I Wasn’t Angry Until You Said I Was: Civility & Its Discontents

I often find myself bringing up matters with people who might have missed their problematic nature. As time passes, I have come to ration my caution and care in such matters far more selectively. It’s draining to run scenarios in my head and try to figure out the exact approach that might circumvent any sort of unpleasant feeling in the person to whom I will be speaking, especially when my efforts hardly seem to matter.

My caution certainly didn’t matter the very morning of the day when that article claiming that outspoken women of color on Twitter are “toxic feminists” was published. Those privileged enough to not be misread as angry might put their faith in civility and good faith, but I don’t. As a relatively reasonable person, I cannot. The evidence simply doesn’t support my personally prioritizing others’ perception of my civility.

Hugh Hefner with a quote about secularism, flanked by a comment claiming that Hefner doesn't need heaven since he's made his heaven on earth.

That day last week, the image on the right was posted on a secular discussion group. I found it bizarre: Hugh Hefner was being presented as a secular example of someone who “lives [heaven] everyday! [sic].” Meanwhile, Hefner’s lifestyle is essentially a replication of Islamic heaven, the same afterlife used as proof by non-Muslims that Islam hates women.

I knew the person who posted it is a good-faith actor with the best of intentions who is willing to listen. As such, I strategized. I didn’t want to call him on it publicly because it might cause embarrassment. In addition, I steered clear of language that might trigger defensiveness (i.e. anything that ends with “-ist”).

Below is an abridged version of the conversation I had (bolding is mine).

Me: I wanted to talk about that meme when you have the chance
Him: What’s wrong with it?
Me:  your caption sort of rubbed me the wrong way. is HH really who we want as an example of an atheist who lives in “heaven” on earth? in his world, men can have as many women as they want, but his GFs are forbidden from having any other partners. not very heavenly, imho.
Him: Well, I don’t see a problem with HH because precisely my issue with religion is that it has oppressed sexuality. Whereas, HH has pushed against that. I don’t think he is sexist because not only is there playboy but playgirl as well.

Me:  I am aware of his contributions towards the liberation of male-centric sexuality. But I don’t know if promoting his lifestyle as “heaven” is at all inclusive given the way his lifestyle actually works: one where a man is surrounded by as many women as he wants while they are supposed to stay monogamous to him. that sounds like Old Testament/Quranic polygamy to me, not a secular heaven-on-earth
Him: Well, aren’t you in a poly relationship as well? I guess his having GFs and not allowing them to see others is unfair, I can see your point about that and I never knew that before.
Me: yes, I have multiple relationships. but they’re egalitarian.
Him: I guess he is sort of antiquated in some of his thinking, but overall he has done great for sexual liberation.

Me: I am just sharing my PoV in private message with you out of respect and in the hopes you could see some of my perspective.  his “heaven” is suspiciously close to that of Abrahamic oppressive sexist religion. So to present it on a secular group seems disingenuous to me as well as ignoring the fact that his heaven is just as sexist in some ways as those of religion.
Him:  I didn’t mean to make you angry about it.

Me: did I say I was angry or express anger at any time?
Him: No

He was hardly the first or only person to dub a carefully-worded, cautiously-approached conversation an expression of anger, despite my avoiding of words like “sexist.” Being read as angry when you are not does not require bad faith on the part of the person interpreting your words. All it requires is the skewed perspective bequeathed to us by the world: that anyone not upholding the status quo is disrupting it, and that such disruption is, by nature, angry.

Civility is, more often than not, in the eye of the beholder. When said eye is clouded over by subconscious biases, good faith isn’t enough to ensure that what is actually quite calm isn’t misread as “angry” and thus “uncivil.” It is with this perspective that I view those whose highest priority is “civility” with a great deal of suspicion. Attempting civility is often an exercise in futility for people in certain marginalized groups. I prioritize the elimination of the skewed perspective shared by so many, even self-described allies, that casts me as “uncivil” for daring to speak, over “civility.”

