Stranger Anger

by Debra Morris

25-ferguson-protests-newyork-006.w529.h352.2xFor some time I've wanted to write about anger in politics, more specifically the conditions under which it is necessary. Necessary in the sense that there is no better response—one more appropriate, say, or more effective. As far as possible, I want to consider anger's necessity apart from the question whether it is justified. The latter question, though a difficult one, is in one sense more easily parsed: since we justify anger by giving reasons for it—it is a response to a palpable injustice, for instance—it is possible, at least in principle, to carry on an earnest discussion or reasoned deliberation about it, since any of us may call upon these reasons (as opposed to a minority of us who, through dint of superior resources, or effective power, or a monopoly on force, may compel a certain response from others, whether or not we ever bother to supply good reasons for our actions). I don't want to be merely philosophical about this; indeed, I'd like to move the conversation away from philosophy as far as possible. Still, even in a cautiously philosophical consideration of the “necessary and sufficient conditions for” something like anger, I would want to focus on the first term, which (I suspect) tends to get folded into the latter. Are there times when the necessity for anger can be established independently of whether there is sufficient (meaning, usually, a “reasoned”) justification for it? Times when anger is felt, or shown, for a different kind of objective or end, one that is only partly described—and rather inadequately, at that—in terms of reasons? I think it bears asking: If it is ever possible to say, of anger, that it is “fully justified,” then is it really anger—”anger” as opposed to something that can and maybe should be expressed in more political terms, e.g., righteous indignation in the face of injustice, defense against harm or suffering, a self-respecting virtue (or felicitous middle way) in Aristotle's sense?

It may be helpful to say what prompted my interest in the legitimate place of anger in politics, given that it wasn't this week's events in Ferguson—though the latter, at the same time they've convinced me that there is a vital and unavoidable issue here, have also made clear how limited are our terms for thinking and talking about anger. As I was reading Matt Taibbi's recent The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wage Gap, an examination of the ways in which the non-prosecution of the gross malfeasance and irresponsibility underlying recent financial crises is inextricably tied to the hyper-policing and punishing of the politically marginal, I found myself thinking, repeatedly, “Why aren't people pissed about this? Why aren't we in the streets now, preparing to take our government back?” That I could confess to the same exasperation after reading pretty much anything by Thomas Franks will only invite derision, I'm afraid, especially in light of Ferguson: oh, so this is what a privileged, Nation-reading white girl gets worked up about. (That and, of course, the fact that I am not currently in the streets.)

And such derision might be justified—but only if my point were to insist upon some sort of equivalence between my anger and that of Ferguson's black community (and, ideally, it would be the sort of equivalence that prompts empathy; equivalence, perhaps, in terms of whatever prompted the anger: for instance, are the two things equally serious, equally weighty, so that I could, as it were, actually “feel your pain”?). Just as derision would be appropriate if the sole point were to assert—always, it seems, too hastily—some sort of vital difference (the difference between clamorous protest and the peaceful march of local clergy, for instance, or the difference between protest and looting). I am not saying that all such talk, all such thinking in terms of equivalence and difference, is irrelevant or even wrong with respect to making sense of the place of anger in politics. It's doubtful that we could suspend all such considerations, especially if we are in the position of passing judgment on angry actions or words—that is to say, if we must determine whether there is sufficient justification for them. For all I know, or am prepared to argue, “justification” may be all about drawing the relevant lines, of parsing genuine equivalences and legitimate differences. (I can trust 3QD's outstanding philosophical community to set me straight here, if needed!) But, if that is the only lens through which we view anger—if the only way we can think about it, or even see it for what it is, is to judge it, i.e., determine whether it is or isn't justified—then invariably, I suspect, there is a rush to judgment. We'd probably all agree that this results in, if nothing else, the most maddening opinion pieces.

