Raging Against ‘Against the Rage Machine’, by Kat Muscat

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It began with a Facebook share. And then another, followed in rapid succession by three more. An editorial published in the most recent issue of n+1—and republished online—titled ‘Against the Rage Machine’ was clearly striking a chord with the peeps on my feed. Generally accompanied by an endorsement along the lines of ‘required reading’, huge slabs were quoted, with the comments in response echoing approval.

The article’s argument is one we’ve heard before: our love of opinion is corroding the quality of opinion (both our own, and that of others). Quantity is through the roof: via statuses, tweets and blogs, everyone now has the ability to be an individual broadcaster. ‘Against the Rage Machine’ is a response to the anxiety and exhaustion this can cause. We are both perpetuators and victims in a cycle of clicktivism, it says, a saturation of rage so thorough we’ve forgotten how to switch off and our ‘right to remain silent’ about the issues that plague our feeds.

The piece in and by n+1 does a great job of breaking down how companies benefit financially from this process, and the motivations behind proliferating news that isn’t actually news. I agree that we need to switch off our phones sometimes, or take a deep breath (and maybe even do some independent research!) before weighing in on the issue of the week. I too want everyone’s blood pressure to be below boiling, and the quality of critique in Australian media to rise above its current funk. However, the foundation of the argument in ‘Against the Rage Machine’ is also mega privileged, and several times throughout the editorial makes its point at the expense of feminist debate. Yes, “We ought to be selective about who deserves our good faith.” No, you do not have the right to tell everyone to just chill out.

The opening example n+1 uses to illustrate how quickly faux news can respawn itself—the woman whose boyfriend will only marry her once she’s made him three hundred sandwiches—is an event that had slipped me by. It seems that every clickbaity and news site had their hypothetical hat out, asking the people of the internet for their two cents. The point is that no one makes a profit if we all just agree that’s blatantly sexist and moves on. Gotcha. But by the end of my first read of the article, I was feeling squicky and kinda pissed off (oh, the irony). Why are so many of the topics referenced—and implicitly added to the list of ‘things to calm down about’—feminist issues? Miley Cyrus re VMAs, “recreational misandry”, a hypothetical sexist teacher, Girls, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, Miley Cyrus re the circle-jerk of celebrity open letters—all of this accompanied by a photographic illustration of a brow-furrowed woman who can’t eat lunch (a sandwich, can you believe it) because she’s too busy being intensely angry about something.

Closely following my frustration were feelings of self-doubt. Maybe the percentage of feminist issues mentioned in the article is simply reflective of what people have been particularly pissed off about lately. I honestly don’t know when it comes to these ratios; within my IRL and online friendship groups and newsfeeds it’s pretty much all about feminism all the time, because this is exactly how I want it. Later on the same day of reading ‘Against the Rage Machine’ I found myself still awake at 7am after a discussion with two mates about the treatment of women and queered characters in Harry Potter (though a lot of that time was also spent fanning-out about how much we love Harry Potter). Feminism is politically and personally the way I engage with the world, a world that is always telling me that if I’m not careful I’ll become one of ‘those feminists’ – someone who feels slighted even when there is no crime committed. All my shaving razors will evaporate mysteriously and no one will like me, or they’ll pretend to like me but call me Ms Buzzkillington behind my back. All of which is the main reason why this n+1 editorial, and others like it, are flawed. Despite what I believe to be good intentions in this case, they’re contributing to a culture that encourages women to remain silent about the issues that upset them.  

It’s a combination of factors that makes me want to tell n+1’s argument to suck it. First, I’m not cool with the way hulking-out on the internet is set in direct opposition with thoughtful critique. The idea of ‘rage’ is used in a very particular and dismissive way throughout the article; because the author or authors fail to acknowledge that a person can be mad and making valid points at the same time, their viewpoint is condescending. Not to mention we’re now in particularly icky territory considering it’s also a classic refutation of feminist concerns – that feminists, especially female feminists, are just too emotional to be thinking or arguing clearly. Rage is an emotion, one that comes about from feeling oppressed, from being provoked. It’s an emotion n+1 has drawn on in the past few years in its attacks on what it views as unfair campaigns and oppressive regimes, and it’s an emotion n+1 has exhibited periodically during its ongoing defence of the Occupy movement.

