The Vancouver International Film Festival is currently running. This Sunday, I will make some time to see a couple of films. One of them is called Miss Representation, a documentary about how women are portrayed in the media. I've been wanting to see it ever since I caught a trailer on Feministing (there's also a great review in their community blog).
In the trailer, someone says that when children are seven years old, girls and boys in equal numbers say they want to be president. But by the time they're 15, the ratio has changed drastically. Every time I hear that, I start to cry. I had tears in my eyes while reading that review.
Why do I get sad and not angry?
These kinds of injustice hurt. They even feel like physical injury sometimes. And I react like someone who has been hurt. I cry. I am injured and I feel sad. Empathy makes me want to take the pain away from others. Empathy makes me want to fix the situation.
But sadness won't fix anything. Anger in itself doesn't fix anything either, but anger, much more than sadness, can drive action.
The trouble is that I don't get angry easily. In fact, it's rare for me to be angry for more than a very short time. Even if it hits me, I don't sustain it. I imagine there are a lot of reasons for this. One is that anger was discouraged in my family. In fact, any strong emotion was discouraged. But somehow I have very strong emotions now, except for anger. And then maybe it's because I used to have a lot of anger, and I realized that it was hurting me and driving people away. So I learned to overcome it. I didn't suppress my anger. I just learned not to react that way. Maybe I've trained myself too well.
As well, anger has a definite downside. The anger that leads someone to join a protest in the street, or even to start one, can turn into anger that leads to violent confrontation. Anger channelled into violence is basically terrorism.
Still, there are things I should get angry about. I should get angry at the sexism and misogyny that still pervade our supposedly enlightened culture. I should get angry that female genital mutilation is tolerated and even encouraged in parts of the world—and even crosses into North America. I should get angry that my federal government is trying to dismantle the Charter of Rights by stealth and remake my beloved country in their own twisted image. I should get angry at the appalling inequities and the complete lack of political will to address them in the land of my birth.
Leaving aside the fact that anger does not come easily to me, which I think is basically a good thing, maybe there's something else at work. Maybe if I got angry, I would have to do something about it.
The anger I overcame was basically about stupid personal stuff. But earlier in life, I was able to work up some really good political anger. I protested the Vietnam War. I marched for economic democracy. I learned techniques of nonviolence in working against nuclear power. That's the anger I should have now—political anger. But if you want to make sure that political anger doesn't destroy you, you have to direct it toward a goal.
Perhaps sadness is an inappropriate response to injustice, either toward self or others. Perhaps anger is a more appropriate response. But I don't know how to work it up. Maybe I won't be able to and shouldn't be able to. What I shouldn't do, however, is use that as an excuse for complacency. Perhaps the overly empathic can channel their empathy into action rather than just allowing things to hurt.