Monthly Archives: January 2016

Does Anger Lead to the Dark Side?

Anger is generally considered to be an “negative” emotion.

It is often intense, powerful, and unpleasant for everyone around it. The emotion may have several negative health effects, and may be especially bad for your heart. Anger management resources are widespread. Because of the problematic nature of anger, that it is “such a forceful negative emotion and makes people uncomfortable,” as one Psychology Today article puts it, “taboos about expressing it are widespread.”

To further complicate matters, many psychologists “believe that holding anger in is bad for you, that it only builds pressure to be expressed.” On the other hand, the American Psychological Association (APA) now says that freely expressing anger may be “a dangerous myth” used “as a license to hurt others.” Furthermore,  “research has found that ‘letting it rip’ with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you’re angry with) resolve the situation.”

Feeding into the taboo nature of anger, it seems as though our best solution is to simply not have any anger in the first place – thus avoiding the conundrum of holding it in or letting it out.

Recognizing the seeming impossibility of simply deleting anger from our lives, the APA puts this a little more constructively, recommending: “It’s best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge.”

This strikes me as the advice you give when you don’t know what to say.

Most notably, this advice seems to imply that most anger is unjustified. Figure out what makes you angry and avoid it, the way a person with Celiac ought to avoid gluten.

But what if what makes you angry is…injustice? What if you are angry because of historical legacies of power and oppression, because of deep disparities which are so entrenched as to seem normal?

A coping mechanism hardly seems appropriate for the task.

In one of the few memorable lines from The Phantom Menace, Yoda uses a line of thought similar to the APA when he proclaims, “Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.”

Yet, this is the the logic of someone in power – it subtly assumes that anger is little more than the selfish reaction of someone who doesn’t get their way.

There is, of course, a certain truth to Yoda’s claim – there are plenty of instances throughout history where fear mongering has proven to be an effective, though unfortunate, tool for power, hate, and suffering.

But the idea that all anger intrinsically leads to hate goes too far.

This is a danger, no doubt, but the power of justified anger is a force to be reckoned with. A power which can critically be harnessed for positive social change.

As Hitendra Wadhwa writes in a 2012 piece on Martin Luther King:

Great leaders do not ignore their anger, nor do they allow themselves to get consumed by it. Instead, they channel the emotion into energy, commitment, sacrifice, and purpose. They use it to step up their game.  And they infuse people around them with this form of constructive anger so they, too, can be infused with energy commitment, sacrifice and purpose. In the words of King in Freedomways magazine in 1968, “The supreme task [of a leader] is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” 



Radical Acts of Kindness

The phrase “random acts of kindness” is most commonly attributed to author Anne Herbert. In 1982, in Sausalito, California, Herbert wrote on a placemat:

Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty

The phrase was then popularly refined to “practice random acts of kindness.” Growing up in California in the 1980s, this phrase was everywhere.

I never really liked it.

I appreciate the sentiment – kindness towards others is generally a good thing – but random acts of kindness? Here’s what I imagine:

I am out in the world. I see a person in distress. I have the ability, with little cost or effort, to provide help or support. I flip a coin.

Randomly, I decide whether or not to be kind.

Surely, this is not what Herbert intended, but nevertheless, the phrase seems inappropriate. Random kindness removes intentionality, agency, context. Random kindness is predictable, perhaps, on average but generally no better than fumbling around in the dark. A random choice between kindness and inaction.

I propose a different phrase: radical acts of kindness.

Perhaps kindness seems so passé as to be the opposite of radical. As a social norm, kindness is generally accepted to be good.

Sort of.

Consider the work of philosopher Peter Singer. In his 2002 book One World, he shares a example he conducts with his class. He starts by quoting Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick:

We should all agree that each of us in bound to show kindness to his parents and spouse and children, and to other kinsmen in a less degree: and to those who have rendered services to him, and any others whom he may have admitted to his intimacy and called friends: and to neighbors and to fellow-countrymen more than others…

Singer writes, “When I read this list to my students, they nod their heads in agreement at the various circles of moral concern Sidgwick mentions.” And this all does seem more or less reasonable: you care most for your closest family, and then for your closest friends, and then more generally for your acquaintances and connections. Every person in the world can be mapped to your various circles of concern, indicating, approximately, how much kindness you ought to show to them.

But Sidgwick is not through. He did, after all, write more than a century ago. His quote continues:

…and perhaps we may say [we are bound to show kindness] to those of our own race more than to black or yellow men, and generally to human beings in proportion to their affinity to ourselves.

