses and humiliations . . . daily when we crossed the tracks and did what we had to do with and for whites to make a living. To express rage in that context was suicidal. Every black person knew it . . . many of us were taught that the repression of our rage was necessary to stay alive in the days before racial integration.”

                   —bell hooks, from killing rage: ending racism

Rage is a question of race and gender, of oppression. Those with the most social and political power, namely “bourgeois whites,” as bell hooks writes, have a vested interest in trivializing and devaluing rage, lest rage against the status quo “assume[s] the form of strategic resistance.”

When we censor our rage, we are catering to a discourse that depends on our compliance. It’s time we stopped asking for permission to speak and begin demanding that our voices be listened to. Rage is a powerful force—for organizing, healing, resisting—once we learn how to use it. If bottled up, rage can eat us from the inside-out. If we don’t direct rage back at the source of oppression, we turn it inwards or against each other. Instead, we ought to recognize rage as an honest response to exploitation and a constructive force that is vital to political resistance. We need rage—just as we need joy and love—to fuel us through a long march, to remember what truly matters, and to connect with one another in a common struggle. We need it to make us bold and brave. And we need a community in which to process our anger and care for each others’ wounds.

When we embrace rage, we refuse to be victims or to see others as victims. We choose resistance and dignity over victimization. For those who fight your own oppression, recognize rage as kin to love and hunger for justice, as a powerful force for change. For those who would be allies, listen to anger. When gender- and/or class-privileged white Americans are only willing to listen voices of victimization, they reaffirm the status-quo. Listen to voices that challenge your ideas about class, ableism, gender, sexuality, race, etc.

We are tired of sexual violence and patriarchy, of racism and white supremacy, of a state that will deny basic human rights if you don’t carry the right papers, of a society that polices our bodies and tells us our our love and our flesh—queer, gender non-conforming, differently-abled, fat, etc.—is undeserving. We are unwilling to live in denial and passivity. We will build communities and organize with rage, joy, creativity, hope, solidarity, strength, and love to transform the worlds we live in. Our rage will move mountains.


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