At the Thanksgiving table this year, I did my best to explain to a more conservative relative why helping displaced Syrian refugees is Canada’s humanitarian responsibility. Yet the perspective I was attempting to defend — one certainly charged with ethical questions about whom we ought to help, and when — was quickly dismissed as emotional, and therefore illogical.
To this day, I am unable to bring up such issues within the same circle without instantly losing credibility due to my apparently over emotional state. I am certainly not alone in this — activists are often condemned for sounding angry or emotional, instead of appearing cool and collected (that is, palatable to the outside observer).
Consider, for example, the condemnation of the Black Lives Matter movement by American Renaissance, who described the movement as mere “hysteria and lies.” Closer to home, some students on campus felt offended by the UTSU titling one of their equity events “Fuck your bigotry.” This is not to mention that common caricatures of upset or hostile activists — such as the “feminazi” and “angry black woman” — clearly exemplify how emotion are are used as a reason to discredit activists.
Emotion is certainly no substitute for logic or evidence, and just because someone is angry does not mean that they inherently deserve remedy. Yet, the desire for reasonable debate should not be used to invalidate people’s emotions, nor is it solid ground for immediately dismissing their cause. This becomes especially pertinent if they are speaking about their marginalization and social justice — emotions in such cases are useful in the march for social change, and often stem from legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.
Practically speaking, emotional reactions to injustice have been crucial motivators behind activist organization — this is because emotions can override the self-interested inclination to refrain from direct participation. Most notably, anger mobilizes fellow citizens to protest in pursuit of a common remedy. From women’s suffrage to anti-apartheid movements, expressions of anger have had revolutionary effects in opposition to oppressive forces.
Many activists are directly affected by the causes they fight for, and have had to explain their pain hundreds of times. It is not hard to imagine how these experiences can provoke emotional responses. Consequently, knee-jerk critiques of an emotional delivery often betray the privilege of being unaffected by, or ignorant to the issue at hand. How else could one remain apathetic in the face of, say, anti-black brutality in North America, considering the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice — a case in which the officers responsible were not even indicted?
The problem, then, appears to be our limited ability to understand different perspectives and experiences; that is, we may perceive other people’s emotion as an overreaction merely because we are unable to empathize. Despite our individual hardships, it can be difficult to comprehend what it means to flee a war-torn country, lose a loved one to police brutality, or live under the constant fear of violence due to race, gender, or sexuality.
The onus, then, should not be on activists to simply communicate their claims in a more pleasant manner and avoid upsetting others — it is unreasonable to expect these individuals to always remain calm. Instead, those who remain unaffected by the issue should recognize the very real injustice these emotions stem from, and consequently strive to be more patient and understanding.
Emotion is not a replacement for logic or evidence; but it is a call for action. Once we hear these groups out, we can in turn evaluate their claims fairly and determine whether an injustice has occurred. Certainly, not every angry protester deserves a remedy. But no matter if they raise their voices, we at least owe it to them to listen.
Teodora Pasca is a second-year student at Innis College studying criminology and ethics, society & law. She is The Varsity’s Associate Comment Editor. Her column appears every three weeks.