The 2016 presidential election was, it seems, decided by angry white men in the Rust Belt: angry that their fellow Americans increasingly do not look or sound like them; angry that black lives matter and that a black man is in the White House; angry that the movements of capital are indifferent to their needs and that movements of people have increased; angry that a woman thought herself fit to run the country.
One might well think that anger itself was the problem. Many have been calling for a return to a more civil and reasonable form of political discourse. But some go even further: Perhaps what we need is the total eradication of anger from our politics. If so, then those of us on the left should respond to Trump’s election not with our own anger but with something altogether cooler and calmer.
In her latest book, Anger and Forgiveness, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues for just this. Even “great injustice,” she says, is no “excuse for childish and undisciplined behavior.” For not only is anger bad because of its consequences—alienating political opponents, breeding revenge and violence, inhibiting progress—it is also a bad thing in itself, an immoral and incoherent way of responding to the world.
To be angry, according to Nussbaum, is to thirst for revenge, either as a means of recompense for a wrongdoing or as a means of restoring one’s damaged social status after one. But revenge, she thinks, never works as recompense: The suffering of others cannot undo harm to oneself. At best, revenge repairs wounded egos: Humiliating my wrongdoer can elevate me by downgrading him. But that, Nussbaum says, is to operate in the barbaric logic of the honor code; it is not the stuff of justice. Thus “in a sane and not excessively anxious and status-focused person, anger…is a brief dream or cloud, soon dispelled by saner thoughts of personal and social welfare.” Resisting anger, Nussbaum thinks, is a mark not only of our humanity, but of our sanity.
Nussbaum describes this view of anger as “radical.” But it is not radical in the sense of being unfamiliar. With the notable exception of black and feminist thinkers who have defended anger as a vital tool of the oppressed, almost all of Western political thought since the Stoics has largely shared Nussbaum’s dim view of anger. Seneca condemned anger as “the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions,” “closed to reason” and “wholly violent.” It had no place in our personal or political lives.
The liberal tradition in which Nussbaum works has largely inherited this ancient view of things. The public square, if not the private realm, should be a place of cool deliberation rather than hot emotion. But what is radical about Nussbaum’s case against anger is that it puts baldly what is often taken for granted in our political culture. In so doing, Nussbaum inadvertently tells us something about the limits of the liberal worldview she has spent much of her career defending.
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According to Nussbaum, anger is either fruitlessly aimed at retribution, and thus irrational, or aimed at degradation, and thus immoral. Either way, it is bad in itself, independent of whatever consequences it might have. Crucial here is Nussbaum’s assumption—taken from the classical tradition—that anger necessarily involves a drive to make the alleged wrongdoer suffer. This might have been true for the ancients, but it is less obviously true for us. We moderns seem capable of getting angry about systems and structures— misogyny, racism, wealth inequality—as well as about the unjust actions of particular individuals. But Nussbaum thinks that claims to be angry “at the system” are almost always disingenuous: It’s really the misogynists, the racists, and the rich that we’re angry at, not misogyny, racism, or inequality.
Even so, does getting angry at misogynists and racists invariably involve wanting them to suffer? No doubt for some, anger is accompanied by a thirst for revenge. But surely many of us experience anger that calls not for revenge but for something else: for the wrongdoer to see just what he has done. Perhaps, in the end, such recognition on the part of the wrongdoer will involve some suffering. But it will not be the indiscriminate suffering that is demanded by the revenge impulse; rather it will be the specific suffering that comes when the wrongdoer shares in our own.
It is not at all clear, then, that Nussbaum is right to say that there is something invariably incoherent or morally ugly about anger. It is of course mistaken to think that the indiscriminate suffering of, say, racists will undo the fact of racism. But then again, how many angry victims of racism really think that? And where is the incoherence in the desire to be heard and seen by those who racially abuse you, or to have the full horror of their actions publicly registered?
For Nussbaum, it is a different sort of mistake—a mistake of morality rather than of reason—to want to downgrade others in order to restore your own bruised status. Is this always so? When a woman is raped, is there not some insult to her dignity, some violation of her standing as a human being, that must be undone? Does gender justice not demand that men lose their privilege, and racial justice that white people lose theirs? Nussbaum anticipates this sort of worry, telling us that “reversing positions through down-ranking does not create equality. It just substitutes one inequality for another.”
