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Anger, aggression, and expectations

December 24, 2012

“Ah-hee-te-wah-chee, a pretty woman in civilized dress, her hair falling over her shoulders. Painted in 1836. by George Catlin” – from Wikimedia Commons. Not actually ᎾᏅᏰᎯ, but a nice image nonetheless.

ᎾᏅᏰᎯ (Nanyehi), with a good lifetime career progression: War Woman to peacemaker. She is still respected for both aspects.

I got to thinking again about something that ties in with several recent posts, prompted by another post to a limited (for troll exclusion) feminism community on G+. (So, no link there, and I am not doing any direct quotes.)

Someone was commenting that she’d noticed a decent bit of anger in some of what people had been writing, and was immediately uncomfortable with it and automatically thought of it as “unfeminine”–and that made her think more about how she and a lot of other women were socialized. At home, specifically, in that case, which made me think about some difference in messages in my own life.

That is one thing I have had some trouble with, especially when it’s treated as obviously a universal thing: women are never supposed to show anger or aggression, and have a pretty much unilateral responsibility for being “nice” and keeping the peace.  As I’ve mentioned before, that is not at all my own experience at home, or dealing with people from the same cultural background in general. Things can get (and have more than occasionally gotten 😐 ) interesting, carrying that over into other settings, however.

I am reminded of a couple of anecdotes from American Indians and White People*, by Rosalie Wax and Robert K. Thomas, a Cherokee-as-first-language anthropologist who wrote some thought-provoking stuff, which I have quoted before and probably will again. (Particularly on the subject of religion, but I haven’t had the spoons yet.) Shame not all of the pages got scanned there, because it’s an interesting article, originally published in 1961. AFAICT, understandings of some broad cultural differences have not improved much since then.

 Perhaps because these social sanctions are usually effective in an Indian community, Indians have not yet developed devices for dealing with an interferer who claims to be peaceable but aggressively refuses to permit them to withdraw. They can only marvel at his bizarre behavior and wish that he would go away. Sometimes, when prodded past endurance, Indian women will lose their self-control and try to drive out intruders with harsh words and even physical force.

Since the white man from infancy has been encouraged to defend himself and “face up” to unpleasant things, he almost invariably interprets the Indian’s withdrawal from his verbal “attacks,” not as an unostentatious rebuke, but as evidence of timidity, irresponsibility, or , even, as a tendency to “flee from reality”.11 This Indian trait more than any other seems to baffle the white man, for though he has been exposed to Christian doctrine for many, many centuries, he still cannot begin to understand the man who will not fight back.

We regret that some social scientists are among the least perceptive persons in this particular matter. (Perhaps their training makes them over prone to equate a disappearing informant with personal failure.) For example, we have seen a social scientist of some repute attempt to initiate a discussion with Indians by suggeting that they no longer possessed any culture of their own but were unrealistically clinging to an impoverished “reservation” culture. What they ought to do, he went on to say, was to leave the reservations and become assimilated. When this remark was received in expressionless silence the scientist suggested that this “lack of response” supported his point, for no one present had been able to defend the existence of their culture. The faces of the Indians became even more impassive, but the scientist did not notice that the feet and legs of some of the young men from the Plains tribes had begun to tremble as with the ague. A white person in the audience could no longer control his impulse to interfere, and, in the ensuing debate, much of the Indians’ tension was dissipated.

On another occasion a psychiatrist whose initial overtures had been observed in silence by his Indian audience began to prod them with remarks intended to arouse their anger. The Indian men, as usual, made themselves inconspicuous. A few stole out of the meeting. But some of the women lost their tempers and the session ended in a loud and rather vulgar brawl.

That turned into a longer quote than intended, for more context; I added bolding for the gender-specific parts which brought it to mind, in the first place. I also included the bit about how the hell you’re supposed to deal with people who just won’t leave you in peace, because it is just so relevant to creepers and harassers. (Booger Dance** revival, anyone?) “Too many times you walked away, and was made to feel ashamed.”#

But, yeah, that is just about what I would expect in similar situations, and I’ve actually written some before about some of those cultural mismatch patterns can play out on a more individual level (specifically in medical settings, in that post). Not too surprisingly, I suspect that the differences in expectations based on gender can complicate things a lot, especially in mental health settings among others with already built-in power differentials. You try to be polite by your own standards, it just doesn’t work as people keep trying to bulldoze you, and then you eventually flip over into anger and too often get read as a crazy bitch.  I have had a couple of mental health professionals actually try to get a rise out of me like that, when I just didn’t know what to say, and then act like I was some kind of lunatic with an anger problem (yay confirmation bias!) when I ended up raising my voice to stand up for myself. The last bit also describes some of the frustrating interactions I have had in other settings, including school, from the time I was a kid. In the interest of space, I won’t go into much detail there, but you can probably imagine some of the ways this could turn ugly, particularly within a strong pattern of conformity-enforcing bullying where you don’t even know what all the rules are.

