Who has the right to moral outrage? This girl. (And so do you.)

This week I have been fighting intellectual battles on two fronts, both of which have left me feeling, well, angry. As you might have noticed anger is an emotion than we humans really struggle with and it’s generally discouraged. There are a lot of old adages about focusing anger into something constructive and it seems that the environmental movement and specifically the anti-nuclear movement do this quite well. Interestingly, in my experience this group also seems to think that nuclear supporters do not have the right to anger, or more specifically to moral outrage.

So, when an acquaintance forwarded me a newsletter from an anti-nuclear group and suggested that I needed to “check my sources” and implied that supporting nuclear energy by default means supporting nuclear weapons, I was livid. I wrote a strongly worded email and let this person know, that yes, I was getting my information from the best possible sources and yes, one can support nuclear energy and oppose nuclear weapons. I also explained that that making assumptions about my experiences and beliefs was offensive and insulting. But here’s the kicker- this person was completely shocked that I was angry.

How is it that some groups have co-opted anger? As a nuclear energy supporter, why am I disallowed to feel moral outrage?

In my opinion it is ethically wrong to distribute mis-information about radiation, which is exactly what the newsletter forwarded to me contained (which was eloquently titled “Mobile Chernobyl”). It is ultimately damaging to society to promote fear instead of understanding in general. As my mother-in-law rightly pointed out to me it probably would have been more effective to respond with a personal anecdote rather than angry email, but that ship has sailed. So, instead I will share a personal anecdote here that might help explain why I feel my anger regarding this situation is justified and fits squarely into the category of moral outrage.

In addition to dedicating my career to improving public understanding of nuclear energy and radiation, I am also an Interventional Radiology patient. I was born with a rare vascular disorder where some of the cells that make up my veins didn’t come with an off switch. So basically my body creates extra veins, but they don’t connect back up with the rest of my vascular system. Instead they take up real estate normally reserved for muscles, nerves and tendons. As you might imagine it hurts a lot.

The inside of my left forearm. Crazy, right?

The inside of my left forearm. Crazy, right?

At this point my only known lesion (also known as a vascular malformation) is in my left forearm slowly causing me to lose the full range of motion in my hand. My symptoms get worse with hormonal changes and even with strong emotions (like anger- so be nice to me, please). My vascular disorder is also the reason I have so many typos in my writing, I can’t properly roll a kayak, do a handstand or most yoga poses. I am at an increased risk of blood clots and I’ve been advised not to have children. So while this disorder is not immediately life threatening, it is incredibly inconvenient.

Because my disorder is so rare, despite having symptoms since childhood, I was not properly diagnosed until I was 26 (after about a half a dozen misdiagnosis over a 10 year period). I was diagnosed using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a common diagnostic tool that utilizes nuclear technologies to peer into the nuclei of our atoms. This technology has changed the game in terms of diagnostics and saved countless lives.

Despite the fact that there is not a cure for my disorder I cannot explain in words the epic relief I felt upon having a name and explanation for the “my weird arm thing” that has plagued me my whole life. Learning this information about myself was cathartic- it was like suddenly all of the dots were connected and a clear picture emerged.

After I was diagnosed I was shuffled from specialist to specialist, all of whom refused to treat me because they had never seen this particular problem in this particular place. Surgeries for similar cases had poor outcomes. As it turns out the narrow nerve and tendon filled corridor that is the forearm carries high risks in terms of long term damage to hand function. Eventually one of the top vascular hospitals in the country agreed to treat me using a relatively new technique called interventional radiology. Basically, I paid a large amount of money for materials to be irradiated in a nuclear reactor, shipped to a hospital and injected into my body- all for my health’s sake. Thousands upon thousands of times a day other people do the same thing (mostly to be carefully exposed to radiation, rather than injected, but you get the idea).

So, that is what I wish I had written in response to the “Mobile Chernobyl” newsletter forwarder. I also wish I’d said  that is unethical to disseminate misinformation about radiation that is meant to create anger and fear. I don’t accept the premise that because I support safely using certain nuclear technologies that I automatically support nuclear weapons. That’s like saying that putting fertilizer in my garden means I support chemical weapons. And I do understand the risks and benefits of nuclear technologies because I am an interventional radiology patient. We as a society know so much about radiation that we are able to use it to diagnose and cure diseases including cancer. In fact we safely and successfully transport nuclear materials over 54,000 times PER DAY on average- that’s more than 20,000,000 times per year. So, no, I’m not too worried about a “Mobile Chernobyl.” We’ve got the whole transport thing pretty well figured out and have for a while now.

Which brings me to my second battle of the week. Mansplaining. This controversial internet meme emerged as a way to “describe condescending and inaccurate explanations that are given under the assumption that the audience is entirely ignorant on the subject matter or topic.” Although the word “man” is in the name, it is actually not a gendered term (just as many men are feminists, which just means they actively support equal treatment of women and men). In fact “Mobile Chernobyl” newsletter lady is exhibit A for a woman successfully engaging in mansplaining- emailing an interventional radiology patient to try and plant seeds of fear about radiation- c’mon, that’s just wrong.

Although some dislike the word mansplaining, I actually love it because it’s meaning perfectly describes something that I have oft experienced and really needed a word for. Words are powerful and being able to describe your thoughts and experiences accurately is critical to successful communication. I don’t use the term mansplaining often, but when I do it tends to make a big impact. That said, I would like to make the argument that most of the anti-nuclear movement is one giant mansplanation- it’s a group of people who don’t actually understand the risks and benefits of nuclear technologies giving false explanations to both the public and the people who do understand the risks and benefits of nuclear technologies. Worse still, is that leaders of the anti-nuclear movement often intentionally inflate risks as a means to justify their organizational and lobbying activities and attract donations. How outrageous!

In close, I think that my anger was justified (even if unbecoming) and I think that nuclear supporters have the right to moral outrage about all of the misinformation being spread about nuclear technologies.The next time I hear someone say that all nuclear materials should be banned I might just drag them to my next doctor’s appointment. I’m sick of people mansplaining things to me and if you support nuclear energy, I’m guessing you probably are too- it’s just amazing the number of nuclear experts these days! The thing is I absolutely have the right to feel moral outrage when someone tells me that what I know to be true through hard wrought experience is somehow wrong- and so do you.