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. This is timely. I recently got told to “calm down” because I carefully and deliberately pointed out that trashing on overweight or “ugly” men for their physical flaws wasn’t an argument against sexism, and in fact caused splash damage to the very people that person was attempting to defend. Like me. Apparently using words like “please” and “do consider” is just too hostile a phrasing for me to be taken seriously.

  2. It’s definitely unfortunate how quickly and often disagreement or even questioning is read as “anger.” I know that I have remained silent on a ton of topics because I didn’t want conversations to turn in that direction. I also think it’s interesting how fast the exchange here turned to you and your own lifestyle, which happens way too often as well, even when personal details are not relevant.

  3. Yay, I can post again! No more errors!

    This is just clear illustration of what so many people have been trying to explain. Our empathetic models sometimes break, and as skeptics should be aware of that and try to notice when there’s incongruency. The problem is usually with us, not them.

  4. Not knowing the person, but it may have been the the word disingenuous. From my experience that word has become abit of an attack word in politics. Not saying it is, but somewhat like the word ignorant. Can often be used in a dictionary sense but has become an attack word for some. Think I articulated that cleanly…

    And that leads me to my own…. use of similar phrases. I’ve had probing questions/discussions with people of both genders(short hand here), and often to understand another person’s point of view will poke or prod in order to comprehend the nuances. Nobody is simple in their mindset. In that, I try to tread lightly. Because personal … beliefs and stances _are_ so personal, I’d rather not cause someone discomfort. So the question can be a “canary in the coal mine”. If the conversation shifts from a… logical to emotional response, it’s good to know when to back off. Note: I am not saying one response or the other is bad, they just come from different sources and have different driving factors.

    Point being, this person may have wanted to verify that you were still discussing on an intellectual level, as from this reading I think you were. He just wanted to make sure you were both on the same “page”.

      1. First off, I’ll re-iterate you were in the conversation and you know the person. I’m a outsider, so this is just my reading of it.

        My original comment ties with what Johnnie said. You’re correct that it was a statement, not a question. But you’re a professional word smith. If it had been me, I’m a programmer and even though English is my first language, I can be incredibly sloppy. Usually since my brain is about 3 steps ahead in the logic chain. Ask anyone who knows me from the past 20 years. Tangent sorry. But I’ve made statements instead of questions and vice versa.

        You asked “did I say I was angry or express anger at any time?”, he said no and as a literal answer to you question, it’s true. He could, _could_, have read into the conversation. Yes an assumption, which lead to the poorly worded statement. In my mind the statement is evidence that I was talking about. It wasn’t for you, and that’s your prerogative. (I’ve deleted that word 10 times. think that’s fits)

        Anyway, I can be bad about pushing a point. It sounded like a good discussion to have. If the conversation continued great, if it halted that’s to bad to hear.

  5. His comment could be read another way; he could be fishing for your emotional state rather than assuming it. “I didn’t mean to make you angry” could be short hand for a pre-emptive apology. You also said that it “sort-of rubbed you the wrong way” which he could have read as soft-pedaling actual anger; swallowing it in an attempt to open a civil dialog.

    I think you’re probably right about your assessment of his response. I don’t know how well you know each other; he may have made an assumption based on what motivates him (some people need to be really bothered to speak up at all about someone else’s postings).

    1. Then he could’ve asked rather than assuming, perhaps? “Hey, I’m sorry if this made you angry” or “just checking in, how do you feel about this?” would have supported your theory. Instead, he made a statement.

  6. I suspect that the problem you’re trying to address is more one of limited vocabulary rather than perception. After all, you were disagreeing with him, but he didn’t want to call you “disagreeable” (not if he had a lick of sense) and he didn’t want to call you offensive (for putting him on the defensive, even if that wasn’t your intent, either) and he didn’t want to call you recalcitrant or stubborn (since, um, that’s what he was being in the face of your verbal onslaught), and “argumentative” seems offensive to so many. But there you were, attacking his position, disagreeing with his statements, being “offensive” to his argument, and persisting in your attack. He could have called you “verbally combative”, but that seems wide of the mark, too, and escalates the tone of the discussion way past what you expressed.

