Friday 2 September 2011

I'm sweet but I'm angry, I'm shy but outspoken

AnnalyticaPosted by Annalytica

This is the third post in the Hand in My Pocket series. For the first post, see "I'm queer and vanilla". For the second post, see "I'm bi and monogamous"

I'm the kind of person that people apologise to when they realise they've just sworn in front of me. When I tell people I perform cabaret, the most common reaction is disbelief. That sweet, quiet little girl who mostly just stays out of everyone's way, she gets up on stage in front of an audience and sings and dances and acts? Surely not.

The other contradictions I've written about aren't really contradictions at all; rather they're terms that people tend to get confused about, and I've tried to explain the terms in a way that makes it clear how they can co-exist. But the tension between, on the one hand, my apparent sweetness and shyness and fear of rocking the boat or upsetting anyone, and on the other hand, my anger and my need to speak out against injustice, this is a much more profound contradiction. It's also one which is intimately tied up with my relationship with feminism.

I often come across as sweet and shy because, for the most part, I don't like to draw attention to myself. I'll fit myself around other people's needs. If my own needs can be met without requiring anyone else to change anything, so much the better. I live in fear of taking up too much space, and of having any kind of impact on the world. And yet there are so many things that make me angry. There are so many things I do want to change in the world.....just as long as they're not being changed solely on my behalf.

This post is difficult to write because it's all about me, and I keep asking myself, why should anyone care about my feelings? Insofar as my feelings are mine alone, they don't seem important enough to speak about. But if I can put words to a shared experience, and articulate something which has an existence beyond me, then I have a justification for being outspoken. I can add my voice to a movement, and together we can have an impact that feels right and just.

So, there is a rather sharp dichotomy between situations when I speak up and situations when I remain silent. If I believe that a problem I experience forms part of an oppression that is woven into the structure of our culture, and which therefore affects other people, I will shout about it at every opportunity. I will draw on the full force of my argumentative powers and be fierce in my determination to convince anyone who'll listen, and many who won't. I will channel my anger through my logical, analytical brain until my arguments seem, to me at least, to be utterly watertight and beyond dispute. I imagine I'm pretty scary when I do that.

And then there are those situations where I suspect I'm just being over-sensitive, and getting upset over nothing, and I should just suck it up and deal with it because nobody else would mind. So I stay silent, and remain alert to other people's needs, and push mine down. And people find me sweet.

There is no middle ground. There's no point when I feel able to say, OK, this is just something that I personally am quite sensitive about, and it's not actually part of a broader social problem - but nonetheless, it's a problem for me, and if I think it's important then it is important. There's no point when I say "Hey, I see why you're doing things this way and lots of people would be fine with that, but it bothers me so please could you do it differently?" I just can't get my head around the idea that my feelings, in and of themselves, could be a reason for anything - and so I only speak up if there is a more rational-sounding reason.

Sometimes I'll be in the middle of a fierce argument when my perspective suddenly switches, and I go from believing I am right and feeling righteous to thinking I am humiliatingly wrong. The feelings that started the argument are still there, but the intellectual scaffolding that was validating my feelings just crumbles. Without a logical argument to justify my emotions, I no longer feel able to speak about them, and instead feel compelled to apologise for my outburst and slink off in shame.

My relationship with feminism is shaped by my need to find an intellectual justification for my emotions. Feminism provides a framework of ideas which permit me to feel angry or upset in certain circumstances. I'm not trying to define the true nature or purpose of feminism here. There are many, many things that feminism can be and do. This is about how I interact with feminism. For me, with my discomfort around my own needs and feelings and my love of all things abstract and intellectual, feminism can sometimes become about putting all those messy emotions into a framework that makes sense of them, and allowing me to tap into a mode of communicating where I feel more confident.

That can be useful, but it can also cause all kinds of complications. Where I am with feminism is significantly better than where I was without it. At least now there are some situations when I believe my feelings are valid, even if it is only in those situations when there's a feminist explanation. Previously I thought I wasn't meant to have any feelings at all, so that's an improvement.

But the difficulty with tying the emotional into the intellectual in this way is that people don't know how to respond. It's not clear whether I'm asking for sympathy or inviting debate. I don't always know myself. If I dress emotion-talk up in intellectual-talk, can I really complain if I get an intellectual response? And if someone else gives a compelling argument for why the intellectual points I'm making are unsound, then I'm back to square one, with no justification for my emotions. The original problem - that I'm afraid to take up any emotional space, afraid to ask for what I want simply because I want it - remains unsolved.

Equally worrying is the possibility that once I've convinced myself I am so incontrovertably right that it's safe for me to speak up, I may unintentionally trample over people that I really ought to listen to. I try to remain aware of my privilege but I'm sure I screw up sometimes.

The devaluing of women's needs and emotions, and the prioritising of apparently "objective", general arguments over subjective lived experience, are things that feminists tend to discuss quite a lot. The way I experience these particular cultural messages is as a sort of disorientating snap between two modes - when I am able to engage my intellect to argue in general terms I feel powerful, and entitled to be heard, whereas when I perceive my emotions to be at the source of what I want to say, I feel vulnerable and keep quiet. I tend to be either very shy, or very outspoken, with little in between.

I don't have a neat conclusion for this post. These are issues I still struggle with and I'm curious as to whether other people have similar experiences.

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