The Cost of Anger

“Are you an angry feminist?”

I was recalling an awkward but critical discussion I had once had, to Andrea Hodos a woman who is familiar with people who have strong ideological and experienced based opinions. Through her work with NewGround in Los Angeles Andrea facilitates honest conversations and relationship building between Muslims and Jews. Back in 1992, when I was put on the spot about my own anger and its relationship to my big ideas, we were roommates.

I had called Andrea to talk about the complicated role anger is playing in national conversations this summer. Passions are running high. Passion is not something that scares me, but anger does. It seemed to me that when we often use anger as an excuse not to consider another point of view. So I asked her about it.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about how anger can get in the way of seeing complexity, it can flatten ideas.  It is not that being angry isn’t important or that we should stifle it but I think that sometimes we let it take over. So I do relationship building work because when you have a relationship you have the ability to explore more parts of yourself and have others explore their assumptions as well.”

In 1992, like now we were heading towards a national election. President George Bush (the first) was running against Governor Bill Clinton and businessman Ross Perot. Taxes, war and the economy were on everyone’s mind.

During the campaign, Andrea worked for the Texas Abortions Right Action League, reaching out to voters to garner support for abortion rights. Remembering the job, she recalled, “I was doing it for pay but I was also fascinated by the opportunity to connect with people from a foreign location,” and given the North East bent of her life, Texas qualified as foreign.

What stands out for me at this remove are impressions of how she handled herself representing a clear position on one of the most toxic topics of the time. A computer dialed numbers automatically, Andrea never knew who would answer, if they would be in sympathy, open to conversation, or hostile. She had the option to disconnect when necessary but she often tried to engage and listen-even if they strongly disagreed with her position. Though staunchly pro-choice, and sometimes privately infuriated by the less pleasant interactions, or the situations in which women were trapped by their husband’s positions and rule of the household, I was impressed with her capacity to listen and be calm and return day after day to do this work. Not wavering on her own commitments, she navigated with compassion instead of anger and was able to connect with strangers. Her stories were one of the pieces that helped me envision a way past my own anger.

At the time, I was a recent graduate of a women’s college, at the start of a doctoral program in the very male-dominated field of Jewish history. Alongside Judaism, feminism animated every element of my life. And when I looked at the historical and contemporary Jewish experience through a feminist lens, there was much to be angry about.

I was comfortable with righteous anger. I cut my activist and Jewish leadership teeth as a teen crusader for Soviet Jewry. There was much to be angry about and there was a clear enemy in the government of the Soviet Union. Everything was at a remove. The anger was never personal; it cost me little.

But that night in 1992, when I was asked about being an angry feminist, I understood for the first time that there was a potential cost to my justifiable anger.

Arriving in Boston a few months earlier, I met another student with whom I had an immediate connection. We began dating. That fateful evening we were discussing making it exclusive and were delving deep into potential points of conflict.

As I recounted the conversation, Andrea asked how I answered.

“I did a quick assessment of the situation. I knew I wanted to be in a relationship with him, so I told him no.”

“Well,” she laughed, “They say you can either be right, or you can be married.”

The guy, already knew from our extensive conversations about circumcision on our first date that I was strongly, even radically, feminist. He was not naïve but hopeful when he heard my answer. It was not my feminism that worried him but my potential anger.  And if I were able to put it aside, even somewhat, he could live with that. And he has for over 20 years of marriage.

Since that time, I have continued to be an activist but I have largely moved away from anger as a primary tool for change. Anger-even when justified, as Andrea and I discussed, gets in the way of building relationships and community. In my work on race, I lean instead into compassion and understanding. These are the traits that better enable me to hear stories of experiences that are often quite different than my own. The racism I encounter can make me angry but I try to assume the best of others even as I work to educate members of the Jewish community about the need for change. In my work with parents, I encourage compassion and empathy as a healthier starting point for families.

In talking with Andrea, I told her that I appreciated the example that she had set for me all those years ago and how I continue to admire her capacity to remain passionate about issues without letting it be exclusively about the anger. Typically humble, she made sure to share a story of how she recently lost her temper with an individual when confronted with a particularly nasty and personal assault on Islam.

Moments of anger are not what concern me. The world is a complicated place and there is much to be angry about. What concerns me is the retreat into anger as a justification for disengaging or anger that pushes away others. Anger, as my boyfriend/husband suggested in his question to me, is a barrier to relationship. And as Andrea Hodos continues to prove in her ongoing work, it is in relationship that we are able to work together towards change.

Photo credit NewGround.

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