The United States of Anger

by Robyn Repko Waller

Photo by Camila Quintero Franco on Unsplash

In the United States these days, it’s difficult to find a person not profoundly angry about something. Headlines scream of the vaccinated America tired, frustrated, and angry at the vaccine-hesitant and anti-vaxxers. And unvaccinated America in turn, outraged at the local jurisdiction and vaccinated for the increasing restrictions they face in attending school, dining indoors, and enjoying the gym and theater without conceding to a COVID jab. Angry parents are expressing exhausted outrage at school boards for mask policies. Outrage at mask mandates. Outrage at a lack thereof. 

The anger isn’t confined to the pandemic. Our social and political landscape is bubbling with anger. Anger at politicians, left and right. Outrage in the form of cancelling. Responding anger at the ‘Cancel Culture.’ Anger about the Afghanistan withdrawal and the tragic humanitarian aftermath. Anger at continued social injustice stateside and abroad. Conversely for some, anger directed at social justice activists. Outrage for the teaching of Critical Race Theory. Anger — but perhaps not enough — that climate change, disrupting and catastrophically reshaping our Earth and its populace, remains largely unaddressed. So much anger. 

Americans are angry. But is all of this anger really warranted? And even if it’s warranted, does it do us any good? With the amount of negative appraisal emoted as of late, it seems like a fitting time to step back and explore these concerns. 

This is especially so, as political polarization is no longer a novel phenomenon in the US. Whereas once one might take such claims of political shifts to be hype, recent electoral and public health crises stand out as manifest expressions of polarizing views and self-contained communities. Divided towns, divided co-workers, even deeply divided families. Anger at a perceived other is a prominent feature of our current standing. Moreover, clashing moral views plausibly underpin this growing schism in society. 

Such tangled and heated matters cannot begin to unravel in the space of a few short paragraphs. I don’t pretend to be an expert on these matters. But attention to the philosophy of anger and its analysis of our sociopolitical predicament is instructive in framing a start at sorting out the nature of angry and its place in our moral and political communities. My task here, then, will be to highlight those framing questions for further consideration. 

 Let’s start, then, with the basics. What is anger? The discussion of anger and its nature has a long history dating back to the Ancients, with Seneca and Aristotle through the Buddhist tradition to contemporary philosophers. I’ll focus here on (a small snapshot of) the contemporary dialogue. 

First, many philosophers are careful to separate out anger from the narrower species of anger, moral anger. I can be angry that my coffee machine broke before my morning cup was brewed. I can be, at least loosely speaking, livid with the machine for breaking. Alas, no offender (besides perhaps myself here) is to be found. 

Moral anger, then, is an affective reaction to a slight. In this way anger is distinguished from general frustration or fear. Where by slight, we mean a wrong committed, either against me or against others. The targeted wrong-doing can run the gambit of a relatively minor slight and one committed against me (or another individual) to an injustice, perhaps impacting many. But in all instances, a wrong was committed, and the resultant anger targets the wrong and the wrong-doer. Wrong-doers, too, can be individual persons but need not. Racial and gender injustice do, as we know, take systemic forms. Anger takes on multifaceted expressions from fleeting anger to strong outrage to indignation and resentment. We are sometimes angry at ourselves. Anger at ourselves for our own recognized wrong-doing. 

Anger is often discussed as an emotion to be avoided. Parenting classes and anger management attest to the seeming irrationality and negative effects of anger for the angry and their loved ones and affiliates. Didn’t figures the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi counsel us to turn away from anger in our pursuit of justice?, some implore. In this way, one might be tempted to dismiss the flurry of anger in the US as a negative development. How can the US pull out of its myriad of crises in a fit of anger? 

But some philosophers of affect and politics have voiced strong support of moral anger, appropriately harnessed, as a motivating force of change in society. For instance, whereas philosophers such as Nussbaum have raised concerns that anger is, at times, an emotion that asserts superior status of the angry over the offender, others like Cherry have argued that anger can aid in equality-seeking endeavors.

Whereas theorists such as Scarantino and Pettigrove link anger, to aggressive responses and projected anger onto innocent parties, respectively, Cherry argues that appropriate anger is motivational and productive. Cherry, whose book A Case for Rage is forthcoming in November, argues that appropriate anger as an emotion “leads one to work towards pursuing justice in ways that are moral and focused on reading the goal of justice” (4). Indeed, the case has recently been made to think of anger when appropriately expressed as a virtue, as in harmony with love as an attitude, as preventative of further offenses, in addition to its role in addressing committed wrongs. 

The United States as a divided nation is angry. It’s uncomfortable and vociferous. Some of it misdirected and counterproductive, to be sure. But anger, when appropriately directed, can also be inspiring. Moral anger as a catalyst of progress and justice.