Lateral Aggression, Lateral Violence, & Sympathetic Anger – A Deeper Understanding Of Privilege

White people and settlers invested in anti-racism and anti-colonialism, and men invested in feminism, need to learn some really important lessons about dealing with their anger before they can claim to understand their social privileges. This blog entry will deal with three specific phenomena that manifest entirely out of misdirected anger: lateral aggression, lateral violence, and sympathetic anger. For the sake of transparency, I am a white person, a settler in the occupied traditional territories where I live (which were never ceded to the Crown), and a female-bodied genderfucker who injects testosterone weekly.

What is Lateral Aggression?

Aggression is a sort of category for several kinds of behaviours that, while not directly violent, are inherently threatening, hostile, confrontational, and/or deliberately antagonistic. When aggression is described as being perpetrated laterally, what is going on here is happening between people on the same side of a mutual experience of social inequality—for example, aggression from one white person against another white person (or from a group of white people against white people generally), from one Black person towards another Black person, or from one woman against another woman. The goal of all aggression is ultimately to establish dominance over the other party. Regardless of whether the two parties are said to be socially privileged or underprivileged, lateral aggression is divisive, counter-productive, and often quite triggering of past traumatic experiences of a similar nature. These bad feelings are especially emphasized between parties who share the experience of life-long systemic oppression, though that does not mean that it’s unimportant when it happens between parties who share the experience of life-long systemic privilege, for aggression is a function of privilege, which is derived from systemic violence.

What is Lateral Violence?

Violence is a significant escalation of aggression, several orders of magnitude more serious. It is also important, however, to acknowledge that violence is occurring within an entire system which is already inherently violent, in and of itself, in several different ways. Thus, in specifying lateral violence, I am actually narrowing the scope of the subject matter in order to make it easier to address (the rest will have to come out in another post). Lateral violence bears the same character of who is involved as when one refers to lateral aggression, but the quality is different—for example, lateral violence crosses physical thresholds, resulting in battery and assault; crosses sexual thresholds, resulting in sexual trauma (which may or may not incorporate either lateral aggression as well or physical battery in its place); crosses mental thresholds, resulting in psychological trauma (which may or may not involve elements of physical and/or sexual trauma); and even crosses spiritual boundaries, resulting in injuries or traumas that cannot otherwise be specified or even gestured at by any other means (e.g., cultural appropriation). The goal of all violence is ultimately to establish totalitarian control over the other party, who is perceived of and treated as a disposable entity. Regardless of whether the two parties are said to be socially privileged or underprivileged, lateral violence is extremely harmful and traumatic, and the resulting harms and traumas often branch out in several vectors at once. The character of these experiences is especially exaggerated between parties who share the experience of life-long systemic oppression, though that does not diminish the significance of when it happens between parties who share the experience of life-long systemic privilege, for that privilege is a function of systemic violence against oppressed groups.

What is Sympathetic Anger?

Anger is most often a function of grief, and this is an especially cogent point to keep in mind when thinking of a self-identifying ally who becomes enraged when they perceive of an act of aggression or violence against those to whom they ally themselves. This is sympathetic anger. It is not a display of empathy, but is merely masquerading as one. Exactly one thing is common between a settler ally who becomes furious about eugenicist experiments on indigenous children in residential schools, a white ally who flies off the handle about other whites perpetrating cultural appropriation, and a male feminist ally who blows a gasket over men’s rights activists—they have unanimously failed to understand the relationship between their social privileges and their outrage.

Until I began to understand that as a settler in the territories in which I live, my outrage at the constant, systematically orchestrated, systemic colonial violence against indigenous peoples of this continent over the past 500 years, can and often does trigger the indigenous peoples to whom I ally myself — not only in relation to their direct experiences of racism and the inherent violence of a colonial mindset, but in relation to their collective experiences of trans-generational trauma as well — I could not keep my social privileges as a settler and as a white person in check. I was not being the most effective ally I could be, and in fact, was making a lot of mistakes that were often resulting in taking up too much space.

Until I began to understand that as a white person, my outrage against a white supremacist regime that, for example, puts Black women in prison who successfully defended their own lives without killing or injuring anyone, under the same precedent that allowed a mixed race white-Latino man to walk away from murdering an unarmed young Black man by shooting him in the back, can be counter-productive, I had not yet fully developed the capacity to empathize with people of colour in my ever-growing chosen family. I have a responsibility to the people of colour I ally myself with to keep my anger in check, and yet I had been missing an important opportunity for growth as an ally against racism and colonialism in general, by failing to see myself the way those I ally myself with might—as just another furious white person they don’t have the spoons to deal with.

Until I began to expand my vocabulary around violence and abuse, I could not put into words why it felt inherently wrong for men to wind themselves up over the things women have to face every day. Until I could communicate a meaningful distinction between aggression and violence, or between systemic violence and horizontal or lateral violence, I did not have the voice with which to address cisgendered allies (most of whom are femme women) with how their distress over the ails of being a trans person (especially one who is non-binary) is paradoxically triggering for me in extremely complex ways (sometimes even relating to my experiences of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, all at once). But at last, there it is.

