I’ve had it. I’m going to say this once very, very simply and then do a thorough explanation so we can do away with a common problematic conflation forever:
I do not need to be surprised by injustice or bigotry to be outraged.
Recently, there has been a spike in people explaining to me that a thing I am annoyed about or find infuriating is “unsurprising,” inevitably followed by a “because” clause. As the heat of real, white-hot rage boils up from my toes through my chest and out my ears, turning my head into a tea kettle, I scan back to see if I indicated any surprise in what I said. Inevitably — as I am rarely surprised or prone to unintentionally over-the-top language at this point in my life, therapy, and recovery from childhood — what I find is that I didn’t in any way express surprise.
Of course I didn’t. Injustice is enragingly common. So why dismiss and downplay my outrage with a “oh, that’s unsurprising” response?
To the apathetics who go into rhetorically shallow, verbally deep detail about why I shouldn’t be surprised at the thing they super-wish we’d all stop talking about because they find it so bothersome, I have this to say: Give it the fuck up. I see friends and writers and culture-change advocates who express opinions both in person and online go from zero to boiling over on a regular basis when this happens. Depending on our backgrounds and levels of privilege, we are growing increasingly intolerant of this bullshit — particularly when it comes from “our side,” which it usually does — for a variety of reasons. All of them have to do with where the “unsurprising” shrug-off stems from: We’re being told to calm down about something we see and/or experience regularly.
“I’m not surprised” as an online comment is a close cousin to “Who cares?” The Who Cares People stop by to let you know how much they think the thing they’re taking the time to comment on is a waste of everyone’s time. They don’t get the irony here, and it for some reason doesn’t occur to them to keep scrolling; They simply must let everyone know what is and isn’t valuable or interesting.
“I’m not surprised” as an in-person comment has long been used to announce the necessity of topic change. I’ve heard it in bars, at the Thanksgiving table, in conversations with friends’ obnoxious partners who think they know more than me about topics I cover for a living, and by onlookers in every imaginable public space who aren’t even part of the conversation they’re policing.
When you tell someone you aren’t surprised, it’s the same as telling them they shouldn’t be surprised and, frankly, something about them is lacking or deficient since they are reacting in this irrational and overly emotional manner. This is especially infuriating when the person being dismissed hasn’t expressed surprise or otherwise reacted in any emotional manner other than to say something is wrong, sad, unjust, frustrating, or any other number of pejorative, but hardly inflammatory descriptors.
Oh, and if you’re a man telling a woman “I’m not surprised,” you might as well be telling her to smile.
The “it’s not a surprise” rhetoric acts as if injustice can only register as such if it’s shocking. But in reality, those of us engaged in social justice are more righteously angry about the things that do not surprise us than we are about the rare instances of unexpected awful. This should make sense not just from an experience standpoint, but also from a common sense one. The everyday-ness of certain brands of injustice, from misogynistic advertisements, to the hatred spewed by those who twist religion to suit their bigotry, to the microaggressions where our country’s entrenched racism plays itself out in what should be innocuous interactions, ARE ALL THE MORE INFURIATING due to our lack of surprise. That we as a society have allowed such things to be shruggable, letting the privileged apathetics and the young view them as accepted norms, means that whatever rage we are expressing is more justified, not less, as you would like it to be.
Perhaps it is not we, the unsurprised and yet enraged, but you, the dismissive and actively ignorant, who should pause to consider your reaction to said event or statement. Your condescension and silencing are a bigger problem than the issues we’re raging about. Silence would make you complicit; purposely policing our anger and lived experiences is actively engaging in strengthening the oppressive systems that continue the cycles of injustice we’re upset about and make it unsafe for us to navigate this world.
Even if I were rhetorically off-base (and I’m not) about the justification of our collective and individual rage, you sidling up to say how unsurprised you are smacks of superiority. If you aren’t surprised, you could just listen to Elon James White, who is offering you an alternative:
If you’ve never done it before, today is a really, really great day to start following the 1st rule of #ElonsLAW???@elonjames
So, next time you feel the need to weigh in with how much a thing isn’t a thing, while people are sharing how they’re affected by said thing, pause to reframe your thought: Ask yourself not why we are overreacting, but why you are underreacting. And then reread our words to see if we actually overreacted or if you are projecting that onto us while hiding behind your unwillingness to hear people and participate in making shit better.