Violently Peaceful: Oppression through “Staying Calm”February 16, 2010
When I moved out of my first place in Portland, I had to head down to the local hardware store, buy some drywall patches and stucco, and fix some holes in the walls of my bedroom. They were relatively large holes – certainly not normal "wear-and-tear" – and if you looked at them closely (or from a distance, actually) you could swear they were in the exact shape of a right fist . . .
Well – because they were. In a couple different fits of frustrated anger, I had punched some holes in my walls. After the second (or third) one, I started thinking about the cost of fixing the holes, so I moved on to hitting a punching bag when I flipped my sh–.
And flip my sh–, I did. Not too regularly, but every once-in-awhile, the overwhelming frustrations of circumstances and the world got to me, and I just had to hit something. (*1) There was no other way for me to let it out. Or so I thought.
And I remember being really embarrassed by it. I covered up the holes with art. I never mentioned it to friends. In most of my public life, I held myself "calm" and "under control" all the time. Nobody would have guessed that I would do that kind of thing – that I had any vaguely violent tendencies – because I hid it so well.
And I hid it because I didn’t want anybody to know there was something wrong with me. I didn’t want people to know that I was a "violent person." I didn’t want people to feel unsafe around me. Because the majority culture told me that those tendencies weren’t "normal." In fact, "society" seemed to deem those behaviors on the verge of "pathological." Maybe I needed to be medicated or something, because I certainly couldn’t "control" my anger and emotions like I was supposed to be able to do . . .
But the funny thing is, as the years passed, that uncontrollable urge to physically hit something started to go away. That extreme frustration filled me less and less often – and after I moved into my new place, I never touched that punching bag again.
So what happened? Did I learn to "control" my emotions? Was I just more "calm" in my oh-so-wise late-twenties? What was the big change?
Well, it’s hard to be sure, of course, but – during that time, I just started punching things with my mind, instead. I began to focus on writing and composing hip-hop and performing spoken word poetry around town. (*2) And I did it violently.
I didn’t stop being frustrated. I didn’t stop being angry. I didn’t even stop being aggressive – no, this wasn’t sublimation as it is thought of psychologically – I wasn’t changing my rage into something else; it was actually more like the chemistry "sublimation" – where I was distilling and concentrating my frustration into a more pure form – an artistic, peaceful violence.
Because, as I said – although it’s a bit less physical, and certainly less destructive – violent it remains. Some call it "passion," but let’s just call it what it is and avoid the euphemisms. The overwhelming frustration? Reduced, in some ways; more concentrated, in others – that’s what feeds me and inspires me to do what I do. And I’m cool with that.
But this is a very different way of looking at anger than most adults tend to treat the topic – especially when working with kids. I work at an arts camp where I would imagine most of the artists proscribe their chosen arts as "non-violent" forms of self-expression. But I would argue that – although not everybody needs to throw frustration into their artwork – this view disproportionately cuts oppressed people off from art, or worse.
Through the media and school systems in the U.S., the dominant culture teaches us that violence is wrong. Definitely. I agree. But then we’re taught that having violent urges are wrong. That is then changed to displaying anger is wrong. Next thing you know, we’re inundated with this belief that displaying any raw emotions at all is somehow "abnormal" or something to be "fixed." (*3) The only "acceptable" way of having real emotion (especially anger) is to find ways to more or less "hide" it in art.
But how can that be? This is a very frustrating world to live in, especially if you’re a representative of any of the large numbers of "others" out there. When your hopes and goals and wishes for an equal and just world are blocked at every turn – how can you avoid feeling ridiculously frustrated? And then, how can you not be a little angry about it? And when you can’t seem to shake that anger – well, you’re going to feel this urge to do something about it . . .
So why does this dominant culture instill in us a belief that anger and high emotion are "wrong" and "abnormal" when only crazy people wouldn’t be angry at this world? Why is there this middle-to-upper class emphasis on being "calm" and being "in control of your emotions" as the only way to be "normal?"
Well – because you need cattle to be calm if you’re going to avoid getting stampeded by them on the way to the slaughterhouse.
Back in the day, I worked in a Psych lab at the Portland VA hospital. There, I learned, on a rational, "calm" scientific level, that emotions cannot actually be controlled. There are things you can do to level off the peaks and troughs on a general level, but once high emotions get triggered in the system, there’s no stopping it mid-trip. (*4) Once they get going, those emotions are going to have a say, whether you like it or not. At this point, that’s commonly known within the Psych community.
Yet the most commonly-suggested solution remains medication. "Controlling" emotions by shutting down neural systems and chemically-altering a person’s mind. We’re still in a "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" mind-set. "Calmness" and "rational" thought are esteemed at the expense of true passion and inspiration. Because passion and inspiration are inherently violent in nature.