If That’s Wrong, Then What’s Right?

Just as there is a time and a place for acknowledging how colonialism impacts you as a settler, or how the restricting nature of white supremacy erases your rich cultural and ethnic heritage as a white person, there is a time and a place for this sympathetic anger and/or grief. It is a relatively brief time, and it is a place isolated from the people whose needs you are supposed to be serving as their ally — indigenous peoples have already seen more than their fair share of angry settlers, people of colour have dealt with far too many angry white people their whole lives, and women have long ago had enough of being terrorized by angry men. The time and place for this form of anger/grief is one of self-reflection and self-care. Failing that, this anger will persist and you will become an overbearing and triggering presence for the people to whom you ally yourself, even though you are fighting on the same side as they are. You owe it to yourself and to those you ally yourself with to know when to disengage.

Even if you are hurling your anger towards someone white, cisgendered, heterosexual, male, and/or a settler, and appearing ignorant of their social privileges, you will never be the last person in a chain of events who winds up paying for it in the end. You will never be able to predict who among those you ally yourself to are watching everything you’re doing through that entire exchange. You will never be able to predict how triggered or exhausted they already were prior to witnessing your behaviour steadily escalate from a fleeting moment of anger into full-blown aggression or beyond. And you will never be able to predict how triggering or exhausting it is that you appear to them to be in need of coddling, hand-holding, or counselling—from them, in relation to a crisis that disproportionately effects them more than it effects you. That time of self-reflection and self-care should be oriented towards understanding where the anger/grief actually comes from, working through it, and coming to terms with it.

As a settler here, my outrage at what has been happening continuously to indigenous peoples here is rooted in what I have lost to the constant trampling wheel of colonization—everything that has happened to indigenous peoples here was done first to the many peoples I descend from, until it was all we knew and we took it upon ourselves to sharpen our axes, turning our experiences of oppression upon a people we saw as weak and in the way of a second chance. The several pre-colonial cultures I descend from have been all but wiped out (e.g., Vikings, Celts, the Caucasus), and the people spoken of as though they were extinct even though their blood lines have since spread all across the globe (and even though I’m still here to type/talk about it).

As a white person, my outrage at what has been happening continuously to people of colour is rooted in what I have lost to systemic racism—including my relationships with my biological family, whose own relationship to systemic racism very nearly resulted in the extinction of the maternal side of our blood line in this generation, and has created an unresolvable barrier of silence between my settler family members here and our previously unknown but flourishing paternal blood line in our ancestral homelands.

These are extremely deep-rooted grievances and losses that no one would reasonably deny the legitimacy of (and which a vast majority of white settlers also share in), and which allow me to empathize with the experiences of people whose histories run along parallel lines. But having taken the time alone to understand them to the depth that I do — rather than spending my time striking furious blows at The Enemy® — has made me a stronger and more effective ally who is capable of independently making smarter decisions about how and when to engage, and how and when to simply disengage—and why. It keeps me sharp and allows me to remain open to receiving teachings that serve as the basis for community-building, because I’m not otherwise busy occupying myself with an impotent defence campaign against things that don’t even directly impact me, or which trigger my existing baggage from my own experiences of horizontal oppressions (e.g., relying on my intimate understanding of sexism and misogyny as an extensive metaphor for understanding the impacts and experience of racism and colonial violence), and I’m not otherwise busy acting out of privilege in lateral aggression/violence.

I didn’t get here alone or overnight, and you don’t have to either. But I also didn’t get here by ignoring the signals that were telling me I was being a bad ally — such as an unexplainable but palpable emotional distance between myself and the people I ally myself with, or a lack of cultural exchange. It takes work to be an ally. The people you stand with don’t get a day off, and neither do you. But that doesn’t mean that all of the work of becoming an ally is done in the streets. There’s also plenty to be done within yourself.

9 thoughts on “Lateral Aggression, Lateral Violence, & Sympathetic Anger – A Deeper Understanding Of Privilege

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  3. Would you please explain more about what you mean by “knowing when to disengage”? What can I do with my anger that is more productive in fighting oppression? How do we talk to other white people about cultural appropriation vs. cultural sharing? How do you identify oppression without offending anyone? Folks are even offended by the term “white-washing”. I’m about at my wit’s end here… I want to be a good ally, and I want to avoid triggering folks. As a queer person, I really appreciate when straight people speak up on my behalf… I just am not sure where to go from here. Help!

      • Okay, so what I think you are saying is, when someone is obviously intent on staying ignorant, and has zero interest in self-educating, just stop talking. Sometimes I’m great at that, sometimes I’m not. I’m working hard on it now though; I hadn’t thought about how it could trigger folks who are oppressed. :/

  4. This is so well put and such a helpful articulation of something that seems to be a central barrier to understanding in so many anti-oppressive groups/discussions/movements. I really find the “spoons” analogy useful, and have been familiar with it in discussion about chronic illness, and it just made a light bulb go off for me in this context!

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