On the use and abuse of anger in history and politics: a review essay

Author: Karl Malmqvist1
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  • 1 University of Gothenburg, , Sweden
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Introduction

We live in angry times, at least according to some commentators. For example, in The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra (2018) argues that the increasingly apparent gap between ideals of equality and actual inequality in our globalised present gives rise to a widespread experience of humiliation that serves as a breeding ground for ressentiment1 and makes categorical identification based on nation, race or religion increasingly appealing as a source of self-respect. This, in Mishra’s view, explains the appeal of far-right and religious extremist movements today.

Yet, anger is also a central theme on the progressive side of contemporary politics. Movements like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo not only draw on anger as a source of motivation, but also to assert their right to be angry about the oppression of women, Black people, Indigenous communities  and people of colour. This anger may, of course, be different from that expressed in far-right and religious extremist movements. But it is still anger. And as we shall see, how this anger should be judged is not self-evident.

Against this background, one may pose two questions. First, is the historical claim about the present as an age of anger valid, and, if so, in what sense? Second, how should we judge anger in politics – should we welcome or resist it? In discussing these questions, I will engage in some detail with three fairly recent books: Barbara Rosenwein’s Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion (Yale University Press, 2020), Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Myisha Cherry’s The Case for Rage: Why Anger is Essential to Antiracist Struggle (Oxford University Press, 2021).

An age of anger?

The question of the validity of the age of anger thesis is complicated for a number of reasons. For one thing, when trying to determine the validity of the thesis, one might be tempted to assume that emotion terms such as anger, ira or orgē really refer to the same thing across historical contexts. Thereby, one risks reifying anger (Dixon, 2020). Furthermore, when commentators decry the ‘freewheeling ventilation of anger’ of their times, they may not so much be reporting an actual state of affairs as campaigning to suppress anger (Stearns and Stearns, 1986: 211).

In Anger, Barbara Rosenwein (2020) concedes that claims about the age of anger may be tendentious (p. 175). She also refrains from providing a general definition of anger to avoid reification (p. 6). Nevertheless, she agrees with Mishra that, in one way, the present is an age of anger, for ‘today we have a discourse that does not just employ anger, but also lauds it, demands it, ratifies it, and celebrates it’ (Rosenwein, 2020: 176). This contemporary celebration of anger contrasts sharply with prominent Eastern and Western traditions over the past two and a half millennia (the period roughly covered in the book) – traditions that have tended to reject anger either partially or completely.

Thus, around 400 BCE, the Buddha commanded absolute abandonment of anger. Understood as a form of hatred arising from pride and the desire for self-assertion, anger is a form of attachment to the world, and as such, a source of suffering. Therefore, abandoning anger – which one may accomplish through various meditative practices (chants, deep breathing and so on) – is a step towards achieving a state of no attachment, or nirvana. Some 400 years later, Stoicism in Seneca’s version likewise rejected anger completely, and Seneca and his followers recommended various practices of anger mitigation (for example, daily self-inspection). However, unlike the Buddha, Seneca did not believe that anger could be abandoned once and for all, since in our daily lives, we are continuously and unavoidably exposed to the ‘shocks’ and ‘bites’ (Rosenwein, 2020: 30) that trigger the bodily responses involved in anger (for example, increased heart rate or clenched jaws). Such ‘shocks’ and ‘bites’ are beyond our control. What we can control, however, according to Seneca, is how we judge these involuntary responses. In his view, we should always avoid interpreting them as indicating that we have been wronged, for such an interpretation will lead us into an irresistible desire for revenge. Much later, during the Reformation and the turmoil that arose from it, the Neostoics took a similar view. However, the Neostoics’ rejection of anger was less absolute. While they recommended various anger-mitigating practices (for example, the repetition of various aphorisms), they recognised that anger directed towards the right object could be useful, and they also thought that continual experience of and reflection on anger might lead to better emotional habits.

But Rosenwein also points to counter-traditions. Thus, she traces the notion of righteous anger to the so-called Patristic era (that is, the second to sixth centuries). Christian thinkers of that time condemned human anger for similar reasons as the Stoics. At the same time, these Christian thinkers had to account for God’s anger in the Old Testament. The solution was to distinguish God’s anger – which was always just (and even compassionate), as it was directed at sin – from human anger – which was always a vice, as it involved a desire for revenge. Humans, however, could experience divine anger at sin on God’s behalf – and if they did, their anger was virtuous. This idea opened up the possibility of interpreting insults, injuries and injustices as offences against God and, thus, of interpreting one’s anger (and aggression) at those seen as responsible for these offences as an instance of God’s anger – a form of righteous anger that would later fuel and legitimise both the crusades and various popular protests in medieval Europe (Rosenwein, 2020: 113).