    As a man heading cautiously into his 7th decade, I think (hope) that I would have had the sense at the point where he made his badly-worded comment: “Thanks for your input, and for the tone of the discussion. You’ve given me something to think about, and I will think about that.” But that’s also hindsight, too. I too often defend a point of view as if it is the high ground on a battlefield, to be held at all costs. (That’s why I think he may not have gone to that point if you had omitted the second and third sentences in your final paragraph before his statement.)

    But hey, I don’t want to start a fight or nothin’.

    1. Hey, BlueHornet, I think you make an interesting point in your penultimate paragraph, but you also actually provided an example of the phenomenon Heina’s talking about.

      First, the good point: you said that you “often defend a point of view as it it was the high ground on a battlefield, to be held at all costs.” This is a really interesting insight for me and helps explain some of the people I’ve debated/discussed with before. It seems to me that this attitude can perhaps hamper true and honest discourse, though. Can someone really, honestly be listening (as opposed to just hearing) the other’s viewpoint and reasonings? If your side is a battlefield location that must be defended at all cost, you’d only be listening to the other person to find key words/phrases to “attack” in return – their side only functions as a springboard for your next argument.

      Secondly, you described Heina using terms that are very similar to what she was writing about. Her friend was “in the face of [her] verbal onslaught.” And then, “…there you were, attacking his position, disagreeing with his statements, being “offensive” to his argument, and persisting in your attack. He could have called you “verbally combative”.

      All of those terms suggest Heina was arguing from emotion instead of reason (and negative emotions at that), when she was clearly quite calm and reasoned.

  7. I hear you. I evade this problem by not caring if the person on the other end thinks I’m angry. My in-person demeanor sometimes comes across as aggressive even when I don’t intend it that way, and my online demeanor is even worse. Sometimes I’m actually angry for reals, but people have assumed that many times when it wasn’t true.

    I used to care, but now I don’t. I’ve had to learn how to escape flamewars that I didn’t intend to start, but that’s much less stressful than trying to manage other people’s emotions by carefully choosing my words. It’s really freeing to be able to just stop caring if other people misunderstand my emotional state.

    But my ability to do this relies on a certain privilege on my part. I don’t typically state my race (or my gender) online, which means that I am presumed white in most forums (and presumed male in most forums, although I am presumed female in others, which is kind of an interesting dynamic actually, to see which online communities make which assumption). This means that, with no effort on my part, I partake of the white person’s privilege of not being presumed to be angry all the time, and, usually, the male person’s privilege of being presumed rational and competent until proven otherwise. My not-caring-what-you-think is automatically tempered by these privileged presumptions on the part of others. For a POC, especially a woman, to stop caring what other people thinks of her tone is a much bigger risk.

    I wish that you could also stop caring and just say what you mean without going through all this effort to manage your audience’s emotions. Because it feels really good! And I’m sorry that the world doesn’t work that way for you yet.

  8. “You’re poly, so abrahamic polyGAMY doesn’t bother you right???” aaaaaaa

    I think this post is a fantastic example of why we should just do away with civility and LET THE HELLFIRE RAIN AHAHAHAHA.

    …only half kidding

    1. The particular issue with it is that Abrahamic-style polygamy brings with it arranged marriage, license to rape and beat your wife, the adultery double standard (An explanation: Adultery in those days specifically meant sex between a married woman and a man other than her husband. Actually, that’s the most common definition of adultery cross-culturally, because a huge element of kinship is inheritance.), and ‘punishing’ a rapist by forcing him to marry the victim and pay fifty sheqels. (Presumably it was a lot of money back then, since about a decade or go I plugged fifty Israeli new sheqels into a currency converter and got something like $12.)

