Look Back in Anger
Anger, so often policed and repressed in favour of respectability, needs to be embraced more often.
When the two of us became friends over the last winter break, there was one salient aspect of our lives that connected us. Like millions of others, we were locked down in our respective homes, privately frustrated by the newfound time to ruminate on our own lives and the constantly shifting world that we were inhabiting. Our friendship evolved through a tragicomedy (in far too many parts) of hours-long video calls detailing our grievances with the world. In short, we were both very angry.
Our experience is hardly novel. While not all anger has the exact same sources, the last few years have given many people good reasons to be angry. As Sydney and Melbourne were emerging from their respective lockdowns last year, Brigid Delaney described how our collective emotional experience is tending towards anger. Pointing to the way in which we sublimate our frustrations with often delayed and contradictory government responses to the pandemic into more mundane parts of our lives, she argues that our anger at the political state of the world has begun to bleed into many other facets of our lived experience.
However, this explanation of our present experience of anger is incomplete. For many young adults today, anger is an inexorable component of coming of age. When we arrive at university, we begin to grow apart from the familiar environments of our childhood and we are given, often for the first time, genuine personal autonomy. This freedom is weighty and is often turned inward, causing us to reflect on our impotence to protect ourselves from unjust and traumatic events in the past, often events we did not allow ourselves to feel adequately angry about. Even where this is not the case, independence can be disorienting rather than empowering while we are discovering our authentic values and preferences. The weight of increasing political consciousness in a world where young voices are structurally disempowered only sets these kindlings of anger ablaze. Jonathan Green expresses this state neatly when he writes, “the hallmark of our moment is a building sense of frustrated exasperation, a state that applies as equally to the broad sweep of the public sphere as it does to the more granular intricacies of personal relations.”
Despite the centrality of anger to our experiences, it is regulated and discouraged more than any other emotion. Our conception of anger carries a sense of indulgent immorality that we do not associate with any other feeling. We are scared that people will be angry with us, and we are ashamed to let them know when we ourselves are angry. We shy away from confrontation, discredit those we perceive to be angry as childish, and keep our own anger private. In large part, this is because we fail to distinguish between the emotional experience of anger, and the (often destructive) consequences we associate with it. Lucia Osbourne-Crowley explains that we have uniquely flattened our conception of anger – “we are able to recognise, for example, that there are many forms of love, of sadness, of grief. But with anger, we see it as one thing, and we associate it with inflicting pain on others.”
While the stigma against anger is universal, it is not felt equally. Anger is a big emotion, and we are selective about who we see as deserving of expressing it. Race, gender and class impact how you will be socialized to feel your anger and how much of your anger will be tolerated. Black anger is framed as violent or dangerous through self-serving narratives of white victimhood. Angry women are dismissed for ‘losing control of themselves’ and then smeared if they have the gall to publicly feel aggrieved. For those outside the ruling class, anger is discrediting, supposedly revealing a lack of intelligence and disqualifying you from meaningfully contributing to discourse. Powerful white men are the most likely to feel deserving of anger, but even they are not immune to narratives of civility that push anger outside of the public sphere.
Progressive social movements have begun to recognise that the reclamation of anger at social injustice is an important political project. Most commonly, these movements point to the ability of righteous anger to galvanize people into taking political action, or to make activist messaging more emotionally persuasive. Especially in instances of longstanding injustice, activists argue that anger is the most logical response and that dispassionate arguments cannot fully capture oppressed lived experiences. Myisha Cherry, an anti-racist philosopher, writes that rage is essential to anti-racist struggles, arguing that suppressing it compels us to be uncritical of the systems that rely on passivity.
The importance of reclaiming anger as a political tool should not be understated, but there is another, more personal kind of anger that this discourse neglects. In a lot of cases, there is no discernable political purpose to feeling angry. It is possible to feel angry for reasons that are totally disconnected from your socio-political circumstances, and it is equally possible to not feel moved to activism even when they are connected.
But, allowing yourself to experience anger, even or especially when it is not politically productive, is revelatory. A crucial part of the message that we should conceal our anger is the underlying idea that we don’t deserve it – that we are overreacting, or that it is childish or selfish to feel the way we do. To see yourself as worthy of anger, and the things in your life as worthy of being angry about, is a claim to self worth, an entitlement to feel something indulgent and personal. Vulnerable people especially should not feel obliged to connect their anger to a wider structural context. Indeed it may be more valuable simply to feel something we have always told ourselves we are not entitled to. Viewing the importance of anger as contingent on its political utility necessarily omits these instances of personal anger which quietly and habitually amount to catharsis.
It is also worth noting that anger is not necessarily opposed to happiness or gratitude, as it is commonly portrayed. It is possible to be angry at people because you love them, or angry about things because you care about them. In fact, it is pushing away this natural response that often leads anger to be harmful – when we refuse to admit that we are angry, we deal with conflict immaturely, we handle our own feelings dishonestly, and we sublimate our anger into self-destruction.
Our anger, in a large part, gave us our friendship. It also gives us the motivation to care sincerely about the things and people we love, and the confidence to fight for them. We wish only that those around us would embrace it more.