During the Enlightenment, this sort of virtuous anger became secularised. Moral sentiment theorists like David Hume and Adam Smith came to see anger in response to vice as part of human nature. To Rousseau (quoted in Rosenwein, 2020: 121), anger – or ‘the sentiment of justice and injustice’ – was ‘innate in the heart of man’. This democratising idea of anger as a natural response to injustice among all human beings played a central role in the French Revolution. Despite its secularisation, however, it retained its medieval theological ‘sense of absolute righteousness that could admit of no error’ (p. 128).

Today, according to Rosenwein, this sort of righteous anger is not only widespread but also widely celebrated across the contemporary political spectrum. It is in this sense that we may speak of the present as an age of anger. Rosenwein grants that the anger of the alt-right and the Trump supporters may be different from that of, say, the #MeToo movement: ‘The first is exclusionary and mingled with hate; the second is potentially inclusive and melded with courage […].’ Yet, she suggests, these angers are similar in ‘their sense of righteousness, the feeling that God is on their side’ (Rosenwein, 2020: 191). All proudly claim to be justly ‘mad as hell’ (p. 194), regardless of their opposing conceptions of political values like justice or freedom. Much like Mishra, Rosenwein explains this widespread celebration of anger with reference to an equally widespread contemporary ‘sense that our honor has been insulted and maligned’ (p. 176). Indeed, she suggests, both the right and the left today speak the language of ‘lost honor, seeing it as dismissed, disregarded, disrespected’ (p. 193).

So, what is the problem with this celebration of righteous anger in contemporary politics? Rosenwein argues as follows: if all emotional communities are convinced that their own anger is self-evidently righteous, they will be less inclined to empathise with and respect the angers of other communities – that is, to empathise with and respect a plurality of angers. Therefore, instead of negotiating workable compromises, they will merely seek to impose their own interests on others. The result is increased factional polarisation. However, according to Rosenwein, this is where knowledge about the history of emotions may contribute to ‘reinvigorating’ pluralist democracy. For knowing about how other traditions such as Buddhism or Stoicism have conceived of and evaluated anger, we will be better placed to question the righteousness of our own anger. Thereby, we will perhaps ‘be open to learning about and even adopting and adapting the angers and interests of others’ (Rosenwein, 2020: 198).

To me, Rosenwein’s aim to use the history of emotions to throw light on the plurality of angers also appears to be the underlying reason behind her elaborate discussion of the link between anger and violence, an important subtheme in her book. She dismisses the uncritical assumption of such a link as a ‘knee-jerk’ association (Rosenwein, 2020: 65), pointing out that, throughout history, emotional communities that have more or less completely rejected anger (for example, Buddhist communities) have still practised violence and seen it as legitimate. Moreover, even in the most extreme cases (for example, Auschwitz concentration camp or Kolyma gulag),  anger was not necessary for violence. However, Rosenwein does not systematically discuss the link between violence and the specific sort of righteous anger she describes as widely celebrated today. This is unfortunate because, while there may be violence without anger and anger without violence, there are good reasons to believe that righteous anger about lost honour is often an important ingredient in lethal violence, both political and non-political.

Against anger

As indicated, Rosenwein does not reject anger in politics in general, but only the self-righteous variety of anger that, in her view, is celebrated today. Other contemporary thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum are less forgiving when it comes to anger. Rosenwein goes so far as to call Nussbaum a Neostoic who, supposedly, ‘wishes to revive the more absolute stance of Seneca’ (Rosenwein, 2020: 50). In one sense, this is an accurate description, for in Seneca’s view, the problem with anger is that, once we judge that we have been wronged, this judgement will set off an irresistible desire for revenge. Although Nussbaum draws on Aristotle rather than Seneca in Anger and Forgiveness, she similarly argues that ‘the idea of payback or retribution – in some form, however subtle – is a conceptual part of anger’ (Nussbaum, 2016:15).

In other words, in Nussbaum’s view, anger – at least in its ‘garden-variety’ (more on other varieties shortly) – always implies revenge, or ‘payback’. However, to Nussbaum, payback is either irrational or morally flawed, for it is sought either in the belief that the wrongdoer’s suffering will somehow set things right (‘the road of payback’), or in the belief that lowering the wrongdoer’s status will restore the victim’s lost status (‘the road of status’). In the former case, retribution rests on ‘magical thinking’, because the wrongdoer’s suffering does not undo the victim’s suffering (Nussbaum, 2016: 24). In the latter case, slighting the wrongdoer in return for a slight might actually lower the status of the wrongdoer and, in that sense, restore the victim’s relative status. Nevertheless, this form of payback rests on a ‘narcissistic error’ because it ‘converts all injuries into problems of relative position, thus making the world revolve around the desire of vulnerable selves for domination and control’ (p. 29). This is morally problematic because it deflects attention from the actual suffering caused by the wrongdoing and, instead, shifts focus to the victim’s humiliation about being wronged.