When other people are expecting more unilateral avoidance of conflict–no matter the actual provocation and lack of respect shown–and are working off the assumptions of differential respect due attached to that, you can easily turn into an uppity girl/woman (member of any kind of minority group, and so on) with an anger problem which consists of expressing anger at all.

One very simple statement that helped clarify my own thinking here: “A good person was supposed to avoid expressing anger or causing others to become angry…”, because there are at least two parties involved in every interaction which can turn into public conflict. One party can’t possibly carry all the responsibility for making sure things go smoothly, if everyone is thought to deserve the same levels of respectful treatment. (That statement actually has more to do with how you’re behaving in public than how much you may be ranting in private. Not so much emotion policing as how you’re handling that anger.) And we’re also back around to some differences in what is considered socially disruptive behavior.

This is a problem, and it took me a while to figure out what was going on with the whole power differential and conflict of cultural expectations thing, which can cause a lot of hostility if you are just not playing by the same rules. As an adult, I do understand, and it pisses me off even worse. I hope to write more before long about avoiding conflict being a two-way street, which keeps coming up with the tolerance of creepers and the fear of violence so many women are living with. If you treat somebody disrespectfully, you have earned an angry response–and nobody should be expected just to suck it up and keep smiling, while bystanders do nothing to help the situation.

A good post, which I’m failing to find a better place to bring up: STREET HARASSMENT AND THE BYSTANDER EFFECT: When Society Lets the Riffraff Rule the Roost. Which kinda ties back in with my low expectations one.

As the scenarios described above suggest, I am, indeed, more used to the idea of women being able to show more socially acceptable anger and aggression.  As Barbara Mann has suggested, very likely starting out because we are statistically less likely to do any kind of serious damage with it, so men are expected to learn even more self-control so they don’t harm people. I was also reminded of this by a recent post at Ojibway Confessions, which I had to giggle at: Don’t fool around on an Indian Woman. The same confrontational behavior would not be nearly as acceptable from a man, even before you get to the level of one incident that I had to add in comments. Which would be a woman who caught her husband in the act, in their own bed, and impulsively grabbed a pistol out of the nightstand and shot him right in the keister because that was what was sticking up! (And she didn’t want to kill him.) Not good behavior, at all, but nobody even brought charges against her, and they actually stayed married after that. Not at all how the same situation would have gone if he had impulsively shot her.

Also on the less-pleasant side of things, my mom kept getting away with outbursts from roaring PTSD and a near-total lack of emotional regulation–occasionally to the point of trying to pick fights with strange men in public :-|– that would never have been tolerated if she’d been male. As it was, bystanders mostly figured that the guys she was really trying to start something with had done something to warrant it, and didn’t step in unless it started looking dangerous. (Which did happen a couple of times.) If a man had been behaving like that, they’d have stepped in to break things up immediately.

On one occasion, I also saw my Nana totally lose it and slap the fire out of my Granddaddy, who just stood there and looked even stonier. As was the main acceptable response in that situation.*** (It was pretty impressive at the time, because I’d never seen anything like that happen before.) She was pretty quick to fly off the handle and smack people,  in general, including me a few times. Again, pretty lousy behavior coming from an adult who should have been able well before then to find better ways of dealing with other people and her own frustration, but it does look a little different outside a framework of abusive, unequal power dynamics.

But, yeah, it is what it is. And it is very different from what usually goes in dominant US or British culture. (The two variations I am most familiar with.)

A related problem, IME, as briefly covered in the first long quote: when people interpret your attempts at polite conflict avoidance, sometimes in the form of stony silence, as some kind of kyriarchy-based deference it is definitely not. I am personally having to work on more acceptable-in-context assertive behavior, because I am prone to just flipping over into verbal aggression when dealing with pushy people who are working off a different set of assumptions there and do not pick up on your cues. Not an uncommon pattern, AFAICT, no.

