Many years ago, as an undergraduate student, in a stolen half-hour between two sets of presentations at a Humanities’ conference, I had an all-important conversation with Sarah Wider, a guest speaker. Sarah is a professor of English and Women’s Studies at Colgate, and the former president of the Emerson Society, but much more importantly, she’s a woman and a teacher who values listening. Who values feeling. Who values silence and who values action. She is a woman who is not afraid to stop a room full of very educated men, frantically asserting their individual opinions of the American renaissance, with the gentle reminder that none of them is listening to the other or allowing themselves to grow in their understanding through this dialogue; she is a woman who is also not afraid to tell a student (me) later that she felt completely nervous and ill at ease about her interruption.
Over the years, I have stayed in touch with Sarah, and her emails are always beautiful, reassuring, and inspiring. But the most important gift I got from her was at our first meeting, and then, soon after. I had recently skirmished with a professor I respected deeply because I thought that a friend of his — another guest speaker at another conference — was, to be blunt, racist, misogynistic and culturally inept (I didn’t say it in so many words around my professor, but I imagine he got a sense of how I felt — if you know me, you know I’m no good at lying). I had turned down my professor’s invitation to dinner with this man right after his talk, mostly because I needed to write out and understand my feelings better before I could articulate them and have an intellectual conversation around them. For the moment, he was just someone who angered and upset me, and I needed to get away from him.
Some of you who knew me then might remember what followed: I stayed up all night, researching that guest speaker’s various claims, and wrote a 6 page paper refuting his arguments. I emailed that paper out to my friends, classmates who had been at the talk, and the professor in question. The subject of my email was a slightly-amused-at-myself “when i’m angry, i write 6 page papers about it!”
I’ll never forget my disappointment when my professor sent me a curt response “Anger has no place in intellectual discourse.” That’s it. No engagement with the ideas in my paper, with my rebuttals (some of which were even pointing out factual inaccuracies in the guest speaker’s presentations). I remember feeling deeply betrayed as a student. Here, I had stayed up a whole night trying to articulate a real, well researched response (for no academic credit whatsoever) to the ideas presented to me, and here was my teacher invalidating that response simply because I had acknowledged a feeling.
This was right before I met Sarah, and I found myself telling her about this incident. In response, Sarah introduced me to Audre Lorde: “Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” She introduced me to a feminist tradition of how to know and how to be, a tradition that told me I was allowed to be whole, that I would be a better rather than worse learner for it. It made sense to me — nothing other than anger, passion, or some other equally deeply felt emotion would have made me work that hard at learning, at being. As soon as Sarah returned to New York, she sent me an envelope full of Audre Lorde’s writings on anger. I don’t remember all the details at this moment, and I will revisit them tomorrow (yes, I held on to them), but I remember the twin comfort of this woman going out of her way to reassure me that I had a right to feel just as deeply as I think, and that woman asserting that my feelings were not separate from my quest for knowledge.
(In case you are wondering, my relationship with that other professor did return to cordial, but I also learned in that process that we simply had very different understandings of the world, of privilege, and of the role of emotions. I am still grateful for what he taught me, in as well as outside the classroom, but I know also that he will never be my role model as an educator. Thankfully, I had many more wonderful educator role models to choose from while at college).
Today, I was thrown smack into the middle of these reminisces by a comment I heard on the news. There was a panel discussion on the Tehelka News Report on Delhi police officers’ outrageous opinions about rape victims, and the editor of Tehelka said at some point to the two retired cops who were part of the panel, “I’m dismayed to realize you aren’t more outraged by this” (their responses to the story were on the lines of “there will be an inquiry, and the person in charge will decide whether these officers should be given a warning, or should be fined, or whatever other course of action needs to be taken” — no acknowledgment of how wrong and disgusting all of this is). Pat came the reply, “Frankly, outrage is an immature response.”
Outrage is not immature. Outrage is, as the editor pointed out, often the first step towards change. Change needs that emotional fervor, needs the energy. I’m outraged, and I’m done letting people tell me not to be angry, not to feel so much. This was the part about feminism that most appealed to me as an undergrad — the fact that it allowed me to be a whole person, to use that whole person to, in Soka speak, “create value.” I’m not letting go of that wholeness now.
I have been working, off and on, for a while to create a program in Delhi that works with young men just as much young women on issues of sexual and gender-based violence… that opens real and honest conversations about gender in a society where even my closest male friends and I have to really push ourselves out of our comfort zones to be able to talk about gender. In the last few months, I had sort-of abandoned this project to a “que sera sera” attitude, for what now feel like just silly stumbling blocks in terms of getting time and money commitments from interested groups. This anger I feel today, this outrage, will be the first step to resurrecting that project — to going back to a deep need to work with young men and young women on building a world where this crap is less acceptable. I need the anger.
Because, let’s face it, I’m also afraid. I don’t know if it’s possible to be a young woman in Delhi and not be afraid. For the record, I don’t know a single woman who has lived in Delhi and never faced sexual harassment — not one. We’ve all been molested, although we don’t like using that word… it sounds “too serious,” and we don’t take that guy who wouldn’t stop touching our breasts in the bus, or that guy who put his hands on our twelve-year-old groins in the busy mela, or that guy who flashed his penis at us and called out a menacing comment, seriously enough to label it “molestation.” Well, it is. And in a society where senior police officers say that a rape victim who isn’t too “scared of humiliation” to report the rape has got to be an extortionist, we have reason to be afraid.
But that’s where I come back to Audre Lorde: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
“Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever … And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”