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.
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.”