Anger as a Constructive Force

Note: This is kind of an old post, but I think it’s still useful.

I’m sure that many of you have heard variations on the following:

“You’re just too angry. Your anger alienates people/potential allies and might make them afraid to associate with you! They won’t want to be on your side because of your anger.”

This statement, or a variation thereof, is often wielded at feminists, people of color (particularly women of color), radical progressives, non-mainstream members of the LGBTIQA community, disabled and chronically ill folks, atheists, fat acceptance activists, and others in order to get them to capitulate to some weird, unseen social standard that requires that they not offend anyone even as they fight to be heard and taken seriously, as well as for social and political justice.

There is a difference between being angry for its own sake, and turning one’s anger into action. For whatever reason, mainstream Western culture has decided that people who have historically been put down, devalued and mistreated by those in the majority should fight for their rights, but they should “be nice” while they do so. The messages that historically devalued groups have to get across, even if said messages are quite radical, should apparently be palatable even to the people who have the most social currency in mainstream society. What’s radical about that?

Anger makes people fundamentally uncomfortable, and I think that this discomfort often discourages constructive work. When those who need to express their anger, somehow, are not allowed to do so, the anger can become toxic. Instead of a catalyst for change, it becomes a symptom of a missed opportunity.

My own anger is something that I’ve just begun to embrace after years of stuffing it down and having it reappear at other times, often to my own detriment. Certainly, I may be too angry. I may indeed alienate people with some of my words. However, do I really want those who cannot “handle” what I have to say as allies, if I have to add, for example, rainbows and unicorns and puppies to my outlook on the world in order to make my outlook more palatable? No.

Anger, if used in a constructive manner, can be a great creative force. Most of the cartoons that I draw and have drawn start or started as brief doodles about things that make me or have made me angry. When I can create something that has been inspired by my own strong feelings, I feel much better and more able to cope with things such as my illness, and the physical pain and fatigue that come with it. When I take the opposite tack–that is, when I hold my anger in and don’t do anything with it–I feel worse.

[Originally posted at HAM.BLOG on August 7, 2008.]

7 Comments

  1. Excellent post! I’ve written about similar stuff, but you said it so much better than me. I think you’re absolutely right to stress that the real political allies have to be able to hear some anger and deal with it. I resent having to stick disclaimers like “of course not all non-disabled people do this — this is about institutional, not individual bias…” onto everything I say, because people should be able to decide for themselves whether they need to be included in my anger or not, and if they genuinely don’t then they won’t be all “I’m not like that!”, but will be agreeing with the points about institutional bias.

    “people who have historically been put down, devalued and mistreated by those in the majority should fight for their rights, but they should “be nice” while they do so.”

    Yep. And while one often is more effective an advocate while being very polite (precisely because of this), it can be very difficult and limiting if you’re trying to explain to someone why something they said was completely unacceptable and uber-bigoted, if you are not “allowed” to point out their bias. This is what I find most difficult: it’s not that I can’t be polite (perhaps frostily) to people even when I’m pretty angry. It’s that saying something like “That’s sexist” (or insert kind of bias) will be taken as “unacceptable rudeness and I don’t like your tone how dare you” even if said perfectly politely. That is, the standards of “being nice” are much more stringent.

    –IP

  2. Anger has been a part of my mood-swings and is quite off-putting. I’m all cheery and happy and then ten minutes later I’m ready to bite some heads off USE YOUR TURN SIGNAL!!! *as the passenger*

    It’s off-putting (and makes others angry – control yourself!) to me and others, because I have no control over how I feel, and there’s a chance I’ll yell, but not very likely.

    But remember when I wrote a letter to the editor (unpublished) about insulting “crazy people” a couple weeks back? So refreshing to be angry and know the source and what proper action to take. And the letter required no revisions, and was quite calm, I think.

    And then I went off on somebody online who told me to have a good attitude. Shut my computer, I’m done with this! Then I come back and thank him for pissing me off, because venting felt sooo good. (Fight Club influence?)

    What do people say, “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention”? Constructive anger gets things done, but too many people (especially women) don’t want to make a fuss and we get destructive and constructive anger mixed up. Me stealing all the school papers in a fit of rage as a student did earlier – destructive (though she just put them in trashcans). Writing a letter – constructive, even if it didn’t get published.

  3. i’m generally on the side of the angry people. i am often surprised people aren’t more angry, what with the incredible level of bullshit going on.

  4. There was a similar topic like this on the Harpyness blog yesterday.

    For me I think I’ve been able to harness anger for good, Buuuuuuut…

    …only after spending hours/days/WEEKS in a state of rage-rage-rage.
    Sometimes, if I see things that are just so wrong – maybe not factually wrong although that’s happened too but like, put a deliberately hurtful way – I’m having a hard time dealing with the initial anger. I’m not comfortable with my own initial anger because I tend to lash out more when I’m anger and that just makes things worse in the long run. They’ll (a general ‘they’) make fun of me for being angry in the first place.

    It takes a long time for it to dissipate to the point where I can write out why I was angry in the first place. And by then whatever hot topic was hot, has gone cold!

    That’s what’s on my mind. But like… when other people are angry. Like if it’s anger within the feminist blogosphere I think it’s easier for me to take the other person’s perspective & see why they’re angry, than it is for them to do the same for me. Like feminism has taught me a lot about other people’s anger so why can’t I embrace my own.

  5. This needs to be said more often. I loved this part:

    “mainstream Western culture has decided that people who have historically been put down, devalued and mistreated by those in the majority should fight for their rights, but they should “be nice” while they do so.”

    When was anything achieved by being “nice”?

  6. thank-you for this post. i’m still trying to figure out, day by day, what to *do with* my anger. but at least i don’t have to try to hide that i’m angry any more.

  7. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately. I find that I rationally agree with it, but instinctively don’t want to get into screaming matches. So I’ve been trying to work out a framework for constructive anger, for anger that doesn’t blind you to your own problems, for anger that doesn’t make you incoherent (unless, of course, it occurs in a context that does not punish incoherence, like performance art).

    Because, after all, as you say – the point is turning your anger into action. And that action needs to be effective, otherwise it really is just anger for its own sake, isn’t it? Who are we getting angry at, and who are we telling about it, and what do we hope to accomplish with that? What form does our anger take, and in what medium? Do we wish to clue people in to the simple fact that we are here, and we are not happy? Or do we want to convince some specific person of some specific point? I think both those goals are admirable, but I’ve noticed people blurring the lines to the point of undermining their own purpose.

    And yet, how do you tell someone that they’re doing that, without saying, or sounding like you’re saying, “be less angry”? This is something I’ve been struggling with.