Rebecca Solnit on the Impotence of Anger

screamingwoman - Version 2The internet is a hotbed of outrage.  If someone expresses an unpopular opinion or tweets something provocative or controversial, the net erupts in vehement vitriol.  In our era of social media, angry mobs don’t attack with torches and pitchforks; they disgrace your name on the blogosphere or accuse you being a “racist” or a “bigot” on Twitter and Facebook.  Rather than physically punish offenders, we shame and humiliate.  Much like Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter, we march transgressors of political correctness through the streets, hurling tomatoes of ad hominem attacks along the way.  In our age of rage, red-faced screaming has replaced dialogue. 

On one hand, the fact that we get angry at those who use hurtful speech represents a giant leap for basic kindness and human decency.  In many ways, today we have a deeper respect for words, both for what they mean and how they can potentially wound people.  We’re more sensitive and thoughtful.

But have we swung too far to the opposite extreme?  Are we too sensitive?  too willing to label something “offensive”— not because it’s actually derogatory or hurtful— but because it challenges our opinions?  threatens our long-standing beliefs?  Are we too angry?  Why as a culture have we exchanged the sober-mindedness of civil discourse for the intoxicating righteousness of outrage?  Is anger only a destructive force, an inextinguishable inferno that annihilates everything in its wake?  Or can anger be harnessed for light and heat? 

These questions are what Rebecca Solnit ponders in her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history, the importance of using language clearly and accurately, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  In one of the collection’s most timely essays “Facing the Furies,” Solnit explains anger is a spectrum ranging from minor irritation on the one end to indignation on the other.  Though we often pathologize anger, anger is a useful alarm system that alerts us to a breach of our moral code.  When we want to shriek and slam doors, Solnit explains, we feel we’ve been done wrong:

“At its mildest, the emotion is no more than annoyance, an aversion to mild unpleasantness.  Annoyance with an ethical character becomes indignation: not only do I dislike that, but it also should not have happened.  Indeed, anger generally arises from a sense of being wronged.  In this respect, my conviction that you should not have eaten the last slice resembles my conviction that we should not have bombed Iraq: in each case, I see an injustice and wish it to be righted.  Anger that is motivated by more than a mammalian instinct for self-protection operates by an ethic, a sense of how things ought or ought not to be.” 

We’ve all heard the old adage “love is blind.”  When we’re head-over-heels in love, in the throes of infatuation, it’s impossible to objectively assess our partners: one sip of passion’s intoxicating liqueur and we become dizzy with delusion.  In the glorious beginnings of a budding romance, we can rationalize our lover’s every flaw: he can’t split the check because he’s in-between jobs, we explain when our friends ask why he never pays; he never comes around because he’s not a big drinker and doesn’t like the bright lights and loud music at nightclubs.

If love is blind, so is anger.  While it can signal our boundaries have been crossed, it can also interfere with our ability to think rationally.  As Solnit writes:

“Anger is hostile to understanding.  At its most implacable or extreme, it prevents comprehension of a situation, of the people you oppose, of your own role and responsibilities.  It’s not for nothing that we call rages ‘blind.'”

In the public sphere, anger can either incite riots or spark revolution, fan the flames of chaos or fuel positive social change.  Cesar Chavez.  Mahatma Gandhi.  Martin Luther King.  By framing their fights in terms of right and wrong, these activists were able to use feelings of outrage and injustice to rally support for their cause.  In each case, anger galvanized a movement and built a better world.

But though anger can be channeled to reform unjust systems and rectify wrongs, it can also be exploited by those in power to advance their own agendas.  No other public figure has stoked the flames of our anger more furiously than Donald Trump.  In our era of unprecedented division, animosity seems to be the state of political discourse: we’re angry at those across the party divide, we’re angry at those who disagree with us.  Those who have historically been at the top of the social ladder— white menare angry to find themselves thrust to the bottom rungs.  The result?  Resentments that have been simmering beneath the surface are finally boiling over.  White supremacists have moved from the margins to the mainstream; anti-immigrant rhetoric and cries of “America first” dominate news cycles.  By inflaming our anger and redirecting it toward a common enemy, whether that be immigrants or Muslims, Trump protects his own power.  After all, if citizens are pitted against each another, if they’re divided rather than united, they’ll never band together and revolt against their actual enemy, those in power:

“Is anyone more possessed by this kind of obliterating anger than Donald Trump?  Our nation is currently led by a petty, vindictive, histrionic man whose exceptional privilege has robbed him of even the most rudimentary training in dealing with setbacks and slights.  He was elected by people who were drawn to him because he homed in on their anger, made them even angrier, and promised vengeance on the usual targets, domestic and foreign, successfully clouding their judgement as to what electing him would mean for their health care, safety, environment, education, economy. 

