‘Fuck Your Feelings’ Never Applies to White Men
The logic of abuse has ordered our lives for so long, it must not be allowed to rule our politics any longer
Pain has no place in politics. That’s the rule. And it’s definitely the rule if people with political power have caused you pain. You don’t talk about your trauma. You don’t show the damage. You smile at your abusers. You make things comfortable. No matter what outrages are inflicted on you and people like you, you suck it up and you move on.
It’s been a month since armed white supremacists stormed the U.S. Capitol, but conservatives are already acting as if it was aeons ago. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is not moving on.
Ocasio-Cortez recently described her experience during the Capitol riot during an Instagram live broadcast. She spoke about it calmly and with compassion for well over an hour in footage that has been seen by millions around the world. She told the world how she had had to run from racists with guns, how she was convinced she was about to die. She articulated the lasting horror of that moment and explained why it matters.
Conservatives, including those who had personally egged on the mob, exploded with outrage. The Congresswoman was told, as survivors of abuse are always told, to get over it already. Sit down and shut up and stop making it awkward for the rest of us. Don’t you have healing to do?
Fox News mocked Ocasio-Cortez as ‘Best Actress in a Political Drama.’ How dare she. She’s hysterical. She’s lying. She’s crazy. Everyone knows that women who talk in public about their pain and suffering are crazy lying hysterics. And that’s a good job, too, otherwise men might have to pay attention for a solitary second to the human consequences of their actions.
“These folks who tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal, that we should forget what’s happened, or even telling us to apologize — these are the same tactics of abusers,” Ocasio-Cortez said, drawing a deliberate link between the behavior of her conservative opponents and the behavior of sexual predators.
The Congresswoman was told, as survivors of abuse are always told, to get over it already.
In the broadcast, she shared that she is, like so many others, a survivor of sexual assault. Ocasio-Cortez directly compared the silencing tactics of sexual abusers to the behavior of conservative apologists who, at this very moment are frantically insisting everyone shut up about the four years of relentless civic vandalism and crypto-fascism culminating in an attempted white-supremacist coup.
Modern conservatism prides itself on being logical. It insists that all its arguments are based on undiluted fact. This claim to be evidence-based is made against all actual evidence, and it is made more urgent the more unhinged conservative figureheads become, the more hysterical their gun-clutching followers squeal to be the centre of attention at all times. However messy their divorce from reality gets, the louder they bellow they are beings of pure reason. They’re not swayed by emotion, not like weak and girlish liberals, wailing about made-up things like climate change and rape culture and racism.
According to conservative cultural dogma, it is the left that is driven purely by emotion. ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings’ is the inevitable retort when a woman of color calmly explains what literally happened to her. What this means is that we don’t care about your feelings, or the things that happened to you. Nor is it our responsibility to stop them happening again.
What’s interesting about Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram broadcast it is not, actually, all that sentimental. She is clearly in some pain, but she does not at any point lose control of her emotions. She simply describes what happened to her when an armed mob of white supremacists broke into her office intent on her murder. She reacts to almost dying in a racist coup much, much more calmly than racists react to being accurately described.
The rule about keeping emotions out of politics does not apply to white men, because white men, of course, do not have emotions. They have debates. They have opinions. They tell it like it is.
One of the most persistent delusions of our age is that men are emotionally repressed when, in fact, they are emotionally illiterate. Before the #notallmen crowd jump in with their objections—yes, I know, I know. There are plenty of men out there who have done the work of learning their emotions, to quote the great American philosopher Mr. Rogers, are “mentionable and manageable,” and those men may well object to being lumped in with the rest of their gender who have weaponized their own psychological incontinence.
It doesn’t feel good to be judged on what you are rather than who you are. That’s why I am specifically talking, here about all men as a political phenomenon. I’m talking about all men as opposed to individual male humans, who are complex creatures with rich interior worlds but who, when gathered in large groups tend to behave in wearily predictable ways, mostly because they are afraid of one another.
The evidence of the past months suggests there are a great many men, particularly white men, who are fatally unable to distinguish facts from feelings. ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings’ remains the mantra of a generation of cryptofascist youtube grifters as they launch their sallies of fact-free bombast and incoherent rage.
When we speak about trauma and violence, the English language- deliberately smudges the distinction between suffering and delusion. For women, particularly women of color, visible suffering is synonymous with delusion. If she speaks about harm that has been done to her, she is crazy by definition and can be safely ignored.
Women’s physical pain is routinely dismissed, including by medical professionals. In the U.S., Black women’s pain is not taken seriously to the extent that they are routinely denied potentially life-saving treatment, which may explain why African American women are twice as likely to die in childbirth as their white neighbors. Women of color are expected to be ‘strong’ in a way that demands they never show the damage. The more pain a woman is socially expected to bear, the more she is praised for her strength.
