The hardest thing to do as a therapist is help people learn that although they are not responsible for the horrors that have befallen them, they are ultimately responsible for themselves and their own behaviour. It is particularly hard to help a traumatised, hypervigilent person to see that they have a choice in how they are acting. I know this only too well, having also been on the other side of the therapeutic relationship; I spent a long time in trauma counselling trying to re-learn trusting, relationship-based interactions with people and unlearn fear-focused, control-based patterns of relating.
I’m sure, if I’m honest, that I still have a lot to learn.
The trouble with the internet, is we can self-publish our own words without any kind of moderating process, meaning highly triggered and triggering responses can go out into the ether unchecked. Careless words leave opponents feeling blamed and shamed and unlikely to listen, more likely to spew back yet more triggered and triggering material. Careless words also tap into the trauma and hypervigilance of like-minded people, fueling their sense of entitlement to their own rage, and often sparking the kind of mindless mob that becomes too much of a blunt weapon to make any kind of breakthrough. It ends up not being about who is right or wrong, who is the most oppressed or entitled to their angry feelings; it becomes about people being in too high a state of fear arousal to really listen to anything at all, rendering the entire interaction utterly pointless other than to provide the fuel for further drama.
I tend to think of anger as a good thing to be in touch with, but I also think it is dangerous for any of us to have a sense of entitlement to our anger – anger is just a feeling; it is information, it is not a right. Feeling angry does not legitimise any ensuing behaviour; the strength of our trauma response does not necessarily hold the triggering person responsible for all our feelings. We are responsible for our feelings, and for our triggers. Other people are only responsible for their own behaviour.
I do not go into situations as a blank slate with no previous baggage, my trauma responses are far more deep rooted than anything that is happening in the here and now, so much as I would love to blame TERFs or MRAs for all my bad days (and they would like to blame me for theirs), this would be rather disingenuous. Even without my trauma history, living life as a gender variant child and adult exerts huge psychological pressure in a world that bullies and excludes us. We are social beings, and if we are different, the social structures supporting us are far less reliable, leaving us vulnerable to victimisation, abuse and trauma, and ultimately to poor mental health.
I am not responsible for the way the world treats a queer kid, but I have to be responsible for the person that I am in this world, and that means owning my fear, lack of trust, hypervigilance and fury at any form of oppression, marginalisation or injustice. My well-examined and thought-through anger is a splendid tool in my activism, but only when I am fully self-aware. When I screw my anger up and throw it without any pause or self-reflection, which I do more often than I would like, I add to the burden of aggression, tension, drama and even abuse that exists in this world. I fuel the fear. I know that so much of my activism has gone astray because I just didn’t have a proper hold of myself, and that all those misfires are wasted energy that undermines where I and others are trying to get to.
None of us is completely insignificant, especially those of us with a voice on the internet. Feeling entitled to our rage can be dangerous, and feeling completely powerless even more so, especially if it gives us permission to “let rip” at our opponents, or allies who have got it wrong. Others pile in, and soon we have that old fashioned angry mob with the cyber equivalent of waving pitchforks. Mobs have power, even mobs of relatively powerless individuals. I have seen lesbian mobs, feminist mobs, trans mobs, TERF mobs, and every other kind of mob you can think of. The mob always looks much friendlier when it isn’t after you, but from an outsider perspective all mobs are as ugly as each other.
I am trying to learn to ask questions before I speak out, collectively or unilaterally: When we’re organising for our rights, are we leaving time and space for each of us to reflect on our own behaviour? Do we think about the power we have or the power our actions might manifest? Are we whipping others up with triggering stories that override their ability to reflect? I keep trying to be non-violent in my approach to activism, not just because I’m a dreamy hippy, but because non-violent communication builds bridges and creates change.
Trouble is, when I’m full of fear I knock down as many bridges as I build.