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Radical Repression- Why we wouldn’t thrive without anger

Anger is heavily policed in our lives. We’re taught not to show anger, to hold it in, to shut it up (unless we happen to live in New York City). Then we’re told to be angry about this, that and everything that’s happening on the news, to project anger onto our television shows, the political scandal of the week and the lives of celebrities. We’re not supposed to be angry at  injustices inflicted upon us by people without personal integrity or the defective institutions that we experience in everyday life. We are supposed to be angry in political life. We’re supposed to be perfectly repressed and constantly angry.

How do we resolve the schizophrenia of this approach?

Radical Chill

Martha Nussbaum, author of Anger and Forgiveness, has one answer: give up anger altogether.

There’s no denying that in the context of American society in particular, several of her arguments are compelling.

America, Nussbaum argues, is a frontier culture which glorifies the ‘masculine’, ‘powerful’ emotion of anger at the expense of ‘feminine’ cool-headed reasoning. Well, as one of the billions of people subjected to long-term bombardment by America’s cultural production and political foibles, I can’t really argue with that.

The results of this cultural bias are destructive. The United States has the largest prison population per capita of any developed country, around 700 per 100,000 people, a consequence of its ‘tough on crime’ posturing. This is around seven times the European average, twice as many as South Africa, and more even than Russia. That rate consistently increased over the 1990s and 2000s, even as actual crime rates have consistently fallen since 1990.

Crime itself is another area where Nussbaum sees the persistent and increasing social and economic marginalisation of large parts of the American population mixing with the false catharsis of angry responses. In fact, the anger so palpable in US political life comes from that same feeling of helplessness, the sense that the country and considerable numbers of its people are not only stuck, but have far worse prospects than their parents’ generation. The result is a crowd ready for the blame game- it’s the illegal immigrants, it’s the drugs, it’s the corrupt politicians, it’s big government, and on and on.

The trouble is, none of that anger addresses the real sources of the problems. By prioritising short-term catharsis, this kind of anger virtually ensures that no deep deconstruction of the real sources of that helplessness will take place.

As with crime and criminal justice, it’s all about lashing out, getting payback.

So what can we do about it? Nussbaum suggests that anger should be discouraged by society, and in the first instance by parents raising children to repress their anger.

Appropriate and Inappropriate Anger

This is where the argument runs into two problems. First, Nussbaum embraces a definition of anger convenient to her view of it, or at least tailored to the American context. Anger, she argues, requires a desire for payback, otherwise it’s not anger. She leaves no room for any other kind of anger, let alone a legitimate and necessary role for the emotion. Second, she ignores the consequences of suppressing anger.

Dr. Gabor Maté, well-known Canadian physician, author and palliative care specialist, has intensively studied the emotional lives of people afflicted with chronic diseases from cancer to heart disease to Alzheimer’s to irritable bowel syndrome. The link between dysfunctional emotional life, especially in relation to anger, and chronic disease, is very strong.

He identifies three behaviours regarding the expression of anger. These are internalised at a very young age, largely in response to the behaviours of parents. One behaviour is anger as Nussbaum defines it, anger that becomes the primary means of self-definition. This way lies demonstrative rage, habitual anger, desire for payback, blame for particular groups and so on. Such people have trouble not expressing anger. They begin to define themselves and their control over their own lives by their ability to inflict their anger on other people. People firmly entrenched in this kind of anger tend to suffer from heart disease.

Another behaviour is the repression of anger. For the people most affected, every interaction is an exercise in rigid self-control. It is not alright for them to defend themselves, to express their discomfort, to stand up for themselves when they’ve been wronged.

Their upbringing has taught them that their relationships cannot survive that. They become the ones who need to be perfect and hold things together and repress their feelings and needs in order to make things work. They try to become what others want them to be, and as a result, they are unable to break away from toxic and abusive situations. Addictions and certain forms of cancer are particularly associated with this emotional state.

Neither of these options represent a healthy relationship to anger. As the consequences of repression illustrate, anger does have a legitimate role. It is our defence mechanism when something is not right, when we’re being harmed or taken advantage of. Biologically speaking, people with a healthy relationship to anger tend to relax as soon as they’ve fully expressed themselves. Anger should be relaxing. What a concept!

What they want is not payback, but rectification of an injustice. They want to express their needs and be heard. Healthy anger is simply a homeostatic imbalance that motivates us to restore the balance, like many other biological processes- thirst, hunger, feeling too warm or too cold. This is anger that can motivate, but can also act intelligently. It is an empowering force that drives us to protect ourselves and change unacceptable things, but also gives us the control to do so in a measured way.

What Nussbaum ignores is the biology of our social interactions. There is a big difference between the American cowboy approach to anger which she derides- you’re weak if you don’t respond to injustice with towering, demonstrative anger- and the biological fact that even quietly standing firm requires anger, that basic biological impulse, to empower us. That’s what anger is for. Standing firm requires a relationship to anger where we understand that it is safe, permitted and even good to express that need for redress.

If anger is always repressed and discouraged by society, that will not happen. We will clamp down on that dangerous biological signal because of what it might do, rather than letting ourselves come to a healthy balance where we are able to speak up for ourselves. In assuming that anger does not exist if it is not destructive, Nussbaum also implicitly assumes the existence of a biologically impossible space where self-assertion, especially against more powerful or threatening people, can exist without the empowerment of anger.