Nussbaum, then, like Seneca, sees anger as morally questionable because its action tendency is (typically) retaliation. Of course, like the Neostoics, she grants anger some uses: it might signal that something is wrong and needs to be dealt with in a relationship; it might motivate people to correct such wrongs (after all, anger is so intense that it gets people going in ways that other emotions, including love, might fail to do; more on this later); and it might deter further wrongdoing. However, payback always lurks in the background (Nussbaum, 2016: 37–9). Therefore, the ‘healthy’ response when we experience, witness or learn about some wrong is to quickly ‘put anger out of business’. In doing so, we should Transition (with a capital T) into some other, more productive state of mind. This means that we should turn our attention away from trying to undo injury or restore lost status through revenge, and, instead, shift our focus to improving both our own welfare and the general welfare of society (including that of wrongdoers). According to Nussbaum, this goal is not well transitionpromoted by anger; it is better promoted by ‘compassionate hope’ (p. 31).

However, Nussbaum (2016) also discusses a non-vengeful form of anger, which she calls Transition-Anger (the somewhat confusing label is meant to suggest that this special form of anger is already a part of the Transition away from ordinary vengeful anger that Nussbaum recommends; p. 35). This is an anger that says: ‘How outrageous! Something must be done about this.’ While garden-variety anger places its hope in the future pain of the offender as ‘a way of assuaging and compensating for one’s own pain’ (p. 24, italics removed), Transition-Anger primarily focuses on the future welfare of all concerned. As such, it does not automatically assume that the suffering of the offender is the best way forward. However, people’s outrage at injustices or violations of principles is not necessarily Transition-Anger, for the desire for revenge may always sneak back in ‘like the snake in the garden’ (p. 36). Moreover, Nussbaum argues, Transition-Anger is ‘rare and exceptional’, even a ‘borderline’ case (p. 36). Therefore, when we get angry at some injustice or other wrong, we still do best to Transition to some other, more productive emotion.

According to Nussbaum, this general view of anger can be applied to the political realm, and more specifically to revolutionary struggle for justice. Drawing on Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Nussbaum dismisses the ‘noble anger’ that is a response to societal injustice as ‘a false guide in revolutionary situations’. Instead, she favours Transition to ‘generosity’ as ‘both more appropriate and more effective’ (Nussbaum, 2016: 212). In doing so, she rejects the common argument that becoming angry at one’s oppressors is a matter of self-respect (p. 220). After all, abandoning anger does not mean abandoning uncompromising resistance to unjust conditions or action for social change; it only means abandoning vengefulness (p. 221). Moreover, while Nussbaum recommends Transition from anger to generosity, she grants some usefulness to anger in the early stages of mobilisation against injustice; in these stages, anger resulting from the experience of oppression may have to be vented and may even help motivating people to take part in the struggle. However, this anger should be directed at wrongful acts and arrangements, not at persons, for whom one must retain respect and sympathy (p. 222). Finally, Nussbaum rejects the charge that non-anger places inhuman demands of self-restraint on participants; unlike Gandhi, she does not think that abandoning anger necessarily involves abandoning all other passions or desires: ‘one may grieve and love intensely while avoiding anger’s specific errors’ (p. 225).

Nussbaum’s chief example of successful Transition in the struggle for justice is Nelson Mandela, and especially what she refers to as his ‘forward-looking pragmatism’ (Nussbaum, 2016: 229–31). Mandela (like King) realised that those who seek to build a more just society will sooner or later have to cooperate with their oppressors. In making this cooperation work, angry payback mentality simply does no good. Instead, what is required is the building of mutual trust, and this, in turn, requires that revolutionaries practice empathy and generosity – even, and perhaps especially, for their oppressors (pp. 232–6). Of course, accomplishing this requires major Transition work, and in Nussbaum’s account, Mandela serves as a model in this regard too. For example, apparently inspired by Stoicism, he practised a certain ‘self-watchfulness’ and ‘systematic self-inspection’ with regard to his own ‘tendency to anger’ (p. 228).

