I used to feel my rage was righteous. But on its own, it can be toxic | Elif Shafak

Anger against inequality is powerful, but it needs to be coupled with feelings such as empathy and love

I used to love my anger. When I was young, it was precious to me, this burning fire, this smouldering rage, which I would hold between my palms like a lantern, without realising that it was not much of a provider of either light or warmth, it burned my flesh instead. But at the time anger felt good. It felt right and righteous. It even made me love Aristotle. “For since nobody aims at what he thinks he cannot attain, the angry man is aiming at what he can attain, and the belief that you will attain your aim is pleasant.” That sounded all right to me. I particularly agreed with the US philosopher and poetRalph Waldo Emerson. “A good indignation makes an excellent speech.” Not only speech, I thought to myself. It could also make good books, especially novels. What better motivation could there be for a novelist than the right kind of anger?

I was born in 1971 in Strasbourg, France, in a neighbourhood full of immigrants and leftist students. Here, “revolution” was not just a noun. It was a verb, a way of life. After my parents separated, my mother and I moved to Ankara, Turkey. In striking contrast to my first home, this was a deeply conservative, patriarchal neighbourhood. From then on, I was raised by two women – my mother and my grandmother. For many reasons I did not fit in, and I always knew it. But I wasn’t an angry teenager. If anything I was silent, observant, calm. A hopeless introvert.

When anger arrived, in my early 20s, I welcomed it with open arms. How fresh it felt, all that adrenaline. To that day I had barely seen my father. I didn’t have a single childhood photo of me with him; I didn’t know what his house looked like, even though he had returned to Turkey and lived not far from us. When I was at university he once visited me, and said he had deliberately waited to see me until I was old enough, so that we could have mature conversations about history, literature and philosophy.

As much as I loved history, literature, philosophy, those were the last things I wanted to talk to him about. I felt very angry that day. But it wasn’t his neglect that infuriated me. It was the realisation that he was, essentially, a good man. A beloved academic, a decent democrat and, as I would discover later on, a kind and loving father to his two other children who were born in his second marriage. Had he been a “bad person”, I would have found the situation easier to understand. My confusion only fuelled my anger.

At the time I was mostly enraged at the system. Injustice. Inequality. Discrimination. Patriarchy made my blood boil. The fact that you couldn’t walk along the street without being harassed, you couldn’t take a bus without being molested. In those days, a horrific article in the Turkish penal code – article 438 – had started to provoke a massive backlash. It stipulated that punishment for rapists would be reduced if they proved that their victims were prostitutes and not “modest women”. After all, the lawmakers argued, a prostitute would not be affected by rape – physically or psychologically – why would she? This was in 1990. We students were furious. Women of all backgrounds reacted strongly, supporting the rights of sex workers. Something that never happened again in my motherland. It was one of the last gains of the women’s movement in Turkey.

Today, when progressive-minded people say we must make anger our primary motivation, I flinch a little. For in between times I have learned something precious: that while the beginning of anger might feel wonderful, the rest of it is, in fact, quite toxic, repetitive, shallow and backward.

Early this autumn I was at an event in a famous literary festival in Europe. The journalist who interviewed me, a feminist with whom I had a lot in common, got upset when I said that patriarchy made women unhappy, but it also made many men unhappy, especially those who did not conform to conventional masculinity – and we should connect with those young men. Her response was full of anger: “I’m not allowing men into my movement. Let them deal with their own toxic masculinity.”

“Female rage” is powerful and transformative. In a world where buses are hired by the far-right Vox movement in Spain with pictures of Hitler and the hashtag #Feminazi underneath, where extreme abortion bans are passed in the US that even threaten women who suffer miscarriages with prison, where Matteo Salvini and his like organise “family conferences” with money from evangelical organisations, or Viktor Orbán targets gender studies, or femicides continue to escalate in Turkey under Erdoğan’s populist authoritarianism, or women are imprisoned in Iran for daring to take off their headscarves – or even in the seemingly advanced countries, where we are yet to achieve equal pay, of course we have a lot to be angry about.

But anger, when left alone for too long, is highly corrosive. And, most important, it is addictive. It must be diluted and counterbalanced with more powerful, positive feelings: empathy, compassion, kindness, sisterhood and love. I’m not suggesting that we should suppress female rage or be embarrassed by it, not at all, but if we make that our main guiding force, we will be lost in the maze of our own cultural ghettoes, echo chambers, identity politics. And the only thing that will benefit from this will be patriarchy itself.

• Elif Shafak is a novelist and political scientist


Elif Shafak

The GuardianTramp

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