In short, if we really followed Nussbaum’s prescription, three things would happen. First, a large part of the population would lose the emotional capability to defend itself or effect meaningful change in the world. Second, the people biologically predisposed to anger would respond by dysfunctionally overexpressing their anger, as in option one. Third, the world would not become a better place.

A World of Anger and Repression

This is a world filled with dysfunctional anger. From the stereotype of the young-and-angry single-issue activist to the radical adherents of ideologies to the militant nationalists of the world, there are lots of people reveling in unproductive anger.

But it’s also a world filled with inappropriate repression of anger. People who are told to shut up and grin and bear the unendurable, who are told there’s no way for them to change the systems that have failed them, people who are unable to satisfy the basic biological purpose of anger, the resolution of every human being’s basic need for justice. Is it any wonder that these people, deformed by that repression, look for other outlets to lash out?

We as a society have created vast systems, many of which are vastly disempowering to most people. We are told to let these systems determine our fates, our worth, how we will be treated, whether or not we will be able to redress the harms that have been done to us, and very often they fail to do so equitably. It is time to realise that we have gone too far in taking agency and self-determination away from people and communities and putting it in systems over which they have no control. After all, healthy anger is about just that- agency in the building of an equitable society.

Until we restore that personal agency in the cause of integrity, until that becomes our norm and our expectation for everyone, we cannot expect that our societies will achieve a healthy relationship to anger. Until we replace the false dualism of demonstrative anger and repression with a norm of the healthy medium of constructive anger, most of us will keep sliding from one extreme to the other. Healthy anger needs space to be heard without needing to shout. It needs to be able to speak without being slapped down.

Heart Disease: The Real Risk Factors

Cardiovascular disease in all its forms remains a major killer in the modern world, and a painful reality for many people who have to live with it. But new research is changing old views about the risk factors.



Dr. Thomas Cowen began researching Acute Coronary Syndrome- the constellation of symptoms from angina through heart attack- when he came across the research of Brazilian cardiologist Quintilaino H. de Mesquita.

Cholesterol Did It

The classical theory of what causes heart attack, simply put, is the buildup of plaque in the arteries. The heart gets into trouble because we ingest too much cholesterol, which clogs our arteries, meaning that the heart doesn’t get enough blood. As theories go, it’s attractive for its simplicity. We know that our arteries can get clogged. Anyone can find pictures of hearts with all sorts of calcification or other crap on them. Of course, most of what blocks our arteries is inflammatory debris, not cholesterol, but still, they get blocked.

…Or Was It Something Else?

What this research, and a raft of separate studies over the past fifty years, has shown, is that blocked arteries seem to have very little real correlation to heart attack. A 1998 paper by Mirakami, for example, showed that 30% of heart attack patients had no arterial blockage. A twenty-five year autopsy study of heart attack victims further found that only about sixteen percent of those who died immediately had enough arterial blockage to explain the heart attack.

So what’s happening the rest of the time? Well, a number of distinguished cardiologists over the years have acknowledged that heart attacks originate in the muscle of the heart, not the arteries. The body automatically begins to reroute blood flow in the event an artery is blocked. What Mesquita’s research showed was that factors such as stress, nutritional deficiency, diabetes and so on affect the small blood vessels in the heart muscle itself, starving these cells of the nutrients they need. Because the heart is always active, these cells revert to anaerobic energy sources, which produce lactic acid buildup- just as your leg muscles do during a run. Your leg muscles, however, can stop and recover. Your heart can’t. Cells begin to die, and the debris they leave behind blocks arteries- hence, the blocked arteries are a complication, not a cause.

Treatments which take this research into account focus on helping the small blood vessels of the heart and preventing lactic acid buildup. Of course, traditional medicines have done the same thing with cardiotonics like digitalis for centuries. Digitalis, an extract of the foxglove plant, is a parallel to a hormone made by our own adrenal glands… out of cholesterol. Dr. Mesquita’s clinical data show significant improvements in life expectancy and decrease in recurrent heart attacks with the use of low-dosage digitalis.

Emotional Risks

The connection between stress and heart disease is so obvious that few would question it. But recent research has also shed light on what kind of stress presents a particular danger. A study of over two hundred patients at Johns Hopkins in 2000 found that hostility and a drive for dominance were “significant independent risk factors.”

As Dr. Gabor Maté explains, certain personalities tend to get certain diseases. On one side of his spectrum, Dr. Maté places the familiar Type A personality- dominating, irascible, incapable of emotional repression. On the other side is a super-agreeable, self-abnegating personality, the kind that will check their own emotional expression and personal needs at the door in order to make things, allegedly, better for others. In the middle is a balanced personality with a healthy relationship to anger. It turns out that the Type A personality is prone to certain diseases, notably heart disease, while the repressed personality is prone to others, most notably cancers.

In rage states, blood vessels contract, increasing blood pressure and decreasing oxygen supply to the heart. It also overstimulates the adrenal glands on a regular basis, and the body lowers its sensitivity to the chemicals the adrenals send out, which help to regulate heart function.

To Sum Up

As we see, the usual formula for dealing with Acute Coronary Syndome, restricting cholesterol and preventing blocked arteries, is trying to treat a symptom without dealing with the root causes, stress and poor nutrition.  Keeping your heart healthy means not only giving your body the right fuel, including a healthy amount of cholesterol, but finding a healthy emotional balance as well.