Rage reconsidered

If Rosenwein makes a point of the plurality of angers, Nussbaum’s account of anger might appear somewhat reductive. In her account, except in the ‘borderline’ case of Transition-Anger, the action tendency of anger is retaliation, and retaliation is either irrational or for other reasons morally problematic. Therefore, we ought to Transition as quickly as possible from anger to more productive states: compassionate hope, empathy, generosity, love.

But is anger really so simple? And what if Nussbaum underrates its usefulness and appropriateness in the struggle for justice? Philosopher Myisha Cherry (2021) suggests as much in The Case for Rage. Drawing on a Black feminist tradition, she prefers the term ‘rage’ over ‘anger’ and rejects the common association of ‘rage’ with irrationality, danger and lack of control (p. 16). She develops a typology of five varieties of rage in contexts of racial injustice, which vary on the dimensions of target (who they are directed at), aim (what they wish or desire), action tendency (what behaviour they tend to produce), and perspective (what outlook on the world they presume or express) (p. 14). The five types are ‘rogue rage’, ‘wipe rage’, ‘ressentiment rage’, ‘narcissistic rage’ and ‘Lordean rage’ (pp. 16–27). While the first four types are morally and politically problematic, ‘Lordean’ rage is morally and politically recommendable in anti-racist struggle.

Lordean rage, which is named after Black feminist poet-activist Audre Lorde, differs from other types of rage in several ways. First, it specifically targets those who are complicit in and perpetrators of racism and racial injustice. Second, in doing so, it aims not at eliminating these targets, but at positive change. Third, its action tendency is not towards retaliation (as Nussbaum or the Stoics assume), but towards ‘metabolisation’– in other words, absorbing anger and making it useful for certain ends: ‘the virtuous channeling of the power and energy of anger without the desire to harm or pass pain’ (Lorde, quoted in Cherry, 2021: 24). Finally, in terms of perspective, it sees justice and freedom in inclusive rather than exclusive terms: we are not free until all are free. Therefore, the person with Lordean rage is able to attend not only to their own suffering, but also to the suffering of others (p. 25).

Clearly, then, in Cherry’s account, Lordean rage differs from the vindictive, status-oriented anger that Nussbaum rejects. But it also differs from Nussbaum’s Transition-Anger, for Lordean rage does not have to transition into generosity to be appropriate or useful (p. 24). Moreover, while Lordean rage is certainly righteous, it also differs from the sort of righteous anger that Rosenwein sees as equally celebrated by the far right and by progressive movements, for Lordean rage does not preclude openness to the angers and interests of others.

But why is rage so important in anti-racist struggle? One reason is moral and epistemological: not only is rage a fitting (suitable) response to racial injustice, it is also morally appropriate (justified), at least if it respects ‘the humanity of the wrongdoer’ and ‘aims to create a better world rather than tear the wrongdoer down’ (Cherry, 2021: 37). Moreover, unlike Nussbaum (2016: 212), who sees anger as ‘a false guide in revolutionary situations’, Cherry argues that, in a racist world, the ‘frequency of the wrongdoing that gives rise to Lordean rage’ is so great that this form of rage is likely to be a correct representation of that world (Cherry, 2021: 39) – a kind of standpoint epistemology of anger. Nevertheless, the normative and epistemological importance of Lordean rage lies not primarily in its correctness, but in its drawing attention to injustice, its recognition of the importance of justice and its recognition of the value of oppressed people (p. 60).

Another reason for anger’s importance is motivational. Lordean rage shares general anger’s ‘approach tendency’, or its ‘propensity to move toward an object rather than away from it’ (Cherry, 2021: 67). Thereby, it ‘provides the fuel to motivate people to engage in antiracist struggle’ (p. 67) by bringing about an eagerness to do something about racial wrongdoing and injustice (p. 68). Moreover, like general anger, Lordean rage increases optimism about and confidence in the future by increasing the enraged person’s sense of control and by reducing uncertainty (p. 69).

Regarding motivation, then, Cherry relies heavily on the idea that anger – in general – has an action tendency of approach. Unfortunately, she does not clarify the relation between this idea and the previously mentioned typology of rage, in which various forms of rage are said to involve substantially different action tendencies (from withdrawal into groups of those who are like-minded in the case of ‘rogue rage’, to metabolisation in the case of Lordean rage). Nevertheless, Cherry’s argument helps us understand what keeps activists going, despite the setbacks they are likely to experience. While Nussbaum only grants usefulness to anger’s intensity in the initial stages of mobilisation, Cherry’s account of anger’s motivational components, together with her previously mentioned notion of Lordean rage as tending towards metabolisation, suggests how anger might also be important to long-term maintenance of engagement. Given this argument, while Nelson Mandela apparently put much effort into policing his own tendency to anger (as Nussbaum suggests), the fact that he kept experiencing anger against racial injustice throughout his years in prison may perhaps also have been what kept him going.