This whole post also relates to some things I want to write about problems with violence in general, and why “Cantor is an evil fuck and he must DIAF” really is not too strong, with purposely holding up VAWA basically because he doesn’t want tribes to be able to arrest and prosecute violent, abusive white dudes who are the main group hurting women on reservations. (Go Virginia racist misogynist politicians!) But, my eyes start bugging out and I get a headache every time I try to write more about that particular situation.  As it is, I’ve been getting a little shouty with the bolding here. That topic is probably coming up next, after a few recent discussions elsewhere. But, from a section on harmful myths/propaganda from a related paper (emphasis added):

In many indigenous cultures, both male and female were allowed to deviate from customary life roles as a matter of personal choice. As a consequence, history contains many accounts of Native women who became military leaders, civil leaders, and “warriors”, and likewise, history contains many accounts of Native men who chose to live lifestyles contrary to the “warrior” image forced upon Native men by Hollywood movies and writers of western fiction…

Most Native cultures thrived upon very well-designed concepts of balance and harmony between genders, between friends, relations and families. Generally speaking, men and women who could not control their emotions, passions and urges were more often than not regarded with contempt by their tribal community. A man who developed a reputation for violent, abusive behavior was unlikely to find a family who would accept him as a potential mate for a beloved daughter or sister. Furthermore, an abusive husband risked the very real threat of retaliation by his wife’s family or at the very least, forcible divorce. Most indigenous cultures placed great importance upon character attributes of generosity, integrity, honesty and kindness.

(Where, in the classic Cherokee case at least, that “retaliation by his wife’s family” generally consisted of female relatives beating the stuffing out of him, as a lesson. That was always my understanding, and I think it was Rebecca Ore who mentioned it independently in another G+ conversation.) Not wanting to sound like I’m trying to push another culture’s values on anybody else, with so much of that going around already, but shame that these are not more usual gender-neutral expectations. With respect being a two-way street, by default. That would sure avoid a lot of trouble, and go a long way toward dismantling the current rape culture, which is also a more general abuse and bullying culture.

I do get the idea that aggressive behavior has maybe become more acceptable where I’m from, and the results of multigenerational trauma are pretty evident among my own family. See also: . Some people have gotten entirely too good at, and accustomed to, trying to solving problems through aggression. (But, as came up recently, crime rates are still very, very low.) There is still room for improvement, and plenty of history showing that this is totally possible if people are motivated to work on developing some better balance there. It is possible anywhere, though I am not always so optimistic that the obvious reasons for change are likely to outweigh sheer habit and attachment to hierarchical BS.


* Some observations do lump an awful lot of cultures together. But, as Thomas put it in Cherokee Values and World View:

What really bothers me methodologically is that Cherokees sound so much like other American Indians. You could, almost, substitute the word Cherokee for much of the material present on Navajo values or Chippewa, and so on, around the country. We haven’t the terms to really describe this behavior and thus differentiate, except at a gross level. Even Gillin’s description of Guatemalan Indian world view sounds too much like what we say about North American Indians. We cannot say what is distinctively Cherokee as against Navajo in the same way that we can say this for so closely related peoples as Americans and english. We really seeing American Indians at even this gross level? Are we seeing “tribal” societies? Or are we just seeing the European in negative?

I keep getting struck by that, and think he offers an excellent point here. Also, I keep being impressed at how closely my own expectations and experiences fit such descriptions, for all the outside assumptions that centuries of intermarriage must mean that you have no culture left. (Which brings us around to the too-common idea that only certain cultures are allowed to grow or change at all–as any culture naturally tends to do–but, probably more on that later.)

Not to clunk up the body of the post, but a number of other differences in patterns of interaction described in American Indians and White People also have a lot to do with my own ASD-influenced behavior not having been considered particularly weird until after I hit school. Standing back and watching until you figure out how to respond and interact is not a problem, but kinda expected; the same goes for forcing sustained eye contact as an aggressive behavior, and a number of other things. “[T]he silence and downcast eyes with which his first conversational gambits may be received spring from shyness and, often, from courtesy. He is not being snubbed or ignored; on the contrary, his words and actions are being observed with minute care. Once the Indian has discovered what his response ought to be, he will make it. This may take a little time, but the person who is not willing to spend a little time ought not to try to talk to Indians.” Or, indeed, people who get labelled on the Spectrum. This is another thing that is more generally Appalachian, too: backwardness is just not something that people tend to freak out over, in the same way as they seem to in some other cultures. Some people are just like that, often until we get to know the person better.