There is something at once true and misleading here. It is true that when an oppressed group gains the upper hand, however fleetingly, over its oppressors, this does not yet constitute equality—and, indeed, that the violence of the oppressed against their oppressors can lead to its own form of inhumanity. But it’s misleading to suggest that one inequality is just the same as the other, as if we should feel the same about black people mocking white people as we do about whites mocking blacks, or about women silencing men as we do men silencing women. We may aspire, with Nussbaum, to “equal respect for human dignity.” But sometimes in the context of oppression, one’s sense of self-worth can only be secured by loosening the grip of another’s. To think otherwise is to conflate our political aspirations with political reality.
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The second part of Nussbaum’s case targets not anger’s intrinsic features but rather its instrumental effects. Her argument here is simple: Anger, while occasionally useful as a spur to political action, is on the whole politically dangerous. Moreover, it is politically unnecessary. Just consider the examples of Gandhi, King, and Mandela, all of whom Nussbaum celebrates for their pursuit of justice without anger. Studying their examples, she says, “will help us to see why the idea of ‘noble anger’…is a false guide in revolutionary situations, and why a generous, even overgenerous, frame of mind is both more appropriate and more effective.”
It’s a nice thought, at least for those of us who might end up against the wall in a revolutionary moment. But one cannot help suspecting that a more complete and careful rendering of the historical record would yield a different verdict. Is it not somewhat historically naive to think that President Johnson’s embrace of King’s program of racial harmony had nothing to do with the angry politics of Malcolm X? Or that Mandela and Gandhi would have been successful without the anger of their followers? Would there have been the anticolonial struggles in North Africa or the Arab Spring without anger? And where would the labor, feminist, LGBTQ, and disability-rights movements be—would they even be at all?
Politics, after all, is about conflict as much as consensus. Anger can be a motivating force for organization and resistance; the fear of collective wrath, in both democratic and authoritarian societies, can also motivate those in power to change their ways. The question of whether, on the whole, anger has been politically productive or counterproductive in the long struggle against oppression is an empirical question, and one that cannot be settled from the philosopher’s armchair. Certainly it cannot be settled by a handful of historical cases that are all too easily treated as liberal fairy tales about the power of civility.
Nussbaum is also unimpressed by the thought that anger can be psychically important for the victims of injustice. Strikingly, she doesn’t discuss the many feminist and black thinkers who have argued for the emancipatory features of anger, most notably Audre Lorde, who described women’s anger as “a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.” Nor does she mention Frederick Douglass, who wrote of the moment when he finally resisted the violent attack of a slave breaker that it “rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.”
It is not quite that Nussbaum overlooks the possibilities suggested by these thinkers; she concedes that getting angry can sometimes help restore a victim’s sense of self-worth, and can sometimes signal to the victim and others that an injustice has occurred. But she doesn’t register the full weight and shape of anger’s psychic importance. It is not merely that anger can make one feel better or prompt one to see the badness in one’s situation. Rather, anger is sometimes and for some people the only way of recovering a lost sense of agency. And sometimes, and for some people, it can be the only way of registering the full injustice of the world.
It is unsurprising that someone who has not experienced firsthand the liberating effects of anger—Nussbaum herself claims not to get angry—might make such a mistake. But the mistake is less understandable in someone who, like Nussbaum, has for decades exhorted the moral need to closely read the lived experience of others.
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In arguing against anger on the grounds of its overall counterproductivity, Nussbaum echoes a common sentiment. Writing on Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called on Palestinians to abandon the anger that “has accomplished nothing but increasing the misery of the Palestinian people”; if only Palestinians would adopt the model of Gandhi, he argued, the result would “reverberate around the world and Palestinians would achieve statehood and freedom.” Writing in New York magazine, Jonathan Chait defended Obama’s reluctance to get publicly angry about white racism, on the grounds that he was employing the “sensible practice” of encouraging black people to “concentrate on the things they can control” rather than “lash out.” Feminists, gays, the poor, contingent workers, Black Lives Matter protesters—all are told again and again, sometimes by “allies,” that their anger is just making things worse.
The problem with this common refrain is not simply that it underestimates, as Nussbaum does, the psychic and political benefits of anger. By focusing wholly on anger’s consequences, it also obscures the fact that even counterproductive anger might well be justified. Sometimes anger is the appropriate response to the world, a way of seeing how things are and how they ought to be, even if it is not the response that will make the world better. Indeed, one might think that victims of injustice are often caught in a bind between getting justifiably angry and not making things worse. Consider, for example, the black parents who must choose between validating their children’s outrage at the police and keeping their children alive.