Finally, Lordean rage is important because experiencing and expressing it in itself constitutes a challenge to the system it aims to change. White supremacist society is maintained through certain feeling rules, according to which the racially oppressed ought not to feel or express rage. Instead, to be able to carry on and eventually to become ‘counted among the entitled’, the oppressed ought to feel courage and hope (Cherry, 2021:101). Moreover, when experiencing racial violence or other racial wrongs, the oppressed ought to be forgiving rather than angry about it (p. 102). Breaking these rules results in punishment. Therefore, the very experience and expression of Lordean rage is a form of resistance to White supremacy.

Nevertheless, Lordean rage can go wrong. For example, despite their good intentions, White allies in the anti-racist struggle may engage in ‘moral anger grandstanding’ (that is, use their rage ‘to show off how virtuous they are’; Cherry, 2021: 130), or ‘white saviorism’ (that is, “‘service” acts by members of a dominant group who think that other racial groups of people need saving and that only they can save them’; p. 134) – both of which deflect attention from ending injustice and, instead, shift focus to the virtues of White supporters.  Furthermore, activists experiencing Lordean rage may prioritise their struggle for racial justice so much that they fail to care, both about those with whom they are in solidarity and about their own psychological wellbeing (p. 26). For these and other reasons, Cherry argues that anti-racist struggle needs a new form of anger management (p. 140). Unlike other recipes of anger management throughout history – from Seneca to Navoco – this form is not meant to eliminate or moderate anger, but to maintain and cultivate rage and keep this rage focused on the right paths of action. To accomplish this, Cherry suggests, rather than being silenced, anger needs to be expressed to a supportive community, subjected to planning and goal-setting and defended against various silencers.

Concluding remarks

As has become apparent in the previous sections, how we evaluate anger in political struggles for justice apparently depends on what properties we assign to anger, as well as on which and how many varieties of anger we believe exist. If we follow Nussbaum in assuming that anger (except in ‘borderline’ cases) conceptually involves vengefulness, we can easily agree that it is less useful, even counterproductive, in struggles for justice. However, if we accept Cherry’s account of the varieties of rage, according to which Lordean rage serves to channel anger’s motivational energy towards achieving the aim of change while remaining respectful of the opponent’s humanity, we can easily see how anger can be both appropriate and useful in political struggle.

Moreover, to the extent that we live in an age of anger, one might ask why this is problematic. To Rosenwein, the problem with anger in contemporary politics is primarily that all sides think they are self-evidently right to be angry and, by implication, that we have lost sight of anger’s plurality. However, it is possible that Rosenwein herself loses sight of some of anger’s plurality when she sees the same orientation towards justice (although ‘justice’ means completely different things) on both ends of the political spectrum. As Cherry notes, one way in which Lordean rage (which arguably drives the Black Lives Matter movement) differs from other kinds of rage (including that of the far right) is that its perspective on justice is inclusive rather than exclusive. Perhaps, then, not all righteous angers are the same. If so, even if we live in an age of righteous anger, as Rosenwein suggests, this is not necessarily only bad news.

In any case, the previous discussion indicates that, as anger appears in sharply different contexts and political projects, future research on anger in politics (both historical and contemporary) needs to be sensitive to anger’s variation and plurality.

Notes

1

Of course, ressentiment is clearly distinct from plain anger. However, as maintaining this distinction is not a major concern either for Mishra or for the other authors discussed in this article, I will not elaborate on the differences here.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

  • Cherry, M. (2021) The Case for Rage: Why Anger is Essential to Antiracist Struggle, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Dixon, T. (2020) What is the history of anger a history of?, Emotions: History, Culture, Society, 4(1): 134, doi: 10.1163/2208522X-02010074. 

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  • Mishra, P. (2018) The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, London: Penguin Random House.

  • Nussbaum, M. (2016) Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Rosenwein, B. (2020) Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion, London/New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  • Stearns, C. and Stearns, P. (1986) Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History, London/Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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  • Cherry, M. (2021) The Case for Rage: Why Anger is Essential to Antiracist Struggle, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Dixon, T. (2020) What is the history of anger a history of?, Emotions: History, Culture, Society, 4(1): 134, doi: 10.1163/2208522X-02010074. 

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mishra, P. (2018) The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, London: Penguin Random House.

  • Nussbaum, M. (2016) Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Rosenwein, B. (2020) Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion, London/New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  • Stearns, C. and Stearns, P. (1986) Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History, London/Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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  • 1 University of Gothenburg, , Sweden

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