Well, that got awkward. Singer shares that at this point, his students “sit up in shock.”

And it is shocking. To go from caring more for your immediate family to being an racist seems like quite a leap. It hardly seems immoral if I prefer to donate a kidney to a loved one rather than a stranger, yet, as Singer points out, there is something troubling to these circles of concern.

This element is particularly troubling in conjunction with the numerous studies which show that people tend to self-segregate into “like” groups. Again, it doesn’t seem intrinsically immoral to want to spend time with people you can easily relate to – yet if we grow closest to those most like us, and we care most for those we are close to…the ultimate result is a self-fulfilling loop of power and supremacy.

Singer argues that we need to reset our sense of “like”, seeing all humanity as part of our global community. Our neighbors are suffering, and it makes no different whether they are 10 blocks away or 10 thousand miles away. He proposes a specific policy solution – donating a minimum of 1% of your income to those most in need. But even with this practical implementation, he provides little guidance on how to shift one’s thinking and feeling.

This is where we get to radical acts of kindness.

Perhaps there are circles of concern – even Singer concedes that it’s reasonable to care for your family more than strangers. I’m inclined to agree with Singer that, especially among strangers, we need to shift who we see as “like” ourselves, but this shift doesn’t address the fact that there’s a basic inequity to the circle of concern model.

Singer’s plan would address global poverty while doing little to confront the deep racial and social injustice experienced in our own country.

A radical act of kindness is being kinder than social norm would generally dictate. Showing true care for someone you hardly know, regardless of their distance from you, regardless of their likeness to you.

Radical kindness is pushing the boundaries of those circles, changing the norms of how much kindness is proper to show. Radical kindness seeks to go beyond social obligations.

Such radical acts of kindness are not easy, and those circles of concern will never – and perhaps should not – go away. But we can each push the boundary of what it means to care for our fellow man, each seek to make the word a little better – not randomly, but radically.


Words as Actions

A common critique of dialogue is that it is “just talk.” That is: it’s useless to talk about injustice if we don’t act to confront injustice.

This is a reasonable complaint, yet it minimizes the value of dialogue – relegating words to a hollow role of little to no meaning.

I’ve been reading J. L. Austin’s How To Do Things With Words, a compilation of notes from his 1962 William James Lectures. Far from deriding words as “just talk,” Austin starts by examining words as actions.

These performative statements, as he calls them, are verbal actions. Words that accomplish an act.

When getting married, a person says, “I do.” That statement is the act of marrying. When naming a ship, a person might declare “I name this ship…”. To make an accusation, one would rightly say: “I accuse…”

These words are actions.

Austin spends much of his time examining how performative statements such as these may be “unhappy” or infelicitous – a person may not have the authority to name a ship, one person may say “I do” while the other has a change of heart. And, of course, there are those particularly devious forms of infelicity – a person may be insincere in their statements, they may lie or have other intentions.

Such infelicity may abort or debase an action, but Austin has no doubt that there is a class of felicitous speech-acts, which are, indeed, acts.

Consider the sentence, “I promise that…” This, Austin argues, is an action in itself: “It is not a description, because (I) it could not be false, nor, therefore, true; (2) saying ‘I promise that’ (if happy, of course) makes it a promise, and makes it unambiguously a promise.”

Not all talk is performative, of course, though Austin concedes that in a certain sense, all speaking is an act.

When we issue any utterance whatsoever, are we not ‘doing something’? Certainly the ways in which we talk about ‘action’ are liable here, as elsewhere, to be confusing. For example, we may contrast men of words with men of action, we may say they did nothing, only talked or said things: yet again, we may contrast only thinking something with actually saying it (out loud), in which context saying it is doing something.

Yet, Austin’s true interest in performative statements is deeper than simply the act of speaking as an act itself. To clarify this point, Austin sorts the act of “issuing an utterance” into three categories: you can make a sound, you can say a word, or you can – essentially – make a performative statement. Austin here calls this a “rhetic” act.

To be clear, not all sounds are this type of action, but Austin is voracious in his argument that rhetic acts are important and should not be dismissed as “just words.”

Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons: and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them…

And here we have the crux of the matter: words not only have meaning, they have consequences. Words that are true acts, which are more than “just talk,” have impacts on everyone around us.

Those who decry “just talk” are right to deride hollow or infelicitous comments when action is what’s needed. But Austin, too, is right to highlight the value of words: the value of words as actions, words which can make change.