Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote that anger is a form of madness. Other philosophers share this suspicion, viewing anger as a destructive emotion that leads to cruel and vengeful acts.
Shouldn’t we get angry at injustice? Don’t some things deserve our rage? Or will rage just beget more rage? These are some of the questions we're thinking about on this week's show, "Righteous Rage."
There’s injustice everywhere these days—from dictators oppressing their citizens, to corporations destroying the environment, to neo-Nazis spewing racism—that it makes a lot of sense to be angry.
But philosophers from Seneca to Santideva to Martha Nussbaum have argued that anger is always dangerous and uncalled for. Of course, some expressions of anger are dangerous: we can probably agree that it’s wrong to harm people out of vengeance or throw tantrums in public.
And some anger is uncalled for: there are people who get angry when they lose to their supposed social inferiors, or when someone tells them things they don’t want to hear. But why paint all anger with the same brush?
One argument against anger points to its consequences. The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote that “no plague has cost the human race more dear” and warns of “slaughterings and poisonings” to “torches applied to roofs” to “whole nations condemned to death in one common ruin.”
But none of these consequences are inevitable: you don’t have to kill someone every time you get mad. You can channel your emotions into fixing problems by speaking out against injustice, or by joining an activist movement to create positive change.
Some authors have argued that activists should not be angry, but should seek to replace anger with other emotions, like love. Martha Nussbaum claims that anger is counterproductive to activist goals: it can scare away allies, or anger the powerful.
But as Amia Srinivasan points out, anger is often “counterproductive—on those occasions when it is—because powerful people have made it so.” Why should the onus for change fall on angry activists, rather than on the world that allows no room to them?
And shouldn’t those of us who claim to be allies work on accepting the emotions of marginalized people, even when it feels difficult or awkward? Complaining that a criticism is too angry is often just a convenient way to dismiss it without listening.
Besides, there is no need to replace anger with love, since anger isn’t antithetical to love in the first place. It’s possible to be angry at someone you love—perhaps even because loving them has raised your moral expectations of them.
Anger can also be a way of expressing love for the victim of harm, whether that victim is another person or yourself. Objecting to unfair treatment is a way of expressing self-respect when you've repeatedly been told that you are unworthy because of your skin color, disability status, class, or race.
That’s not to say that anger is always good. We should object to anger when it leads to violence, or when it’s based on an unjustified sense of entitlement, or when it’s directed at people who have done nothing to deserve it. And untangling the good examples from the bad examples will take some work.
I’m excited to talk to this week’s guest, Myisha Cherry from UC Riverside. She’s the author of Righteous Rage: Why Anger is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle, and I expect she’ll have a lot of insight about why certain kinds of anger are valuable.