Be aggressive

In recent conversations the term ‘aggressive’ has made several appearances that extend beyond the typical observation about the fleet of drivers that speeds down Kloof Nek Road each morning. Those usages have been inaccurate—it is, for example, not aggressive if someone posts a curt GroupMe message (a few options that are more accurate and descriptive: stern, urgent, direct)—and they are dangerous.

1. The word is a disqualifier. Any action deemed aggressive is instantly dismissed. Rather than contemplating the content of ones ideas or behaviors, it is much easier to disqualify them for their lack of sensibility and to deem their actions unnecessary. The result is hindered conversation.

2. It is a one-word scapegoat to deny criticism toward oneself. If someone is upfront and says something brutally honest, what better way to avoid feeling belittled than to not take them seriously? If a superior tells you off, what better way to save face than to proclaim that they are unfit for their position? Pulling ‘aggressive’ out of your pocket whenever necessary confrontation arises is as audacious as plugging your ears and humming to yourself.

3. Calling a woman ‘aggressive’ has become a habitual verbalization of misogyny. I can only recall hearing the word used once in recent memory to describe a male whereas I’ve heard it used against women nearly every day. If the default response to a forthright woman is to dismiss the content of whatever she says, is it a better alternative for women to remain silent unless their words hold nothing of substance?

The habit of ‘aggressive’ translates into dangerous inaction. At the V&A Waterfront mall this weekend, a group of men were obscenely commenting on various women. Sabriyya audibly chastised them; she wanted to make a point and she wanted them to hear—she wanted to be aggressive. So she matched their obscenity and used it against them. She should have received praise from her female peers for taking action to challenge insults that demean women everywhere, but instead was met with condescension and rolled eyes.

Dismissing an aggressive person only happens when they are challenging social conventions. If the aggressor stays within the lines of the social script (the men hyper-objectifying those women publicly), even if everyone should call them out for their damaging irreverence, very few people do. Much more aggressive than Sabriyya’s comment were the men, but Sabriyya’s aggression was perceived as a sign of weakness and lost control. To roll your eyes, pat her on the back, and tell her to calm down—to be passive—is to be complicit in the social norms that are actually aggressive and violent toward some people. We cannot accept the belief that “guys like to fight” or that “boys will be boys”. It is not natural for men to dominate and abuse women either verbally or physically—we let them become that way.

We need confrontation. And for people who are constantly silenced by society, aggression is necessary to disrupt oppressive regimes. Instead of characterizing people as belligerent for expressing a contrary opinion, it is much more important to listen—otherwise, we cannot hope to address social inequities. If it is aggressive to stand up for myself and for the right to speak, then I really wouldn’t mind being that way.

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1 Response to Be aggressive

  1. Archana Ahlawat says:

    Interesting. I have enjoyed many of your previous analyses surrounding language and the connotation around certain words, however I am not sure I quite agree with this one. Maybe we are not thinking about what the word ‘aggressive’ means in the same way. I think a curt GroupMe message can definitely be aggressive – which I think implies forceful and not so kind. I would separate out tone and content when talking about ‘aggressive.’ A curt message can have an aggressive tone, a rude or attacking tone.

    On two of your points:

    1. I see where you’re coming from and agree to a certain extent. However, ‘aggressive’ isn’t a word that has some sort of nefarious history (if it does, please let me know though :o), so I don’t think you can blanket statement the issue and say it automatically shuts down conversation. ‘Aggressive’ seems to me to have become more of a “funny” or filler term used to make light of a situation, but doesn’t necessarily make light of or dismiss the content. Also, tone is a huge part of content, and how you represent yourself and how you communicate is part of your message.

    2. Do you think that if people say a superior or someone is acting or saying something that was ‘aggressive’ that they are not taking them seriously? They can be, but I’m not sure that you are giving people enough credit for actually thinking about criticism and acknowledging it, but also being justifiably frustrated by the tone in which it may be communicated. Yes, tone is about perception, but even allowing for giving people the benefit of the doubt, if it is a consistent thing, then I think it’s a legitimate issue, rather than just an issue of people brushing criticism off because they don’t want to confront their own mistakes or fallibilities.

    On the Waterfront situation:

    I’m confused as to who was rolling their eyes or speaking condescendingly. Or who thought that Sabriyya’s actions were a sign of “weakness and lost control” and told her to calm down. Maybe I did not read the situation right at the time, but I don’t know where that is coming from? But you are right: we do need confrontation and what Sabriyya did was pretty admirable and awesome (and that’s what I thought at the time, but maybe it didn’t come off that way and I am sorry if so).

    This last part is my general response, not to the Waterfront part. Really, my point of contention boils down to one issue: there are a lot of different ways of expressing opinions, and as I have talked about with you previously, I more often choose to be as diplomatic as possible. Being opinionated and unafraid of speaking up and speaking loud is so important, but tone is as well, and tone (unfortunately) can make all the difference.

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