‘Facts don’t care about your feelings’ is the inevitable retort when a woman of color calmly explains what literally happened to her.
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is one of a growing cohort of women refusing that sort of strength in the name of social justice. She has been trashed and trolled across right-wing media for daring to mention that yes, almost dying in a terrorist attack put a downer on her day. But Ocasio-Cortez has long since learned that she will be trashed, trolled and threatened whatever she does, because whatever she does, she does it as a young, left-wing woman of color occupying a position of power and influence that millions of white men think she does not deserve. There is no way for Ocasio-Cortez to make these spineless mediocrities happy except by walking away. And walking away is the one thing she will not do, so she may as well say what she means, no matter how it MAGA-man feels about it.
That’s a novel idea, isn’t it? The notion that anyone might have a political priority more pressing than mollifying white male feelings is still shocking. Most of us, after all, have been raised to pay attention to the emotions of white men, to attempt to manage their moods because not doing so might be dangerous. You can see how people who happen to be white and male might come away with the impression that their inner lives were more important than everyone else’s. You can see how those people might eventually elevate their every pang of prejudice and sentiment to the status of unassailable fact.
This stubborn inability to tell the difference between facts and feelings is rotting our politics. In recent years, autocrats around the world have exploited this tendency by simply presenting the public with a range of facts from which they can select whatever fits their mood. For a decade now, populist leaders have exploited that prejudice and been praised by swivel-eyed acolytes for ‘telling it like it is’. When Trump warned Americans that their country was overrun with Mexican rapists, he was telling it like it is, just like when Jair Bolsonaro insists that only ‘fairies’ wear face-masks in the middle of a pandemic.
The notion that anyone might have a political priority more pressing than mollifying white male feelings is still shocking.
These men are not telling it like it is, they are telling it like it feels. In a culture held hostage by the emotions of white men, this apparently matters more than objective truth.
These are men who have who have built a mass movement around refusing to handle their emotions like adults. The further the new right drifts from the realm of reason, the more it loses control of its own emotions, the more it insists that its every tremor of feeling be treated as sacred fact.
This is not a new idea. Almost four centuries ago, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote about the same cultural binary in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She warned about the dangers of confusing ‘sentiment and reason’—feelings and facts. She explained that culture designates men as reasoning, thinking beings and women as creatures of emotion and sentiment, a strict binary that causes political problems at the highest level.
If men are unable to acknowledge their own emotions, they will start behaving as if their sentiments were simple fact, dressing their own subjective emotional responses up as objective truth. Wollstonecraft believed this was already happening in the revolutionary era of the late 18th-century. What would she think now that politics has been overrun by a strain of toxic masculinity that has made emotional incontinence a moral good?
The idea that conservatives should exercise a shred of emotional self-control is now seen as censorship. But being asked to show basic regard for other human beings is not censorship, just as being made aware of harms you have done is not abuse. Censorship is what happens when you cannot speak about your own trauma without death-threats.
The amount of self-censorship required from any woman in the public eye in the face of the sustained abuse is near superhuman. This self control does not come naturally, and it doesn’t come for free. Women are not specially endowed by nature with the capacity to tolerate trauma and endure violence without complaint, even though that capacity has become the definition of ‘strength’ in marginalized people. A strong woman is a woman who suffers in silence. A strong man is a man who inflicts suffering on others.
Sneering at the pain of people of color and white women is as much a part of the political program of the new far right as deference to MAGA-man’s every emotional spasm. Fuck your feelings, but take mine out for candlelit dinner and a lifelong commitment.
Systems of violence — including the sort of violence that allows white supremacy, male supremacy and oligarchy to continue in the manner to which they has become accustomed — require a final service from their victims. They require victims to protect abusers from awareness of their crimes. In order for systems of violence to continue, they must be normalized. In order for them to be made normal, they must be morally justified. And in order for them to be morally justified, victims must be coerced into silence, so that nobody has to actually face up to the human consequences of the harm that has been done in their name.
When victims speak up they are defying that unspoken social order. When people refuse to let atrocities stay buried at the crossroads of history, when they refuse to prioritize the comfort of abusers over everyone else’s lives, that is an act of defiance.
Ocazio-Cortez was not out of control. She simply refused to pretend that what had happened to her and so many others did not matter. She did the unforgivable. She refused to forgive.
And right now, that’s essential work. Because the idea that the attempted kidnap and murder of elected officials in the name of a defeated president is something anyone should just move on from, least of all those who were there, is repulsive. It is repulsive and morally reprehensible and politically foolish. We have spent far, far too long being held hostage to the emotions of powerful men. Some of us more literally than others.