Yet Trump’s furious ascent is only the culmination of fury’s long journey toward enshrinement in this country.  Our legal system, for example, has been lurching backward for some time from the ideal of impartial justice toward a model based on retaliation.  The prison system still employs a plethora of terms that suggest otherwise—  “rehabilitation,” “reform,” “correction,” and the penitence implicit in penitentiaries— but its current rhetoric and practices are often purely punitive. 

[…]

Governments regularly manufacture or exaggerate threats to suggest that violence is necessary and restraint would constitute weakness: during World War II, the United States condemned citizens of Japanese heritage; during the post-war period, it targeted leftists.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it scrambled to find new adversaries, and has since settled on Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people.  The provocation of anger is essential to government by manipulation, and the angriest people are often the most credulous, willing to snatch up without scrutiny whatever feeds their fire.”

Just like any powerful emotion, anger must either be channeled or controlled and contained.  If we allow a flame of anger to transform into a full-blown wildfire of rage, we can become violent or do something stupid we later regret.  Another possibility is we simply waste time being mad.  The last time she faced her own furies, Solnit recalls she squandered thirty-six irretrievable hours indulging in fantasizes of revenge:

“We speak of blind rages; I know the last thing that made me angry—  an anti-Semitic comment— got me stuck replaying the details of the interaction, buttressing my arguments as though I would fight the charges in court, and generally simmering for thirty-six hours or so that might have been spent more profitably and pleasantly on almost anything else.  The slur took place in the course of a conversation about the uses of left-wing violence.  The comment, you could say, called a whole ethic group on a whole continent the cowards of the country: ‘And didn’t 6 million die because they didn’t resist the Nazi regime?’  After I questioned the remark, the speaker eventually apologized and admitted the factual inanity of the statement, but I was nevertheless stuck. 

The anger crowded out other thoughts, got me mired in a resentment that didn’t threaten me directly (though anti-Semitic slurs, and the beliefs behind them, underlie anti-Semitic acts, which are having a resurgence right now).  It was as though something weighty and hard-edged had slammed shut in my chest, and a fire simmered inside.  It was as though my mind was on a treadmill revisiting the Polish partisans, the French resistance, the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Primo Levi in the Italian Resistance, and so forth.  But this rumination was not, overall, pleasant or productive, and when I finally exited the treadmill I vowed to self-regulate better.”

So how do we regulate this volatile emotion?  Do we suppress it?  Or do we express our ire freely and lash out at whatever and whomever provokes our rage?  Solnit suggests we adopt the Buddhist’s approach to anger management.  Rather than repress our anger— which is extremely unhealthy, not to mention ineffective— or weaponize it to wound others, we can feel it and simply let it go: 

“Fury is a renewable source; though the initial anger may be fleeting, it can be revived and strengthened by telling and retelling yourself the story of the insult or injustice, even over a lifetime.  Many accounts of American anger focus on what people are angry about, as though reactive anger were inevitable and the outside stimulus provoking it the only variable.  They rarely discuss the status of anger or the habits of mind that support it.  Those are discussed elsewhere, in spiritual and psychological literature and in anthropological texts. 

In Christianity, wrath is one of the seven deadly sins; patience, a cardinal virtue, is its opposite.  Buddhist theology regards anger as one of the three poisons, an affliction to be overcome through self-discipline and self-awareness.  ‘The tradition ethical precept about anger is sometimes translated as not to get angry,’ Taigen Dan Leighton, a Zen priest and translator of Buddhist texts, explained to me.  ‘But in modern Soto Zen Buddhism, we say not to harbor ill will.’  The Buddhist writer Thanissara put it thus: ‘Anger is traditionally thought to be close to wisdom.  When not projected outward toward others or inward toward the self, it gives us the necessary energy and clarity to understand what needs to be done.’

We will all feel anger at one time or another, but it doesn’t need to become animosity or be renewed or retained.  Buddhism offers an elegant model of anger management.  Harness the emotion.  Feel it without inflicting it.”

Solnit concludes by correcting a popular misconception.  Though we imagine anger is a sort of gasoline that drives the engine of social change, anger— at least blood-boiling red-faced rage—  isn’t sustainable over the long-term.  The most effective activists may first get involved because they’re dissatisfied with some aspect of society, but to make real, lasting change, they must remain committed to their cause, to action, not their own rage:

“In my experience, those dedicated to practical change over the long term are often the least involved in the dramas of rage, which wear on both the self and others.  After reading or listening to, say, hundreds of detailed accounts of rape, you may remain deeply motivated to engage in political action but find it difficult to get indignant about the newest offense.  The most committed organizers I know are often not incensed.  Their first obligation is to changing how things are— to action, not self-expression.”