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Anger, the Convenient Emotion

Anger is now the province of the weakened warrior who mourns his lost powers.

This post is in response to
Constructing and Deconstructing Prejudice

The last four essays in this series have pursued a common theme. All have focused on prejudice or, more broadly, on people’s proclivities to degrade categorically those they imagine to be in competition with them. But those writings have also developed the view that human behavior is usually strategic in its goals and methods. Rarely, do we rush forward without appraising our circumstances, including our prospects for success and the consequences that are likely to follow. Instead, we calculate what we “can get away with” based on the resources we understand ourselves to possess and the anticipated resistance of others. Seen from the above perspective, prejudice is less a burbling up of long-simmering animosities than a knowing employment of socially supplied weaponry.

In that spirit, it is appropriate to re-examine anger, an emotion that is sometimes associated with prejudiced feelings and behaviors. Typically, anger is thought to be a condition of extreme frustration, when individuals feel themselves under threat and when they lack other means of response. Sometimes, angry people are forced to stew in their resentments, but often their discomfort gets the better of them and they lash out in ways that are less carefully planned than they might prefer. So understood, anger is something to be controlled or “managed.” Part of the challenge of adulthood is to keep emotions, at least of this sort, in check.

That perspective – equating civility with emotion-regulation – has a long tradition in philosophy and religion. For centuries, the “passions,” as Robert Solomon describes them, have been seen as matters to overcome. Let animals be ruled by their physicality. Flesh and bone, humans confront similar terms of existence. Like other creatures, we are born to seek our food, reproduce, and die. But we are also inspired by spiritual visions – and by abstract principles that are the products of our abilities to reason. Beings of our sort should be held to standards higher than those of our animal kindred. We must harness what surges within us. We must agree to live together in controlled, orderly ways. Only the well-examined life is worth living.

That same tradition exalts the common good. By such lights, cooperation is held to be better than competition. Commitment to wide social groupings (societies or even humankind as a whole) is admired more than ties to narrow associations (kin groups and neighbors). The world, grandly conceived, is thought to be improvable. Moral progress is proffered to every person as well. Our great religious leaders model these behaviors for us.

Such advances are enabled not only by serious contemplation but also by certain pro-social, reason-supported emotions. Sympathy, charity, faith, and love are held to be sublime commitments. Self-sacrifice, at least when properly directed, is admired. People should be steadfast when they pledge themselves to worthy involvements. The good society is something to construct and maintain diligently. Life’s ultimate goal is to inhabit an after-world community of similarly committed people or, more practically, to perpetuate such a community on earth.

Pushed down the moral scale are what are usually termed the “negative” emotions. We should not yield to sadness, fear, and disgust, which trap us in despair and disarray. Shame and guilt are profound matters, but they are not places for enterprising individuals to linger. Inflations of self – especially in the more extreme versions of narcissism and pride – should be avoided. Condemned also is hatred, along with the aggressive behaviors that result from this. And fueling many of those anti-social outbursts is anger. None of us would deny that dangerous, destructive, and defensive styles of expression have their proper place. But they are problematic for those who would build a harmonious, kindly world.

Of course, this general perspective – proclaimed in most churches, synagogues, and mosques – is itself linked to the modern trajectory, to the belief that people can live on universally shared, coherent, benevolent terms. It is important to remember, as scholars like Mihai Spariosu have stressed, that there was a pre-Socratic tradition that antedated the Classical world. That vision – decorated at its highest levels by all manner of deities and semi-deities – was not committed to ideas of progress and intelligibility. Pluralism and rivalry were common currency. Humans, gods, and animals – if only in mythology – mixed. There was no single, omniscient center of existence. Instead, people were reconciled to the complexities of life and to the impositions of divinely imposed fate. Even hope, that remnant of Pandora’s unfastened box, was perhaps more curse than blessing. For what use is hope in a world without knowable direction or end?

When people accept division and discord as their social – and cosmological – foundation, different kinds of emotions, loyalties, and actions are esteemed. There is acceptance of partisanship, the claim that one must stand with his or her quite limited group against others. Indeed, the ethic of the warrior becomes paramount. Aggression is no sin; people should be ready to fight, and die, for their sponsoring groups. Action and passion takes primacy. Reason is not a search for common ground but rather a rhetorical tool, used to confuse and disable others. In an unsettled world, with ceaseless rivalries and insurgencies from unknowable forces, the best life offers is holding one’s earthly position – and perhaps expanding it a bit should the opportunity arise. Persons so oriented do not mourn the miseries of outsiders. Quite the opposite, it is thrilling to see the “other” bleed and die.

Why exhume these ancient views, now 2500 years gone. I do this, of course, because they are not gone. The philosopher Nietzsche, it may be recalled, yearned for a return of exuberant, lusting expression. As he saw it, those of special talent should not be held back by moralities concocted to aid the timid and weak. Disorder is the handmaiden of creativity, change, and self-realization. Remember also that romantic notions of this sort were part of Hitler’s passionate populism, when older “racial” allegiances were proclaimed, outsiders condemned, and reason subordinated to the excitement of domination.

Today we live in a fast changing “global” society, where older patterns of living have come undone. Some commentators praise this new postmodern age as an opportunity for dispossessed groups to escape the control of the comfortable classes and the huge, soulless bureaucracies they maintain. Let pluralism – in extreme cases, wildcat sectarianism and unbounded eccentricity – reign. The center cannot hold.

