I was recently struck by a comment from a 60s activist. Reflecting on the 60s experience in Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer, he said something about how society saw activists at the time as angry – but they never stopped to ask why they were angry.
Anger is, I suppose, something of an uncouth emotion.
It can lead to violent verbal, emotional, or physical outbursts. It can lead to damage and harm – perhaps importantly, misdirected damage and harm.
It can leave a wake a devastation akin to a natural disaster.
“Anger is a corrosive emotion that can run off with your mental and physical health,” says Psychology Today.
The American Psychological Association is somewhat more generous, admitting that “anger can be a good thing,” but warning that “excessive anger can cause problems.”
Yet there is something undeniably valuable – something importantly good – about anger.
David Adams, psychologist and coordinator of the Culture of Peace News Network, argues that anger can play an important role in social action, that “anger is the stimulus that initiates action.”
One study out of Rutgers takes this argument a step further, looking at The link between moral anger and social activism.
“Some individuals who have experienced anger as a result of growing up under a system(s) of injustice to transform their anger into moral anger and subsequently into activism,” the study says. “Individuals who experience moral anger often perceive their anger as righteous and justified, linked to something greater than individual self-interest.”
If the opposite of anger is complacency – I’d rather have anger.
But it’s not enough to have the anger – to recognize that others are angry. We need to ask where that anger comes from, understand what drives that anger.
Chuck Palahniuk, in an oft-quote scene from Fight Club, writes, “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
There’s something about that line which resonated deeply with many in my age range, but there’s something critical I always felt Palahniuk left out.
We were lied to, yes.
But it wasn’t just the lie that one day we’d all be millionaires. It was the lie that all our problems had been solved.
That the social movements of the 60s had wrapped everything up nice for us. That we lived in a post-racial society where any kid could grow up to be president and where everyone would be accepted for who they are.
Things were supposed to be perfect now.
But we’ve watched our friends die. We’ve watched unarmed black men die. We’ve watched social injustices stay deeply entrenched while the powers that be utter soft explanations.
We’ve been raise to believe that we we’re nearing utopia, that we would all enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact.
And we’re very, very pissed off.