  9. I think a good example of perceived anger where there is none is the response of many theists to the mere suggestion that atheists exist. Any time a billboard or bus campaign goes up some theists see it as an angry attack.
    People tend to have the strongest responses to arguments that they realize have some merit that they still don’t believe themselves. Examples of people who get perceived as angry even when they aren’t; vegans, global warming proponents, pro-choice advocates, evolutionists, and on and on.
    Whether it’s a mild rebuke (guys, don’t to that), a criticism of a hero (even the most progressive have their untouchable list, Woody Allen anyone?), or the mere suggestion that you exist (are you good without good?) Can cause some opponents to automatically see an attack.

  10. So Playboy is NOT sexist? I have never, ever, heard anyone say that. Certainly no one who calls themselves a feminist would say it. Playboy is the standard bearer for the objectification of women (unless you buy it just for the articles, right…). Promotion of sexual liberation is not the same as feminism. I think the reason this person thinks you may be angry is because he knows you have a right to be angry. His depiction of HH living in “heaven” is a ridiculous and infantile statement. His attempts to defend himself by equating your lifestyle to that of HH are also ridiculous – equating relationships based on mutual attraction and respect with HH’s “harem” makes no sense at all. The real danger here is the use of icons to promote atheism, the “so-and-so is an atheist so atheism is good” argument only works if “so-and-so” is some sort of saint. There are a lot of people who don’t like HH/Playboy for a variety of reasons. So, if you don’t want to call him on being a sexist, the best argument against him would be that he could and should have used a better example.

    1. At the time Playboy was launched, society was so screwed up that calling Playboy sexist rather misses the point. What we take for Western values are an incredibly recent invention. So are what are taken as Islamic values.

      Every culture that has gone through modernization and mass media transformation has had a series of morality panics. The Western morality panic began in the Victorian era and continued till at least the 20s. India is currently having a morality panic.

      Playboy was founded in 1953 at a time when the Hayes code and the monopolization of media meant that the only images of women that appeared in the mass media were the ones that conformed to very specific stereotypes. The idea that a nice looking woman might choose to be available for casual sex for her own pleasure was not one that the mass media allowed.

      The idea that women don’t enjoy pornography is also rather sexist as is the idea that objectifying women is intrinsically bad. The point is not whether women are objectified but whether that is the only representation that is permitted.

      The bigots who attack ‘immodest’ pictures of women in Tel Aviv and make sure that there are none at all in Riyadh are all the same and they are all women-haters whatever they claim their motives are. We used to have that type of person in control in the West and one of the people who broke their control is Hugh Heffner.

      I think people need to be careful to understand if they are really complaining about him because his lifestyle is sexist or if they are simply reflecting stale arguments thrown out by the establishment trying to keep control.

      1. Everyone is objectified and stereotyped to an extent.

        However, the objectification of women in particular as objects of sexual desire (as opposed to relationship partners) is troubling because it promotes certain behaviors that can lead to harassment and assault.

        I think most people here would agree that outlets for sexual desire (such as pornography and maybe even prostitution when regulated) reduce sexual violence and have a place in a healthy society. However, that doesn’t mean we should hold up Hugh Hefner or Larry Flint as role models.

        It’s complicated and I don’t have good long term answers, but I do see why Heina was concerned.

      2. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’ve no flaming clue what “objectification” means; because actually believing that it is not intrinsically bad for women to be considered things to be acted upon with no agency would make you a horrible person.

        1. I found that grating, too. I would assume he’s used to seeing it used as if it meant “Sexually-inflected Thing, especially a depiction, presentation, or interaction, of which I, the speaker disapprove.”

  11. Because text is stripped of so much of the subtleties of tone, body language, and expression, it is very very easy to misinterpret the other person’s mood or intent.

    Sarcasm is viewed as sincere comment; a concern becomes a rant; a joke becomes an insult.

