Anger and Social Justice

What is the role of anger in creating greater social justice? Some say anger is justified and productive. Others say anger is unhelpful and thwarts progress. As usual, the truth is some where in between.

When one is in institutional contexts which are unjust – when one feels unheard, silenced, one’s voice minimized and labeled and degraded – anger is the inevitable emotional response. Along with being hurt, frustrated, doubting oneself and much else. But as one find’s one’s voice and comes to awareness of the institutional unfairness, anger is usually front and center. Anger is the wave through which one’s awareness grows.

But the form that initial anger takes is crucial: it usually focuses not just on some generic thing called the institution, but on particular people or groups of people. Anger being what it is, it needs as its fuel a particularity, a target, a locus of human agency which is experienced as wielding brute power. Anger is a response to the growing self-awareness of one’s self as oppressed in some way, and it is fueled by a sense that they, those over there, that person or group, are the oppressors.

Anger is one’s attunement to being ready and willing to fight. But fight what? The initial force of anger needs some person or group to be the object of the fight.

For many years in academia I hardly thought consciously about issues of pluralism. If the topic even came up, I pushed it aside, ignored it, said it isn’t relevant to philosophy. But as I started to realize just how wrong the current institutional set up of Eurocentrism is, and as I started to be able to hold that thought in my mind and see the world through that awareness, I started to feel angry.

Angry not just at academic philosophy in some abstract sense – though there is that kind of anger as well – but also angry at the people I trusted the most, and who, as teachers, I assumed were interested in my well being as a student. The more well known some of my teachers became (and that was inevitable, since I studied at Cornell and Harvard – which are part of the circles from which the “best of the generation” are picked, the way the Oscars picks out the “best” actors), and the more I felt that they were nonetheless not speaking to my concerns, it was natural that my anger would find its target in them. The anger needs an object to direct its attention the way fire needs oxygen.

But at a certain point it started to become clear that grounding the anger in this way – in this somewhat arbitary, biographical way – was getting in the way of the natural growth and transformation of my anger itself. And so was getting in the way of my own ability to understand the broader institutional forces which are perpetuating the unjust practices of Eurocentrism.

It is obvious enough that if an injustice is institutional, the root cause of it cannot be found in this or that actions of individuals. Particular people can reflect unthinkingly the prejudices and limitations of the institutions, but it is misplaced  – and hopeless, a dead end – to try to change the institution by fighting individuals. Especially when those individuals themselves don’t identify as the oppressors, and might also identify in some fashion as the oppressed – a clear sign that something much more complex is happening.

And it is easy enough to say, abstractly, “Yes, the problem is institutional, and not particular people who are the bad apples”. But stated just as an abstraction, it goes nowhere.

The growth of anger involves its own inner transformation.

If anger is the motivation for change, the first stage of anger is finding that motivation through opposing oneself to particular other people or groups. In this stage, if you feel compassion towards those other people, you feel as well your own inner momentum to create change being thwarted. As if compassion to those others means that you have no reason to be upset or to want change. As if it is an either / or. Either you are right or they are right. As if compassion can only be given to those who are right. If you are compassionate towards that other, if compassion is warranted, then they must be right, and so you must be wrong, and so everything is fine after all, and there is no need for institutional change.

Philosophy as a lived practice begins here, in this moment – where the anger starts to be able to hold compassion for all people alongside itself without the anger thereby disappearing or having been proved wrong or unnecessary. Philosophy as the search for wisdom begins as the anger transforms in such a way that it propels one to action without finding the motivation in particular other people who are deemed those who are wrong. When the desire for change, and one’s own motivation to change, is able to be motivated simply by the institutional disharmony and unjustice, without having to demonize any particular people.

In such growth, there is a release from the toxic effects of the first stages of anger, where one emotionally still needs the category of the oppressor as the target of blame and vitriol, as if that other person or group still holds me captive because I need to push myself off against them, as opposed to them, in contrast to them, to feel my own will power and capacity to change.

