When we think of an angry person we probably think of someone who holds onto negative energy. We associate anger with aggression or violence. Someone who sputters; someone without any patience; someone who just can’t deal with things. Normally, we would not treat this as a productive thing to feel because it seems to worsen our general experience of life and seems to be bad both for ourselves and the people around us. It’s not a pleasant thing – it is something we feel burdened by, something we would rather not embody.
But that’s not all that anger has to be about. We can both ask ourselves why we are angry in the first place, and assess whether our expression of that anger is proportionate to our reasons for feeling angry. Much of the time they won’t match up – but in other cases, our anger might be entirely appropriate.
Anger can be coherent. Anger can be productive. And I think people do have a sense of how it can be so, once we get past the most “negative” aspects of anger.
I’m not saying anger in itself is very useful. However, in many manifestations it can be an expression of giving a damn in a world that gives us a lot to be angry about. The advocacy that motivates anger may be an empathic demand for change. In a world where racism – for example – is rampant, anger is a rational response. It is a righteous response. And we should be angry about the things it is justified for us to be angry about. That’s not to say we don’t often get it wrong about what we get angry about – the point is that we can be angry about the right things. We should most definitely take caution in what we get angry about, but it’s not always a bad thing to allow what is otherwise a negative feeling to be part of our moral compass. That we feel bad is sometimes an indication that something has gone very wrong – not merely within us but around us.
And there are plenty of things that should make us angry. The racialization of rights, moral treatment, medical access, social status, etc. And it’s not just racialization of course – that’s just the topic which has most recently been dominating the news. The fact that we each of us live in a world where huge disparities and inequalities exist between how people are treated, often to do with reasons that are beyond anyone’s control in the first place (like the colour of skin you were born with) – that is a situation we should recognise as a problem with urgency.
And when these issues of utmost urgency continue to be perpetuated in the most ugly ways, when there is no progress, it’s important not to be too cool-headed about them. Would you be cool-headed if you found out the world was going to become an inhospitable habitat within yours or your children’s lifetime? One should think not; that’s why people are “angry” about things like inaction over climate change.
Wouldn’t we all love to be peaceful, “zen” people who can actually sleep at night without a bother in the world? I sure would. But the world right now actually isn’t the kind of place to which one can easily close one’s eyes and turn over to slumber until the fire has died down.
Because the fire is now. The fire is going. It’s a wildfire.
Do you have to be some grumpy, negative person to feel justified anger at the injustices of the world? No. I should think feeling this way about particular things (of the right kind!) makes you someone with a sense of empathy and compassion. You can be angry because you want the world to be a better place. You can be angry because you know it can. You can be angry because it isn’t. And though many people use the “anger argument” as a way to knock down legitimate positions in heated debates – invalidating “angry feminists” merely by emphasising the emotion or tone in their voice, for example – if you think about it, it would be really weird if we had “cool” debates about things like racism, sexism, climate change, and what have you. I mean, how on earth can you be cool about the world’s most serious problems? And what do you think should actually motivate things like protest if not something akin to anger?
I’m not going to engage someone with harmful views in a tolerant manner merely in the interest of keeping up some social etiquette. To me, that is equivalent to capitulating to an injustice. Words, attitudes, behaviours, and structures alike can be bad; bad not just for me but for groups of people, and consequently for the welfare of the world. We all inhabit this globe together and so there’s no being picky about who gets to have a decent life. It just wouldn’t be fair. So “being zen” need not apply to those instances. If someone tells me something racist, I’m not going to be like “Good for you – I understand where you’re coming from” or “Fine, I respect your opinion”. I’m not going to be “cool” just to be seen as the person who is “not the type to get overly offended or sensitive”. Life is too short for that. I’m going to be honest, because it’s always easier to be honest than to pretend otherwise; and that honesty may involve anger.
It might suck to lose friends over problems that are pretty much beyond anyone’s individual control, but at the same time I’m starting to get tired of smiling my way through people’s horrendous attitudes and pretending it’s fine for people to be bigots. I’m tired of having to fulfil someone else’s privileged idea of what it means to be nice; my idea of being a decent human being involves being angry at the right things – problems that need addressing – while of course maintaining the humility necessary to realise anger that is actually proportionate to the battle. There’s a scene in the Korean movie ‘Parasite’ (you should watch it if you haven’t already) where the family talks about how easy it would be to be nice if they were well-to-do and with no problems in life to speak of. And I think that’s right. Being “nice” in the way incompatible with anger is a privilege afforded to those who either have no “reason” to be angry because they are not a target of injustice, or because they can buy their way out of having to confront the world’s most pressing problems. Ignorance as bliss is a luxury good indeed.