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25 March 2022

What anger tells us about ourselves

By indicating who and what we value, our rage illuminates our moral character.

By Myisha Cherry

The feminist poet and scholar Audre Lorde once said that “anger is loaded with information”. But since everyone is seemingly angry about different things, from climate change and mask mandates to sexism and racial injustice, what information could anger possibly provide us with?

Philosophers have pointed to the epistemic benefits of anger in the case of oppressed peoples. If I am angry about sexism, this anger suggests that I know something isn’t right with how we treat women. And this means my anger about sexism involves certain forms of recognition and judgement that give me insight into the oppression of women.

Anger can also provide us with knowledge of how our community views us and thus give us insight into our social status. If I notice that when I am angry at racial injustice, some people play down, gaslight or police my anger, this can tell me a lot about how they see me. Perhaps they don’t view me as a rational agent or a person worthy of equal treatment.

Of course, anger isn’t restricted to the oppressed and it can yield all sorts of information in a host of different circumstances. Anger can tell us whom and what we value, and thus who we are regardless of what social position we hold.  

When someone we value has been harmed, we are apt to respond with anger. I have been angry upon hearing that someone dear to me was being mistreated. And in these cases, my anger was a way of expressing their value. It said: “You matter to me!”  

Similarly, when something we value has been mishandled or destroyed by someone else, we are likely to respond with anger. During a recent move the movers damaged some interior parts of my new house. My anger in response to their carelessness was an expression of how much I valued my new home.

Obviously, a lack of anger does not necessarily entail a lack of valuing. Yet when we value someone, anger in response to them being harmed is a genuine, natural way to signify that value. If you want to know how much someone means to you, pay attention to the emotions you feel when that person is abused.  

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Anger doesn’t just indicate our evaluation of others. It is also connected to our sense of self. When our anger expresses our valuing the downtrodden, it can show that we are compassionate and attuned to injustice. In this way, anger provides insight into our values and identities.

In fact, the nature and target of our anger reveal our moral character. Aristotle notes that a person who doesn’t get angry when he is mistreated is a fool, lacking in self-respect. He also says that we should be angry at the right things, to the right degree, at the right time, and doing this shows an excellence of character or what he calls “virtue”.  

Virtuous anger involves acknowledging an injustice and perhaps resisting it, not just acquiescing in it or lashing out at it in violent rage. But determining what counts as the appropriate use of anger can be complicated, because there are different forms of anger that may be used in good or bad ways.

For instance, the moral psychologist Owen Flanagan divides anger into several types. With “payback anger”, I aim to get someone back for an injustice done to me. With “pain-passing anger”, I intend to cause pain because I have suffered pain — but not necessarily to cause pain to the person who caused my pain. Although anger at injustice and pain is generally appropriate, payback and pain-passing anger are morally suspect. If I have payback anger, it shows that I am vindictive and unforgiving. If I have pain-passing anger, it shows that I desire the suffering of others. 

Relatedly, in my book The Case for Rage, I draw on Audre Lorde to develop a positive account of anger that is directed at racial injustice. This Lordean anger expresses value for the racially marginalised; entails a conception of freedom and justice that is inclusive rather than exclusive; aims for appropriate change; and motivates productive action. If I have Lordean anger, it shows that I am compassionate, caring, just and hopeful.  

As we can see, not all types of anger are created equal. Some are appropriate and some inappropriate. Some are good and some bad. What a person intends to do and not do with their anger can help us evaluate both the anger and the angry person.

While anger can tell us who we are, figuring this out may not be easy. It may require an openness to criticism and a willingness to rethink our worldview. False consciousness or denial may get in the way, and what we discover may reveal conflicting character traits. Being angry at mask mandates may show that you are dedicated to individual liberty; it can also reveal that you are selfish and unconcerned with public health.

Of course, we might not be able to control what we get angry about — it’s called an emotion for a reason. But as we have seen, our anger gives us crucial information about what we value and who we are. And when our anger presents us with a version of ourselves we feel ashamed of, we know it is time to engage in the hard work of being better. And this being better will enable us to feel better, even if that feeling is anger.

Myisha Cherry is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of The Case for Rage: Why Anger is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle. 

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King’s College, London and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland. 

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