But the most maddening of all may be the one that succeeds in emptying the term, and the fact, of anger of all meaning, thorough an excessive attention to what is and isn't justified, to the “real” equivalences and differences disclosed by history. We learn from Carol Anderson's recent op-ed in the Washington Post that “Ferguson isn't about black rage against cops. It's white rage against progress.” As an associate professor of African American studies and history at Emory University, Anderson is able to take an admirably long view of the Ferguson protests, to place them in the context of systematic racism, structural inequality, and unrelenting white backlash against African-American gains. The fact that I agree with every one of her claims—can see the naked equivalence between the Black Codes enacted after the Civil War and recent court decisions affirming stand-your-ground and voter suppression laws, can appreciate the difference between open and public protests and back-room schemes to “redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or … slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment”—makes it painful that I should reject her conclusion, namely that it is white (not black) “rage” at work. But what is the point of effectively denying black rage by recounting the long and steady march of white racism justifying it—or, conversely, of rebranding that racism “white rage,” when a host of arguably better, because more precise, terms already exist for it? Indeed, Anderson employs many of them herself: e.g., “reaction, … backlash”; “swelling resentment”; “the terror of the Ku Klux Klan”; “police brutality”; the cynicism and slander of political opportunists (quoting Lee Atwater: “By 1968 you can't say ‘n—–' — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like ‘forced busing,' ‘states' rights' and all that stuff.”). The many means used by canny legislators and jurists to “gut,” “slash,” “undercut,” and “shut down” every last effort at social progress—as well as the demonstrably “ignoble motivations” behind those means. “So,” Anderson concludes, “when you think of Ferguson, don't just think of black resentment at a criminal justice system that allows a white police officer to put six bullets into an unarmed black teen.” We need to think, rather, of the entrenched racism that historians like Anderson painstakingly document.

Only then,” Anderson contends, “does Ferguson make sense [my emph.]. It's about white rage.” But this has a truly regrettable effect, in my opinion: at the very moment that anger erupts on the political scene, we rush to defuse it, or mask it, or deny it—or we call it something else, as Anderson does when she pointedly refers to “black resentment” instead. What is gained, though, by ignoring the anger that has been expressed, not only by blacks but rather crucially by them? At the moment when all Americans might discern something new in this anger—the opportunity, perhaps, for something other and better than petty resentment, or a degrading fear, or shrinking political hopes—why do we shy away from the realization that some of our fellow citizens are mad as hell? What do we lose, in terms of insight, or compassion, or motivation, if we cannot see the sense in their anger?

This is why it troubles me that, on Anderson's analysis, anger disappears—yet again, it would seem—from the political equation. Against the backdrop of centuries of violence, corruption, and injustice, black rage isn't rage at all: it is the wholly justified “resentment” felt by victims of injustice. But racism is “white rage” once its unjust, indeed ignoble, motivations are made clear. Put another way, rage isn't really rage whenever there is justification for it; rage is only properly described as rage when nothing justifies it (as nothing can be said to justify racism). Again, though, what do we fail to see—and what means of democratic politics are foreclosed to us—when we insist too much on finding reasons for anger, on quelling it in this particular way?

It would be appropriate, at this point, to object that there is already way too much anger suffusing contemporary American politics, and certainly there are plenty of strong feelings at work that at least look a lot like anger: seething resentment, contempt, indignation, even undisguised hatred, to name but a few. And, underlying all of these, there is probably also fear—a fear too dangerous to acknowledge, so that we must take refuge in other forms of antipathy. Anyone in therapy will eventually encounter the startling suggestion that anger, too, is a secondary emotion—that we resort to anger when we can't bear our fear—so there is ample reason to distrust any valorization of anger. And, I confess, I dislike greatly certain, mainly academic, attempts to re-describe emotions like anger as performative, transgressive, liberating; as, politically speaking, necessarily vital and good. Since I am resigned to raising many more questions than I can resolve in this blog post—and before I conclude by raising one more—I want to acknowledge, at least, that such objections have occurred to me, and that I count them valuable and unavoidable to any consideration of anger's political dimensions.

Having said that, let me venture one last suggestion, by recalling certain things broached in the first paragraph: the question about anger's necessity (its necessity considered apart from any particular justification—any particular set of sufficient conditions—for it); the allusion to citizens whose absolute power or political efficacy allows them to act without having to provide reasons, of whom it is reasonable to wonder, therefore, whether they ever actually feel anger as I've tried to discuss it (anger as opposed to those many cognate emotions like resentment, distaste, contempt, fear); and, finally, the possibility that anger may be felt, and expressed, toward an objective or end that is only partly definable within a given society's supply of good reasons. Could it be that angry words and angry acts are, politically speaking, necessary and irrepressible self-assertions; that they show a self already strong enough to say, and to expect to be heard saying, “this is wrong, this is intolerable”; that they are already ways of belonging to a political community rather than demure petitions to be admitted to it. There is no equivalence between my anger and Michael Brown's mother's own; there doesn't have to be. We have merely to recognize each other's anger for it to be impossible to live, any longer, as strangers.