A perceived excess of emotion has forever been coded as traditionally female (read: undesirable; weak; unhinged); unless we learn to talk calmly like the men with the men, then they can’t be expected to listen. This attitude can manifest in very subtle ways and is socialised into us from a very young age. Despite apparent progression, due to systemic inequality there is still a massive difference between telling a man and a woman to ‘settle down’. It is still all too common for an emotional display to be coded as ‘assertive’, ‘passionate’ or ‘hysterical’, and the allocation of these labels is often based on gender. As such, any conversation about anger—like this n+1 editorial—that doesn’t acknowledge this inevitably trips itself up because it is ignoring the bigger picture.

The second problem with ‘Against the Rage Machine’ is that there’s a huge amount of privilege required to even be able to take issue with opinion writing on the internet, a privilege not acknowledged in the editorial. A part of me just has to snort sarcastically about how difficult n+1 makes having an internet connection seem for the modern industrialised and educated person. More importantly, the editorial makes invisible those minorities for whom the internet is breaking down barriers of access to mainstream discussions. Thrown around is the concept of infinite intellectual echo chambers—and yes this does happen—but what about people who have never been able to hear their voice bounce off anything? It would be a rad step in the right direction to stop deriding ‘Mommy Bloggers’ and instead start reading some blogs by women of colour, and maybe some authored by queer or transfolk too. Even if they’re full of rage about some issues (being treated as less-than-equal human can have that effect), you will no doubt learn something – not just that they’re angry sometimes, but, much more importantly, why. A lack of awareness about the advantages more privileged groups possess is often a part of the problem.

Lastly, there is a completely unnecessary section in this editorial in which we are told to stop doing feminism wrong. The unnamed author(s) believe it is fine and legitimate to make a distinction between engaging with #solidarityisforwhitewomen and the open letters to Miley Cyrus project. Such distinctions act like these two events happened in a vacuum. They did not happen in a vacuum. In fact, the (unsolicited) support that Sinéad O’Conner and Amanda Palmer were expressing through their concern for Cyrus is a prime example of #solidarityisforwhitewomen. That woman-of-colour performers were reduced to sexualised teddy bears was less important to two white ladies than weighing in on Cyrus’s own personal well-being within the industry. Not only is this just two-sides-of-the-same-coin, it’s also racist. The distinction the n+1 editors are making is arbitrary and done at the expense of already disadvantaged groups.

That’s what it boils down to. As soon as you find yourself writing an article about how it’s time to calm down, you need to do so without leaning on structural inequality. Define your audience instead of implying that everyone experiences the world in the same or even a similar way. There are a lot of legitimate reasons why feminists and/or people from marginalised groups are angry. Lumping these reasons into the same conversation as trashy clickbait doesn’t cut it; at best it is lazy. To imply that a reactionary opinion is automatically less constructive than commentary that keeps its voice level is baseless. Drawing on the joke that “We cared about Pussy Riot when they were still a band!” diminishes the bravery of these activists; it obscures how messed up things are when a country can throw women in prison because the music isn’t to their social taste. Mocking a movement through the notion of someone addicted to the adrenaline of outrage, or one that is possessive about its favourite cause – it simply doesn’t give you a free pass to say whatever you want.

Social Justice 101 correctly asserts that your intention is less important than the impact of your actions. I understand the point of ‘Against the Rage Machine’ wasn’t meant to complain about how angry women are these days, but this is what has happened, and it’s intelligent people who are responsible. Also, the collective language used throughout is sneakily seductive. Using ‘we’ to refer to a dominant and privileged minority will mean the people already most likely to read this article see themselves reflected back, while also being lulled into the misconception their anxiety counts as an ‘everyperson’ issue. And the editorial’s ending sentiment that “The right to not care is the right to sit still, to not talk, to be subject to unclarity and allow knowledge to come unbidden to you” is pretty easy to concede if you yourself feel generally unthreatened. Try fighting against social and systemic aggressions that are set on denying you the basic right of being a subject at all. Then you’ll see that such a position is not exactly viable.

 

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Kat Muscat is the editor of Voiceworks magazine and a raging feminist. She is now super tempted to change her name to Ms Buzzkillington.