Reflections on Anger

Some slightly disjointed comments about anger.

First, empirical support for the idea that people’s everyday perceptions reward men for expressing anger, but punish women. This can be linked with the traditional, and only somewhat worn-away, custom that only men can swear, but not women and children: swearing is a primary way of expressing anger without physical aggression. The point is that permission to feel and express anger is a privilege, something that expresses one’s status. To quote Firestone, “a man is allowed to blaspheme the world because it belongs to him to damn”.

Then there’s this article by Paul Krugman, in which he argues that somehow, the best-off people in the US seem to be the angriest about present political events. He says “The spectacle of high-income Americans, the world’s luckiest people, wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness would be funny, except for one thing: they may well get their way.”

Then here’s another study, finding that angry people make more optimistic risk estimates than both neutral people and frightened people. Anger, that is, is in some respects an optimistic emotion. It’s not just a sense that something is wrong, bad, or unpleasant (which it would share with fear, sadness, disgust, despair, etc), but a sense that something is wrong and that I can somehow do something about it. This of course doesn’t make it more pleasant – it could easily make it more unbearable, if that upsurging conviction of my own power is contradicted by reality. But it stems from a certain sense of confidence.

This coheres with something I remember reading somewhere, though I now can’t find where it was, that revolutions and social upheavals don’t typically occur when conditions are worst, or among the people who are worst-off. Typically, on the contrary, the rebellious ones are those who are quite well off, or have recently seen an increase in their fortunes, but now find their further aspirations frustrated, or their improvements reversed. This makes sense if anger, and the sorts of political behaviour associated with it, depend upon a sense of optimism.

I think there is an idea sometimes among socialists that radical progressive change is made most likely by the ‘emiseration’ of the working class – the poorer and more deprived they get, they more they’ll ‘be forced to see’ that capitalism doesn’t work and should be done away with.

I think this is largely related to a personal desire, on the part of these writers, for validation – when conditions are worse, it makes their critical claims seem more justified, it reduces their burden of uncertainty and doubt. But making something more obvious, objectively, and making people see and feel it are quite different things.

And given what’s been said above, their expectation (or tendency towards an expectation) is probably wrong: people will be more likely to rebel when they’re treated better, but not as well as this makes them feel they deserve.

It also, of course, explains Krugman’s observation – that there will often be more anger coming from well-off minorities who are getting a little less than they are used to.

Of course there are probably numerous factors, so that the effect of a social change on people’s readiness for anger won’t be predictable simply from whether it’s an improvement or a worsening.

One such factor, going back to the first link, is whether they are ‘trained’ to feel anger by having their expressions of it positively or negatively reinforced. If, for instance, members of a subordinate group were consistently dissuaded from confidently expressing anger, and members of a privileged group consitently encouraged, this might serve to ensure that whatever shifts in social power or benefits occurred, there would reliably be more anger going in one direction than in the other.

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One Response to Reflections on Anger

  1. Pingback: Happiness, Beauty, and Oppression | Majestic Equality

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