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In Defence of Being “Angsty”

In Defence of Being “Angsty”

  • Culture
  • Life
Image credit: Pawel Janiak.

In Primary School, the adjective my teachers chided me with most often was ‘outspoken’. I never fully understood what the word meant, but knew that it was never meant to be taken completely positively. In one teacher’s words, it wasn’t that many of the things I said were wrong, they were just “better to not say”.

Over the years, these teachers were replaced by my peers, and the language used to signal the impropriety of me expressing my thoughts evolved. Where teachers used to tell me, “You need to be more tactful,” friends and acquaintances now ask, “Why so angsty?” or “What’s with the rant?”

And then there’s the extremely patronising, “Are you ok?”, as though the desire to express an opinion is some kind of physical or emotional affliction made manifest.

In each of these instances, what puzzles me is always the fact that they are not disagreeing with me. They are not challenging the soundness of my arguments or the manner in which I’ve chosen to say these things. Instead, they take issue with the fact that I said it at all.

When I then respond by asking if I’m wrong or suggesting that I’m not in fact being angsty at all, the reply I’ve gotten most frequently, by far, has been the ever timeless, “Lol ok.”

Should you, like me, decide to google ‘why are Singaporeans so afraid of expressing their opinion’, search results will reveal a cultural phenomenon where we seem almost terrified of telling others what we really think. An article from 2006 goes so far as to dig out the precise phobia (doxophobia) which describes this.

“Most of us have never really been encouraged to see speaking up as a good thing,” poet and associate professor at SMU Kirpal Singh is quoted as saying, “If anything, it’s always been drummed into us to ‘speak when you are spoken to’ and ‘don’t try to be too smart’. Society, thus, doesn’t really approve of speaking up.”

Today, 12 years later, nothing much has changed. Just last week, when a friend texted me to voice her concern over an article RICE recently published, she apologised for the ‘rant’, to which I felt it imperative to insist, “Please don’t call that a rant. You’re just expressing your opinion and that’s fine.”

Because really, it’s fine.

Realistically, most of us, when expressing our opinion, do not rant. Look up the definition of ‘rant’ and this will be made abundantly clear. Yet the fact that we still see it as such illustrates the disconnect between what we’ve been taught to think we’re doing and what we’re actually doing.

More importantly, it articulates what our environment has conditioned us to feel when we decide to be open about the things that matter to us. As another friend related, when someone feels compelled to make light of her opinion by asking dumb questions like, “Why so serious?”, it makes her feel as though she’s overreacting when she isn’t at all.

And to me at least, this is where the issue of expressing one’s opinion gets complicated.

For most of us who don’t do it often, speaking publicly about a subject happens only when it concerns something we consider extremely important. Many of us even go so far as to add a disclaimer, “I don’t normally post my opinion on social media but …”

Naturally, as passionate creatures who lack rigorous training in writing objective and well-reasoned arguments, it’s perfectly normal that we might sound a little emotional when sharing our thoughts online. After all, we assume that we are amongst friends, and can speak freely.  

But these friends, who are not used to seeing us do such things, see no other way to react than to brush it off. Singaporean culture, for all it has to be proud of, has not equipped us to engage in such conversations in a healthy or empathetic way.

Hence they go, “Lol why suddenly so angsty,” never mind that ‘angst’ is defined as a ‘feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general’.  

It also goes without saying that if you must express your opinion, do it because you have something to say, not because you have to say something.
In an interview with Channel NewsAsia back in 2015, theatre director Ong Keng Sen had this to say about Singaporean culture: “Sometimes you can see that in Facebook – how we, as Singaporeans actually try to censor others in Facebook if someone disagrees with us. And I think that it’s very important to let a disagreement occur, and not to be afraid of that.”

Today, there is little indication that any of this has changed. Many continue to see Singaporean society as immatureapathetic, and generally unable (or unwilling) to have serious conversations about controversial issues (or at least things they consider important).

But at this point, it feels infinitely tired to keep theorising whether this demonstrates a reluctance to “rock the boat” or is simply a side effect of being Asian. It’s a discussion that’s been had so many times that it doesn’t feel like there’s a point to it anymore.

Instead, when someone now asks me why I’m being so angsty, I feel like replying, in the manner of Bruce Banner, “I’M ALWAYS ANGRY.”

After all, to use the word ‘angsty’ is to dismiss and misunderstand how others feel when they decide to speak out about something. What we really feel is angry, which is a state of mind we are all entitled to. In fact, I would even go so far as to argue that more of us need to be angry more often.

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” wrote Heather Heyer, the 32-year old woman killed in last year’s Charlottesville protest when a White terrorist drove a car into the crowd, echoing the words of Ong who said we shouldn’t fear “chaos, and also the uncertainty”.

So for all of you who have ever been called “angsty” when simply sharing your opinion, be the change you hope to see and explain calmly, “I’m being angry, not angsty, because this shit is bad.”

And perhaps, one day, we might finally live in a world where we can argue, disagree, express our opinions freely, and still be friends. God knows Singapore needs that right now.

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Julian Wong Managing editor