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On anger and political discourse: when 'calm down' means 'shut up'

It is no longer socially acceptable to tell a woman to ‘calm down, dear’ – except, it seems, in the realm of political discourse.

Houman Barekat
17 November 2016
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Source: Twitter. Public domain.“Saw you on QT last night. What a vile lefty bitch. Thought you was going to explode. Calm down bitch.” This was the tweet sent by a man calling himself Suzuki Steve to the scholar Sarah Churchwell, in the wake of her appearance on BBC Question Time last Thursday night. If the trolling was depressingly predictable, the focus on the speaker’s anger – a motif in several other, similarly aggressive tweets – is worthy of examination, because we are likely to see a lot more of this kind of thing over the coming months.

It is no longer socially acceptable to tell a woman to ‘calm down, dear,’ à la the late Michael Winner – except, it seems, in the realm of political discourse. In 2011 the then prime minister, David Cameron, used that exact line on Angela Eagle in the House of Commons. As the anti-Trump movement grows, it is entirely foreseeable that its opponents will draw from the same chauvinistic well to shut down dissent. Hysterical women, emotional blacks, the gist is the same: you are angry because your objectivity is clouded by a constitutional weakness that is integral to who and what you are. It is a devastatingly self-serving, self-reinforcing logic – bigotry backing up bigotry. Here, the political ideology and its discourse are indistinguishable.

Belittling the emotionalism of women, ethnic minorities and LGBT people is a privilege of those who have, by and large, never been harassed or felt their physical safety threatened just because of who they are. In the present political context, it means invalidating fears that are legitimate and real. More to the point, for the purposes of discourse, it is a control strategy, and some element of willful exaggeration is intrinsic to its execution. There is a milder variant of this in the world of association football, where, from time to time, the tabloid media will label as a ‘rant’ – usually prefixed with the adjective ‘bizarre’ – any vaguely leftfield post-match exposition by a foreign manager, notwithstanding that the ‘rant’ was coherent and controlled. The affectation of bewilderment is integral to the act: it’s the classic bully’s technique of dissembling incomprehension of their victim, to break down the lines of communication. The point is to put you in your place, and make you think twice about speaking out again.

The implicit premise of such attacks – that the troll is, in contrast to the victim, a more well-adjusted type who rarely loses his or her cool – is manifestly disingenuous. In my experience at least, the kind of man or woman who habitually accuses others of oversensitivity is invariably of explosively brittle temperament, and has made a fetish of self-possession for precisely this reason. (Some scholars have observed that this tendency is especially prevalent among people on the far-right of the political spectrum: in their recent book, Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education, Diego Gambetta and Stefan Hertog cite statistical data suggesting that proneness to disgust is a trait that is disproportionately present among members of far-right groups, whether Islamic or western.) To the extent that it is sincere and not hammed up, the extreme revulsion Suzuki Steve feels at the sight of someone getting exercised (and not even all that exercised) is, in truth, due to a flaw in his psyche. This is, in other words, a case of projection par excellence: he reimagines his own mental weakness as someone else’s. This revulsion has a distant cousin in the deeply ingrained English squeamishness about earnestness, which is why we will see similar sentiments expressed – albeit in more delicate, coded terms – in our respectable news media.

It shouldn’t need saying that professor Churchwell’s performance on Question Time was impassioned, articulate and necessary, that she spoke for millions of Americans and many more millions of people around the world. Or that a similarly spirited display, if made by a man in defence of the other side, would likely not have incurred censure on grounds of emotionalism. But suppose we concede, for a moment, the charge that some of us are angry: well, what of it? If anything is worth getting exercised about, this surely is it. Are we to sit back and take it easy, because it is unbecoming to get worked up? There is far too much at stake.

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