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.