How Calls For “Civility” Show Us Who Is Allowed To Be Angry In America
Equating the fight against mass injustice to the perpetuation of such injustice is a dangerous form of gaslighting.
Kylie Cheung is the author of The Gaslit Diaries, available now.
With midterm elections days away, we’re reminded of just how much is at stake.
Two years into the Trump presidency, it feels impossible to list off every single action, comment, and policy espoused by this president and his cabinet, that has contributed to the erosion of decency, democracy, and fundamental human rights — not only in this nation but around the world. And yet, when asked, we all can name the incidents that affected us most on a personal level. For me, those incidents took place this summer, in the Trump administration’s devastatingly inhumane family separation policy, and the nomination and eventual confirmation of alleged sexual abuser Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
In separating migrant families at the border and tearing children and babies from the arms of their parents and locking them in cages, the Trump administration aimed to punish migrant families — many of whom were fleeing violence and horrors caused by decades of western imperialism and disruption — for having brown skin and trying to survive. In filling the vacancy of swing vote Anthony Kennedy, who had been key to upholding abortion rights for decades, with Kavanaugh, who had a record of trying to force undocumented minors to carry to term, Trump and Pence sent a clear message that the War on Women’s end goal was about to be achieved.
But what appalled me almost as much as the infliction of mass child abuse through family separation, and Supreme Court paradigm shifts that could rob me and future generations of bodily autonomy, was the reaction to these realities. Our rage, heartbreak, and terror were met not with sympathy and united calls to action to protect our nation’s most basic notions of freedom and justice, but gaslighting.
Politicians from across the aisle denounced protesters who would scream at Trump administration officials in public places, as if those who use their power to hurt and abuse don’t deserve to face the social repercussions of their actions. For some much-needed context, Trump has repeatedly glorified and encouraged his supporters to engage in violence at his campaign rallies, even offering to pay their legal fees, and in numerous documented cases, many have been happy to oblige. Last week, Democratic Party leaders including the Clintons, Obamas, Bidens, George Soros, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York Attorney General Eric Holder, and former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, received suspicious packages after being repeatedly verbally targeted by President Trump.
This summer, the Washington Post editorial board went so far as to suggest that liberal protesters channel the same tolerance and respect of anti-abortion protesters, who purportedly do nothing to disrupt abortion providers in public places. (Have you ever seen the outside of an abortion clinic? Glimpsed the numbers of murders, attempted murders, and arsons faced by providers? Give me a break.)
When Sarah Huckabee Sanders — who actively chooses to work for an administration responsible for stealing babies and attempting to force women to give birth — was denied service at a restaurant in Virginia this summer, comparisons were immediately drawn to the identity-based civil rights abuses faced by people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, women and other marginalized people every day. Of course, while that was happening, a Walgreens pharmacist in Arizona denied a woman her prescribed medication abortion to complete a miscarriage, on the basis of his religious beliefs. Here, we saw a real example of discrimination, punishing a woman for the biological nature of her body — but it was utterly buried, as media and politicians prioritized a narrative of the purported oppression of the Trump administration.
These reactions suggested an infuriating false equivalence, that perpetuating a mass humanitarian crisis was somehow the same evil as utilizing one’s free speech to protest said mass humanitarian crisis. In telling people to be calm, we saw complacency and inaction, silence in the face of abject cruelty and evil, equated to “civility.” We were being gaslit by media and our institutions, told that what was happening — the thieving and abuse of children, the impending violence that would be exacted on women through the seizure of our bodily autonomy — was normal, so we should respond with normalcy.
The gaslighting we encountered was a testament to who is allowed to be angry in America, whose experience is the priority. We saw it in the fury of Brett Kavanaugh as he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, outraged that he faced any hurdle whatsoever to receiving what he felt entitled to, that he faced some semblance of accountability for his alleged treatment of women, that the voices of women and survivors were even being listened to (if only for a moment). And subsequently, we saw it in the president’s attempts to dismiss and erase the rage of American women, who stormed the Capitol and Supreme Court and organized rallies across the country, that an alleged sexual abuser might be placed on the court, by insinuating we were all paid actors.
We see this prioritization of whose anger matters every day, when white male politicians and leaders can yell and express passion and be praised for their authenticity and realness, while women and people of color who engage in the same behavior are criticized for going “off the rails,” and being hysterical. We see this injustice in black protesters of police brutality criticized for “looting” and “rioting,” we see it in emphasis on occasional episodes of violence committed by people subjected to deep, systemic oppression, and the simultaneous erasure of racist violence committed by law enforcement.
Gaslighting about what is normal, how marginalized and deeply oppressed people should be protesting their oppression, and whose anger is permitted and taken seriously, are foundational to this country, and to the quiet maintenance of a status quo of injustice and erasure.
We can all be angry, we can all be loud, and we can vote, too; certainly, we can multitask. And every day, we must collectively recognize that what is happening in this country is neither normal nor just, and absolutely warrants our anger and protests.
In The Gaslit Diaries, Kylie Cheung explores the gaslighting and politics that belie women and marginalized people’s everyday experiences in the American patriarchy. The book is available for purchase here.