Of course, this isn’t to say there is no oppressor in a day to day sense. There is still the sexual harasser, the racist, the misogynist or the bully. But as the anger transforms and grows, there is also the possibility to see past the harasser or the racist as the locus of evil and oppression to seeing the broader social, cultural, institutional forces which shaped that harasser or racist. To see those broader forces not in a way of excusing the racist, but in a way of seeing that the wrongness of the racist’s actions are not captured within the individual agency of that racist – as if one just has to fight his will and transform it – but within broader structures which the racist himself is unaware of, and is unconsciously channeling.

It is the transformation which allows one to realize that one sees more than the oppressor, one sees the limits and limitations of the oppressor, see that the oppressor in a deep way is stuck and unable to change from within himself. But that I, though my anger and now the transformation of that anger, am able to see more than that person or them. That I am able to find the motivation for social justice and change within myself, as an agent of change of the existing institutional forces, and not just as someone reacting against particular people or groups or past actions.

Anger transformed in this way hardens into purpose or meaning in one’s life. A sense of inner direction, a large, vast telos or goal or end to be reached that one is moving towards of one’s own volition and inner motivation. Not just as a reaction or as a solace, but as the unfolding of the implicit sculpture within the unsculpted stone.

And yes, the anger will still be there. Like a fire in the furnace heating the house. But one feels its heat, and find motivation through that heat, without feeling consumed by it. Without feeling defined by it. While being more at peace with it.

2 thoughts on “Anger and Social Justice

  1. terenceblake

    I began reading philosophy in high school, all by myself, and quite naturally it was all about my concerns. Not that this automatically meant non-technical philosophy. I loved mathematics and physics, and I read all of Bertrand Russell, from Principia Mathematica to Human Knowledge Its Scope and Limits. I read the logical positivists, Wittgenstein, and Whitehead, but also all of Nietzsche, most of Freud, Schopenhauer, Sartre, and Camus. But I also read the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, the Koran, Meister Eckhart, Daisetz Suzuki and Alan Watts. All of these spoke to my concerns, and they all seemed interconnected. When I began my first year of philosophy at the University I learnt that none of that had any relevance. Russell was totally out of date, and Wittgenstein mostly so (although he became pertinent again in later years). Existentialism was not really philosophy, and “Eastern” philosophy was not even philosophy. This was in sublimated form similar to the typical “degradation ceremony” that Goffman describes.for the entry into prisons and asylums.

    After this initial dismissal of virtually everything that spoke to my concerns I was left with a basic vocabulary and a desiccated set of ideas, images, and arguments left over from my former free reading to help me understand and appropriate what was proposed to me as “real” philosophy. I had many positive reactions from staff as to my erudition and commitment, but also many negative reactions, declaring “that is not philosophy” or even more humiliating : “perhaps some form of navel-gazing in India would be more appropriate”. And these responses were from the most open of the staff members.

    I did not have the problem of race that you talk about, but the problem of social class. I came from a poor, working class family and I ended up in a Marxist philosophy department. I could not understand how people who had obviously read much less philosophy than me, and far less widely, but who espoused egalitarian ideas and solidarity with the oppressed classes could talk down to me so superciliously and do everything they could to keep me isolate and cut off from real career opportunities. I lived this as my inferiority and as depression.

    I became a passionate defender of pluralism, the only one in the department, and I was respected as such. “Respected” means that my arguments were taken seriously, as long as no career prospects were at stake. I was “respected” but squeezed out of any but the most temporary and partial employments, until I could not take it any more, and obtained a French scholarship to go to the other side of the world (from Sydney to Paris) to study pluralism there. But this move, however rich it was intellectually, meant, in my case, being resigned to no career at all. So my greatest victory was also my greatest defeat.

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Thanks, Terence, for sharing about your life and your journey regarding pluralism. Yes, in a time when pluralism is still so easily dismissed, standing for it always comes at a cost. But it is through people like you, me and so many others standing for it nonetheless that change can – and will – come.

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