Global Resilience Solutions > Radical Repression- Why we wouldn’t thrive without anger

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.

One comment
  1. Posted 2 years ago

    Thank you for raising this issue so thoghtfully. I agree that anger is an important energy which can fuel our ability to act for justice and to right personañ and social wrongs.
    I also believe there needs to be a transformation of anger into controlled and effective action rather than violent reaction. We can try to ask ourselves what we want, what would effectively transform the siuation so that anger was no longer necessary. Asking “what is it (the anger) all about”– is also useful and an awareness of the meachnisms of psycholoigcal projection in which we may be simply replaying emotions asociated with past situations and people– especially parents!

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