But that celebration of pluralism and self-proclaimed “difference” has also been accompanied by the disadvantageous un-settlement of many groups and by a general declination of common standards. It is difficult now for most of us to comprehend our common commitments, to communicate sensibly in public forums about important issues, or to cooperate in shared undertakings. Encouraged to be different, we have forgotten how to unite.

It may seem odd that the ethic of the warrior should resurface in our putatively civilized age. After all, “defense” of persons and property has been apportioned to professionalized police and soldiers. Their charge is to make the public sphere safe for the rest of us, to supervise our more aggressive and divisive impulses. But in an age of rebellion against modernism – against established elites, bureaucracies, and their far-flung regulations, those agencies can be seen as instruments of over-civilization. They can be claimed to endanger liberty more than they defend it. They manage the millions in the interest of the groups that matter.

What do people do when they feel their positions slipping away, when resources they – and their parents – once claimed are no longer within their grasp? The United States is not a society that comprehends downward mobility or, indeed, even stagnation of family circumstance. We are ever encouraged to look above, to see the people we will become. The dream of every worker is to create a future where they – and more emphatically, their children – will work less hard than they do now.

During the last thirty years, the wealthiest classes have advanced, possessing ever-increasing shares of the nation’s income and wealth. The bottom two-thirds have not experienced such progress. Our great political and economic institutions, or so it seems, are not looking out for them. Under duress – rapidly rising housing and medical costs, reduced job security and pension support, declines in union membership, and dissolution of educational systems – people have concluded they must look out for themselves. The individual retirement account, charter school, medical bankruptcy, and part-time job are held to be reasonable responses. And defending the new entrepreneurialism is the gun.

People who grew up in better circumstances than they inhabit now perhaps have a right to be frustrated. Working class men, in particular, have experienced a decline in job status, earning power, and in the systems of respect that attend these employments. Foreign labor and robots are taking away their work. A father who cannot support his family – or model success for his children – finds himself irrelevant.

Frustration, as most of us know, deepens when there is no easy identification of the issues at hand or clear recourse to causes that have been perceived. It acquires a certain cast when we recognize ourselves to be under assault, from agencies that care little for our well-being.

Animals, wiser than us perhaps, respond to threat in three ways. There is first the path of fearful flight, open acknowledgement that the aggressor is too powerful to be confronted. There is secondly the project of surrender of passivity, the “playing dead” that some species exhibit. And there is the third path of angry resistance, the willingness to fight (and perhaps die) for one’s position.

Unlike animals, humans rely on culturally endorsed responses to such conditions. As the anthropologist Catherine Lutz has shown, some societies permit public expressions of fear by men. In the United States, such displays, at least by men, are associated with weakness. Much the same can be said for expressions of withdrawal and passivity. Surrender to circumstance – fatalism, if you will – has little place in an activist, achievement-oriented society.

What remains then is anger, expressed in threats and denunciations. Angry people, or rather those who display their hostility openly, are said to have the courage of their convictions. Such people “stand up” for themselves; they do not accept their condition “lying down.” Others regard their declarations warily, even granting them a certain respect. When the angry person shouts that he or she has “had enough,” we tend to listen.

Such proclamations, it should be noted, are somehow associated with being manly in our society. An angry, aggressive man is thought to be doing something about his circumstances, even if that something is merely posting a nasty comment on Facebook, erecting a defiant political sign in the yard, affixing an inflammatory bumper sticker to the car, or joining a public rally. Such actions, well-considered or not, seem to reclaim personhood in a society that offers few other supports for the disregarded.

Fear and passivity, it should be noted, feel bad. They are conditions to be escaped. By contrast, anger – especially when supported by publicly acknowledged rhetorics and put into action – tends to feel good. Righteous anger, like that extolled in the preSocratic age, is thrilling in its execution.

It is a cultural pathology that our attention is drawn so quickly to the angry outburst. Extreme examples of this are the armed gunmen who kill shoppers at a mall, patrons at a theater, or children in their classrooms. In every instance the victims are chosen because they are defenseless. Oddly, and sadly, the killers become immortal, at least by the standards of a society with a very short attention span. A psychologically preoccupied people, we want to know why they did it. That inquiry usually involves discerning the chain of their decision-making and whether they had helpers. Other questions about the ready availability of high-powered weapons, glamorization of violence, adequacy of mental health resources, and the processes of social displacement that engendered the frustration are subordinated.

Few of us, or so it is hoped, will ever behave so terribly. But there is a certain appeal to being the defiant isolationist or junkyard dog, who claims that society is out to get him and who is willing to support that posture with inflamed rhetoric and insinuations of deadly force. In the older view of things, power is its own morality. To be feared is to be respected.

Anger, or so I argue, is the emotional refuge of those who have seen their positions in the world decline and who have lost faith in society’s ability to respond to those concerns. The emerging civil order, or so it seems to them, no longer respects what they do or what they have to say. Their portion of the common good shrinks. Government itself is identified as the enemy. In the fashion of militias, the insurgents resist their regulators. Defensive individualism is their ideology. Guns are their last resort. And anger energizes their hope that everything lost will be regained.


Lutz, C. (1988). Unnatural emotions: Everyday sentiments on a Micronesian atoll and their challenge to Western theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1956). The birth of tragedy and the genealogy of morals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.

Solomon, R. (1993). The Passions: Emotions and the meaning of life. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Spariosu, M. (1989). Dionysus reborn: Play and the aesthetic dimension in modern philosophical and scientific discourse. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.