** I couldn’t find a quote I remembered about the characters representing buffoons who sexually harass women, which sounds like an excellent description from memory, but:

When Europeans arrived, the Cherokees incorporated them into the Booger Dance and depicted them as physically and sexually aggressive: The Indian playing the part of the European chased screaming girls around the dance ground.

Not the only disruptive influence to psychologically defang through scathing humor, but a major one. And note the link between different kinds of public aggressive behavior.

*** Again, not to clunk up the body of the post more than I have already done ;), some slightly details-differing notes from Chief Hicks of the Texas Cherokee:

No man would physically abuse a woman for any reason.  To do so meant his death, either by her brothers or by the men in her clan.  Her brothers belonged to her clan.  If a woman became angered at her husband or any other man, he was to stand and take the beating without injuring her, only raising his hands in personal defense.  If she was stronger or as strong as he, the man had better hope that he could out run her and stay out of her way until she cooled off.

I would not be surprised if this is another thing that varied from place to place and group to group, with who was doing the enforcing there. Somebody was, and not acting like abuse was none of their concern. Better not to lose it like that at all, but yeah. Still very different, in a more equal society working around the “Harmony Ethic”.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Wogglebug permalink
    December 24, 2012 11:34 pm

    You shed some light on why my old sources of ‘white people meeting with Indian men’ almost always described said Indian men as “impassive” or “wooden-faced” — the Indian men would have been angry almost all the time.

    • urocyon permalink*
      December 28, 2012 2:06 pm

      That actually reminds me of a good one from the 1491s: Smiling Indians (though I have no idea why I couldn’t find it on their account).

  2. February 4, 2013 5:27 am

    Thanks for explaining more about this! I know you’ve alluded before to having grown up with radically different expectations of What Women Do, and have written about ability to perform heavy manual labor being part of the female role you were socialized into.

    I definitely got a lot of anti-aggression training, both as a child and, later, as a teenager. I actually got it both ways, growing up as a girl (though as far as I can tell my parents gave my brother the same training; physical violence/aggression is the Ultimate Taboo in my family) and, later, as I grew stronger, realizing I could hurt people without meaning to. This horrified me, so I pretty much never initiate physical contact of any kind, and when I do I do it with an exaggerated gentleness, like the other person is a bird or something. Where I used to throw my arms around someone when I was excited to see them, now, if they come in for a hug, I sort of drape my arms around them.

    Yet I also have recognizable elements of Nice White Girl socialization, like thinking of the other person’s emotions (if I can recognize them, which doesn’t often happen) as my responsibility. I have a duty not to upset them. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” I don’t think this … whatever it is, it’s not an instinct because I know I was taught to feel it … compulsion, maybe … comes from the same place as the strong inhibitions I feel around physical violence — I don’t see my words as being particularly powerful, or any reason why I should be more careful not to give offense than anyone else. I think this is one of the biggest ways in which I managed to absorb the white, middle-class feminine gender training, when my parents weren’t particularly stressing gender roles and when I was self-selecting into the masculine role.

    (Clarissa, who is from the Ukraine, describes a similar pattern in Russian-speaking, former Soviet cultures: the women are the ones who are encouraged to express their anger! Apparently Russian men are very meek.)

    • urocyon permalink*
      February 9, 2013 3:04 pm

      That reminds me to put Clarissa’s blog (along with some others) into Google Reader, since I haven’t been keeping up with ones I’m following on WordPress nearly as well. I was interested in the more similar expectations she was describing, as well.

      I’m low on spoons right now for a proper reply (still very sick from the abscess), but the socialization differences are interesting. I did also get a sometimes conflicting emphasis on its being my more unilateral responsibility to avoid conflict within the family, because unfortunate dynamics, but yeah. That didn’t have much to do with gender, in the same way, especially with the people I was mostly walking on eggshells around being my mother and grandmother. (With the expectation that they’re basically running the show? Yeah.) A lot of the reason I have to remind myself now that it really is at least a two-way street, and that I can openly disagree with people if it’s respectfully done.

      I’ve been doing a decent bit more thinking about that and how to find some balance with assertive behavior in other social contexts, particularly with some of the discussion lately about civility, which is often based on some very different assumptions from what I automatically tend to work from. (And effectively dealing with behavior/rhetoric I find not-so-civil and maddeningly domineering. Which is one of the reasons I just avoid some communities and corners of Teh Interwebz.) I also found some of Libby Anne’s observations about introversion maybe making “gentler” approaches appealing very interesting. So, more will probably be coming about that, eventually. 🙂

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