Nussbaum’s message that the oppressed shouldn’t get angry because doing so is “counterproductive” entrenches the status quo by obscuring the causes of anger’s counterproductivity. The anger of women, or black people, or gays, or Palestinians is counterproductive—on those occasions when it is—because those in power have made it so. It is a matter of contingency, after all, that angry women are “bitches” and angry black people “thugs”; a matter of contingency that women’s and black people’s anger is dismissed as evidence of their inferiority and used as an excuse to bar them from public life, while the anger of white men (as we’ve seen in the aftermath of Trump’s election) is presumed to have good cause.
Reminders of anger’s counterproductivity present these contingent and unjust features of political life—whose anger is taken seriously and whose isn’t—as necessary and neutral. In issuing such reminders, critics of anger like Nussbaum risk compounding the very injustices they say they care about.
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Nussbaum has long been interested in the politics of emotions. She is the most famous proponent of what is called “cognitivism”: the doctrine that emotions are themselves a kind of judgment. Thus she opposes the standard dichotomy between reason and feeling. Her condemnation of anger is not a symptom of any general antipathy to affect; instead, it’s part of a larger project to determine which emotions are conducive to and compatible with liberal democratic societies and which are not.
Here Nussbaum takes up where the most important modern theorist of liberalism, John Rawls, left off. At the end of A Theory of Justice, Rawls wrote that a just society requires more than fair institutions; for its stability, it also requires that its citizens develop a “sense of justice,” which in turn requires the love and care of the family. But Rawls’s account of what role emotions should play in politics is unrealistic in at least two senses. First, it presumes a society in which there is “perfect compliance” with the demands of justice. Those emotions that might be fitting in the face of injustice, most obviously anger, fall outside the scope of his theory. Second, Rawls presumes that people will naturally come to feel emotionally attached to those institutions that benefit them. He has little to say about the actual complexities of human attachment: how beneficence breeds resentment as much as gratitude, why it is easier to love people than abstractions, how hatred can lead people to act against their material interests. Nor does he grapple much with the darker parts of our emotional lives: the drive to humiliate and dominate, the satisfactions of cruelty.
In this and her previous book, Political Emotions, Nussbaum seeks to give a more complicated account, one that explains what sort of emotional culture is required to stabilize actual, rather than idealized, liberal societies. Nussbaum is particularly concerned with the United States, which she describes as an “aspiring society”—one whose fundamental political principles are correct but that fails to consistently implement them. In Political Emotions, Nussbaum argued that a spirit of civic love is required if Americans are going to live up to their commitments and reinforce their institutions of justice. In her current book, she argues that anger has the opposite effect: It makes it harder for us to live up to our commitments to equality and liberty.
But one wonders if her verdict would be altered if she saw the United States differently: not as a society whose commitments are fundamentally correct, but rather as a society in which any such commitments have always been conditional on the exclusion of those thought unworthy. It’s difficult not to see the country this way when one considers the systematic erosion of voting rights for black and brown Americans, the mass incarceration of black men, the constant attacks on women’s right to bodily integrity, or the demands for a wall with Mexico and the registration of all Muslims. Nussbaum would likely say that these are failures of implementation—failures, that is, of the United States to act on its own principles. But one wonders if this too might be an idealization. Perhaps these are not failures of implementation at all, but rather the perfect realization of commitments that many Americans actually do have.
In the end, Nussbaum’s case against anger is that it is antithetical to societies striving for justice. It engages in a brutal logic of tit-for-tat, shuts down conversation and mutual understanding, and blocks our ability to collectively perfect the institutions of justice. That case might be thought to rest on a mischaracterization of anger—what it calls for and what change it can effect. But it might also be thought, more simply, that Nussbaum’s case does not to apply to the world as we actually find it.
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Calls to be calm and civil often run roughshod over the distinction between righteous and misplaced anger, and have the function of excluding from public discourse precisely those most likely to upset the status quo. Such calls deserve our suspicion. But it is also a feature of our political reality that many confuse their misplaced rage for justified anger. Those galled by the loss of white privilege, or who blame immigrants for their poverty, are an obvious case. In an ideal world, perhaps, only those with good reason would get angry, and the rest of us would take their anger as an invitation to listen. But in a non-ideal world like ours, the right to voice justified anger will inevitably be abused by those without justification.
This is perhaps the most plausible case for restricting the place of anger in our public discourse, and for praising the virtues of civility and calm: A normalization of anger in the public sphere might lead to a general and violent degradation of political life. Indeed, we might think this to be the case today.
But, of course, the burdens of such a restriction fall on those who have greatest cause for anger: They would have to silence themselves for the good of the rest of us.