And those at the top – who have been controlling this culture and how it is portrayed for centuries – certainly don’t want those they are oppressing to get all "passionate and inspired." Because that makes things uncomfortable.
For example, it’s a lot more comfortable to dismiss the "angry PoC" as "violent," as opposed to "passionate and inspiring" (and/or rightfully angry). Because we wouldn’t want to "encourage that kind of behavior." Instead, the "passionate" and "inspired" labels will be saved for those who play the game by the majority rules. And guess what their background usually looks like?
Whoo! Status quo maintained.
So, as the decades rolled by, the dichotomy of "civilized, rational, and calm" vs. "primitive, emotional, and violent" became more pronounced in "Western" culture. (*5) For an oppressed people, expressing any sane reaction to the way of the world is held against them, more evidence of their standing in the latter category. (*6)
And what does this messaging and attempted suppression do to frustrated peoples? What about making them feel like there’s something terribly wrong with them for having these strong feelings and needing to let it out? Or worse, "diagnosing" it as a "disorder" and medicating them before real help is offered?
It robs these human beings of the right to their own safety, mental health, and self-security. And, in most cases, increases their frustration and inner violence. They are then deemed "dangerous, savage, emotional, etc." and the cycle continues.
Me? I was lucky. I’m a performer. I acted "in control" long enough to avoid getting labeled and medicated. I was able to fake "calmness" well enough so that "they" didn’t deem me a threat. And then I found pursuits that allowed me to engage my frustration and violence and bring it out into the world without robbing others of their rights as human beings.
Because – as I said – I most definitely pursue my lyrics with a bit of violence. When I write about what I see in the world around me, I think of my words as weapons with which to punch injustice in the f-ing gut. And I enjoy thinking of it that way. It drives me.
As my inner rage drives me to do the work I do – teaching kids in a different way, facilitating workshops that tackle oppression in all its forms. Doing all I can to understand the dynamics of this world and society, so that I can do my part to change it for the better.
And in so doing, I have re-worked this message about "violence" for the youth I work with:
Being a member of an oppressed group is to live with violence – in your environment or your mind (or both). The endless waves of oppression push us and knock us down constantly – while we’re told by those making the waves that they don’t even exist. Eventually, frustration is going to take us. Anger is going to take us.
That’s totally normal.
Because violence has already had its way with us. Fighting against it only breeds more violence and frustration. Our only hope is to use the violence of those waves to our favor – powering us like hydroelectricity.
Once we can do that, the waves become an aid; we can start focusing on more important matters and think more clearly, instead of fulfilling the wave-makers’ hopes of struggling mindlessly. And then – and only then – can we rise from the waters altogether – and start to fly.
Engaging in physical violence against other people is wrong. Flat-out. It’s unjust, robs others of their humanity, and only begets more injustice.
However, there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re angry, and frustrated, and just feel like hitting things at times. "Abnormal" is being 100% calm – like a robot – in the face of B.S. injustice and inequality. Seeing what’s wrong and being upset about it is good and normal. And there’s a lot of wrong, so you normal folks are going to get angry relatively often.
So go ahead and be normal – just figure out how you can inhale your anger – and breathe out a violently-peaceful FIRE. That’s what it means to be human. And that’s what makes us beautiful.
Alright then. Class dismissed.
Go get ’em.
(*1) I must stress that I hit things – never people – and I do not condone, nor would I ever find physical violence against a living thing to be okay.
(*2) I tried visual arts, and – although I was fairly competent, certainly more so than I am, musically – they didn’t allow me to get all riled up and bring my fury the same way the audio arts did for me. So I pretty much stopped doing it.
(*3) How many times do middle-class teachers tell kids of color (or kids in poverty) to "lower their voice" or "stop yelling" or "calm down" when the kids are perfectly in control of themselves, just talking about something that upset them? When a white savior tells oppressed youth what to do to "save them," it’s called "passion." When the youth emotionally explain to said "savior" their disconnect, we call it "anger" or "violence."
(*4) Short of sedation, of course.
(*5) This clearly applies to race and class, but ladies – I’m sure this one isn’t new to you, either. Funny how often I hear women administer this very message to the kids I work with, however. That’s how good the system is – getting the very groups it’s putting down to own and deliver its messaging.
(*6) Working with the population I do, I see this all the time; and so often I have to convince other staff that most of our kids aren’t "dangerous" at all – just frustrated and unable to express it. These kids will scream and yell and say terrible things, maybe punching cabinets all the while – but they never, ever lay a hand on another person. There are exceptions, of course, and lines have to be drawn, but it’s sad how quickly we dismiss these kids as "troubled" and never do our job – teaching – to help them deal with the real-life frustrations of a terribly unjust world.