Should We Never Get Angry?
As with all negative emotions, it serves a purpose. It alerts you to the fact that there is something within you that requires your attention. As any trauma specialist will tell you, anger is your cue that a boundary has been violated. It the emotion that pushes you to stand up for yourself. This is why negative emotions shouldn’t be suppressed or ignored.
That said, anger can be expressed in healthy ways and unhealthy ways, both on an individual and a collective level:
Healthy anger, also known as righteous anger, seeks restoration.
Unhealthy anger, also known as rage, seeks destruction.
When it comes to social issues, you often see a lot of people wielding their anger in unhealthy ways: anger without compassion. It is an all or nothing approach. You’re either with us or you’re against us, and you must be angry, or else you don’t care.
Rage creates mob mentalities, for example: several years ago in St. Louis, a video got out on Facebook of two 14-year-old boys mistreating a dog. The commentary on that video from animal lovers in the community–people who want to rescue every wayward critter–was appalling. They were calling for the death penalty… for two children.
Rage seeks destruction in the form of death, rather that restoration in the form of rehabilitation.
I volunteered at animal rescue in one of the most poverty stricken cities in the country (East St. Louis, IL) for six years. Many rescues used moral outrage as a motivator to create social change because it mobilized people, but the side effect is that it also radicalized people and stripped them of their empathy for humans–and I saw this attitude from people in the community on regular basis, as demonstrated by the example above.
While anger can certainly be useful when channeled constructively, it isn’t always necessary to enact change. You don’t have to be angry to make a difference in the world, and just because someone is not outraged, it doesn’t mean they are apathetic or passive to the plight of others. There are a multitude of constructive emotions that one can express in reaction to the suffering of another: Care. Concern. Empathy. Sympathy.
I was the Vice President of the Board of Directors for my rescue as well as the Director of Marketing and Public Relations. I saw horrible things done to innocent animals, but anger was never in the equation. We made the conscious decision to focus on the positive side of animal rescue – the happy endings – and forgo the gory sad images that so many other organizations deluged the public with on a daily basis. We found great success with it and were able to enact sweeping changes in the community we served without resorting to outrage.
Part of our organization’s mission was to work with the community we served instead of against it. If outrage were our primary motivator, we’d only focus on punishing animal abusers after the fact rather than using community education efforts to attempt to prevent it from ever happening in the first place.
You might see people saying hateful things with regard to Black Lives Matter. I’ve had people call me racist against white people for talking about white privilege. But BLM is mostly righteous anger. It seeks restoration in the form of justice for those who have been wrongfully murdered, and reparation in the form of reform and change.
A lot of spiritual people will want to shut that down. A lot of nonspiritual people will want to shut that down. Not because it’s ignorant or misinformed, not because it’s without compassion or advocating violence… but because it triggers a shame response.
If someone else’s demand for restoration triggers an emotional response in you, that signals a need to look inward. Which person holds the power in this situation? Who is the person that’s supposed to be the leader? That’s the person who has the moral obligation heal the situation. (Credit to John Wineland for this bit) In the case of Black Lives Matter, white people hold systemic power. The majority of the leaders in our government and other organizations of authority are white. That makes them–along with white people–morally obligated to heal the situation.
As I mentioned earlier, healthy anger is your cue that a boundary has been violated. When someone repeatedly violates your boundaries, it is considered abuse.
In a one-to-one relationship, you have the ability to cut off a repeat-offender who is abusing you. In a societal structure, you can’t cut yourself off from the rest of society because you live in it. Righteous anger is your only option to end the cycle of abuse, and that means enough people have to get angry and demand change (restoration).
When you’re being abused by or within a power structure, you need allies (the people in the position of power) to take responsibility for helping you, just like a child in an abusive environment needs the intervention of caring adults, and animals in an abusive environment need the intervention of caring humans. An adult can be angry when a child has been abused. An adult can be angry at the people who enabled that abuse. And that adult can use that anger to demand restoration in the form of justice. That’s what it looks like when the person in power is performing their moral obligation and channeling their anger in a healthy manner.
So if you feel yourself unsure of how to navigate social anger, and whether or not anger is justified, ask yourself:
- What is my initial response to this anger? Do I feel attacked? Do I want to shut down?
- Am I the person in the position of power in this situation? (Power = Privilege)
- Is a boundary being violated?
- Is the person in power the one violating the boundary?
- Does my anger demand restoration? Or destruction?
- What is my moral obligation in this situation?
Hope this helps. Keep calm and march on.
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