    I think that the best solution in this kind of situation is to ask direct questions, explicitly declare emotions, and pause before reacting. I honestly wish I was better at following those rules myself though, so please don’t think I am lecturing; just offering observations.

    Incidentally, the downside of compensating for missing non-textual clues is that you can be accused of being rudely direct. I don’t have a good answer for that one. :)

  12. *first comment on skepchick*

    I’ve been thinking about this all day, and I can’t get away from the idea that the accusation of anger is often meant to be dismissive, to end the conversation, to move from a substantive conversation on the issues that the person is tiring of and unwilling to concede to one based on emotion that they can safely dismiss as something not meant for debate. Also, I think that many people can’t conceive of a reason to challenge the status quo – especially psst their first explanation which they assume is eminently rational – other than furious anger. I can’t help wondering if very many people even expect to have any kind of discussion other than “yes I agree” or having people tell them how smart and wise they are.

    1. I sometimes find accusations of anger directed at me in an attempt to get me to back off of my argument by apologizing to the person who’s accused me. The expectation that I will do whatever it takes to not be seen as angry, even if it means conceding a point on which I know I am correct, even if it means allowing behavior which harms me to continue. More frequently, like the post title says, it’s an attempt to actually make me angry and defensive so that the other party can feel they have won the disagreement by default of being the only Vulcan left standing.

      1. So much this!!!!!!!

        Accusing women of being angry is a huge freaking derailing tactic meant to imply that we’re over-emotional and incapable of logic. Like onamission5 said, we’re supposed to either bend over backwards to reassure the person we aren’t, or else it’s designed to try to discredit us in the eyes of onlookers to the debate. Fortunately, enough people are starting to get savvy that it just makes them look like a big giant douche to anyone who’s really paying attention. Or at least, that’s my vain hope.

        1. Isn’t it another form of tone trolling?

          1) You sound angry. Angry people are irrational. Therefore I don’t have to listen to you because what you are saying is probably nonsense.

          2) You sound angry. There is no reason you should be angry. Therefore you are either incapable of understanding my (rational, of course) arguments or you are deliberately misconstruing them. I win!

          3) You sound angry. People don’t listen to angry people, so you need to reframe your argument to not sound angry, thus wasting your time and effort on irrelevancies (derailment, as Scribe and GeekGirl mentioned), or drop some essential part of your argument to appease the critic (as onamission5 describes.)

          4) You sound angry. Why are you mad about me? What have I ever done? I’m a Nice Guy™! (Thus making the discussion about me rather than you, another form of derailing.)

          Have I missed any?

  13. A very common discussion tactic is agenda denial. First the issue is ignored through various procedural devices. Its not the right time, there are other priorities, etc.

    The person trying to raise the issue is attacked repeatedly. They are not qualified, having demonstrated their credentials, they are now ‘flaunting them’.

    The final move (unless the person trying to raise the issue gives up first) is invariably to assert that the issue has been raised improperly and that it cannot therefore ever be discussed. Claiming that the person is ‘too angry’ is a common tactic.

    For an extreme example, try the NSA pervasive surveillance. Many of us knew what was going on, if not the precise scale. But we had no proof so court challenges and attempts to raise it in public were slapped down. I tried to raise NSA attacks on US corporations at the RSA 2013 conference as was told that such things could not possibly happen. This year I would be told that the government can’t respond to questions raised by stolen information.

  14. I think it’s important to note the difference between Abrahamic-style polygamy, still practiced among FLDS and in several Islamic countries, and polyamory.

    But yeah, I’ve heard the “You’re angry.” before. Usually as some sort of backhanded compliment like “I admire your passion…” No, seriously, you don’t, and I’m using scientific data to prove you wrong, so ‘passion’ doesn’t apply, though it is better rhetorically, I suppose, just because, to quote Barbie, “Math is hard…” for people who don’t know it.

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