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Anger has gotten a bad rap. It is condemned by the world’s religions and in many philosophical traditions; we’d be better off ridding ourselves of rage, they say, and condemning fury to the flames. Agnes Callard has, heroically, come to anger’s defense, presenting it as a necessary evil in an imperfect world. She goes further, suggesting that it is rational to crave revenge, and she rejects efforts to distinguish toxic anger from righteous indignation. Yet her embrace of this embattled emotion may go too far. We have much to learn by reflecting on what anger is good for and where it may err.
Critiques of anger abound. In the Bhagavad Gītā, Krishna describes anger as among our greatest enemies, which can lead only to delusion and despair. Buddhism counts anger as one of the three mental poisons, or kleshas; in Tibetan depictions of the Wheel of Life, anger is personified as a snake at the very center of the wheel, which, along with a bird (attachment) and a pig (ignorance), causes the unenlightened masses to remain trapped in a cycle of endless rebirth. The seminal Confucian philosopher, Xunzi, warns that rage will cause one to perish, and he says that we should learn to punish crime without anger. Zhuangzi, one of Taoism’s greatest luminaries, advises each of us to drift through life like an empty boat, to avoid incurring anyone’s rage. The Hebrew Bible depicts God as wrathful but cautions against human anger. Psalm 37, for example, urges that we forgo rage toward evildoers and trust the Lord to mete out justice. Christianity places emphasis on love and mercy, and the Holy Quran repeatedly refers to Allah as forgiving and forbearing.
Like Callard, I find such injunctions unsettling, in part because they can be used as a form of social control. Hinduism discourages anger while also encouraging the underclasses to accept their lot—what seems like a recipe for complacency. Ashoka the Great promoted the spread of Buddhism only after authorizing violent conquests, in a move that might cynically be interpreted as an attempt to pacify vengeful sentiments among the vanquished. Taoist injunctions against anger sometimes imply that we should be silent in the face of injustice, and Nietzsche argues that Christian love conceals a deep hatred of life-affirming values and makes virtues of weakness and mindless obedience.
Behind these worries lies the recognition that anger can be an instrument of liberation. It can stir those who have been oppressed to rise up against injustice. It can motivate rebellions against tyranny and fights for civil rights. We’ve seen anger put to powerful use in the Me Too movement, and it is a rallying call that brings people to the polls and to the streets.
Anger has subtler benefits as well. For example, the contemporary philosopher Céline Leboeuf observes that anger can mitigate the withering effects of racism. The white gaze can lead people of color to feel unwelcome, incompetent, criminalized, sexualized, dehumanized, or otherwise degraded. Anger, Leboeuf argues, can restore a sense dignity. It can also play a therapeutic role, as when we delight in stories of vengeance.
In fact, anger is even more than a rallying cry and symbolic balm. It may also be a necessary component of morality. According to the “sentimentalist” tradition in moral philosophy, morality is not a feature of the objective world, to be discovered like scientific facts, but rather a product of human preferences. Like deliciousness and beauty, it is not inherent in things out there, but rather in how these things impact us. A world without anger is a world where nothing is wrong. Without it, we would be like asteroids colliding indifferently in space. Indignation distinguishes assault from mere impact. We cannot relinquish anger without losing our moral sense.
From all this it does not follow, however, that all anger is good. Here we must turn back to Callard’s complaint against those who try to distinguish bad anger from righteous indignation. She sees this as a hopeless cause, noting that anger’s dark side—the thirst for retribution—is an inevitable part of the package. I too think we should not turn off the urge to get even; anger so inoculated would be impotent. Still, I think we can identify untoward forms of anger, just as we can distinguish healthy hunger from gluttony. Let me catalog some of the ways anger can go wrong.
First, it can be misdirected. Psychologists warn against the “fundamental attribution error,” blaming an individual for actions that may owe more to circumstance. This happens when we blame drug and property crimes entirely on individuals, for example, without also seeing structural causes that may be somewhat exonerating.
Second, anger can be misattributed. Some people turn their self-dissatisfaction outward, and others bring workplace frustrations home, lashing out at the near and dear.
Third, anger can also spread too widely, as in Callard’s example of harboring a grudge against all Germans; this may be instrumental when national values remain corrupt, but at a certain point, it becomes vital to distinguish those who work to combat bigotry and those who wax nostalgic for armbands and brownshirts.
Fourth, anger can be abusive. Consider the spouse who overreacts to minor mishaps with unpredictable fits of rage, or the tyrant who violently silences dissent. Anger is an instrument of both liberation and oppression.
Fifth, anger can reflect an undue sense of entitlement. Some people think they deserve special treatment and get bent out of shape when their expectations are not met. It is often said that men are more anger-prone than women, and this is a double injustice, since warranted female ire is suppressed, while frivolous male tantrums are indulged.
Sixth, anger can be self-destructive. Those who stew in rage may feel consumed by it. This does not mean that we should simply acquiesce to bad circumstances. But anger needs to find constructive outlets; the flames of rage scorch the torch when they cannot be used to ward off what ails us.
Seventh, just as pent-up rage is deleterious, harm can come from unleashing anger without restraint. It can trigger cycles of revenge. If restraint is exercised, the angry party can claim the moral high ground (“I gave you less than you deserved”), and that may reduce the likelihood of retaliation.
Such restraint brings us to a final issue: control. In moments of fury, we are not the best deliberators, and that fact, ironically, is an impediment to doing what anger demands of us.
In these and other ways, we can distinguish forms of anger that are better and worse. Callard might counter that the better forms still qualify as ordinary anger, albeit properly directed and proportionately applied. She wants mainly to reject those who posit a pristine species of anger, honorifically named “indignation,” that is purged of its usual pugnaciousness. But to insist that anger has one form is overly reductive. Emotions are not mere instincts, hardwired in unchanging forms into our reptilian brains. They can also be retuned by cultural learning. In Malay, there are different words for brooding anger (marah) and frenzied rage (amuk). In the past, anger was more linked to violence than it is today, and that violence took culturally specific forms (such as dueling). These days anger might instead motivate legal action or “calling someone out” on social media.
In the end, then, Callard is right that we need anger, but we should not conceive of it as an untamable beast within. We can find forms that are most conducive to its varied vocations. Anger has a history, and it also has a future, which we can play an active role in shaping.
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