What an angry lot we are. Every day, we are angry. Sometimes that’s outrage, sometimes its anger, sometimes it’s just a little grumble. But there’s no doubt about it, we are an angry lot.
Not that there isn’t a lot to be angry about, being honest. Anger is a response to something unpleasant and global inequality, poverty, persecution, political ineptitude, and injustice are all unpleasant and justifiable reasons to be very angry indeed.
But here’s the thing. The same sense of unpleasantness makes us angry about the neighbour’s parties, the late bus, the traffic, our job environment (or lack of), a friend’s death or a burglary. In fact all the personal tragedies, big and small. You know what? They are justifiable reasons to be angry and upset as well.
That sense of anger, of certainty that something is wrong, is part of the human skill set that has changed the world. It may not always change it for the better, because ignorance (another unfortunate human tendency) coupled with anger is a very dangerous thing. But anger coupled with empathy, with a grasp that other people are not *us* but that their emotions are valid, that’s a different thing altogether.
That’s why criticising people’s anger is often counterproductive.
We come up with all manner of clever, rational reasons why so and so’s anger is misplaced. We criticise their sense of scale, citing their obvious immaturity that they haven’t worked out ‘what is really important’, or point out that someone else has it far, far worse. We prioritise our values as a yardstick by which everyone else must measure the appropriateness of their emotion. We do this all the time, myself included. Sometimes we even assume that expressions of anger (or anything else) must be some unworthy, bandwagon jumping outpouring of popular annoyance indicative of a complete failure to engage with more important issues.
It becomes acceptable to actively ‘mock’ other people’s reactions to things that we perceive as unimportant. We belittle their anger, and we really, really don’t need to do that.
When we do we are mocking the very trait we demand they demonstrate in relationship to something else. A belief that people should be free to be themselves without oppressing others applies just as much to whether they should cut their hair to get a job as to whether a government is entitled to kill protestors. A belief that we should be free to comment is the same belief that underpins a comment on the demise of a famous person and a comment on a political party that has betrayed its voters.
If it doesn’t, it's not a coherent moral belief.
If you care at all about humans, you have to care about all of them. If you care about human suffering at all, you have to care about all of it, whether it’s your flatmate’s spilt milk or the starving child. You can’t pick and chose a level or type of suffering to care about. You can’t pick and chose what type of anger is worthy of consideration. An injustice is an injustice, no matter how big (or small) it is.
Bear with me here. I am not saying that there aren’t clear occasions of quite ridiculous effusiveness. I am not saying we should be as angry about spilling the milk as we are about a murder. I am not saying we should sacrifice all personal sense of proportion and march on Downing Street about our neighbours late night parties, or tear up our deserved parking tickets. What I am saying is that to criticise someone for being angry, upset, befuddled or in doubt really only serves to make us feel superior and pays no heed to the position of the complainant. We become angry about someone else’s anger, and, here’s the critical thing about the internet…. We then go and comment on how angry we are about their anger… making them angrier… and us angrier…… and so on …..
If I am angry about facebook’s new design, my train being overcrowded, or having toothache, that does not mean I am not also angry that women are being attacked or that the NHS is about to be dismantled. Unpleasant is unpleasant, even if it is less unpleasant than some other worse unpleasant. Human truth - there is always a worse unpleasant, but I can only feel the one that is happening to me, right now. Another human truth – people tell their friends about stuff they feel and observe.
The only fair response to an expression of anger is not criticism, it is to acknowledge it as what it is.
Now maybe there are some facts that need to be put on the table, but one of those facts is not ‘other people have it worse’. The facts we need may be that the anger is based on untruths, rumours and pointless hate. Or that other people are *different* to us, but actually it is okay to be different. Or that, know what, other people are *like* us, they get upset about their jobs, pain, broken fingernails, children’s prospects, cancelled trips away and relationships and they are allowed to! Those are the kind of facts that fundamentally help to dispel anger, not the ones that propagate it.
Yes, we sometimes need to look at what angers us, to see if our anger really does reflect something in which we passionately, informedly and coherently take as a value. I’m all in favour of that. If it does, then fight for it as hard as you like, tooth and bloody nail to quiet grumble, however big the issue looks to anyone else. It doesn’t matter if everyone tells you its something ‘you have to accept’ or something ‘trivial’. It doesn’t matter if it gets you anywhere or not. What matters is that there is something fundamental and justified about your anger.
Most of the protestors on Wall Street aren’t there because they want to change the world. (I doubt whether most protestors anywhere are trying to change the world – that sometimes they end up doing so is a great thing indeed). They may well be aware that there is something fundamental about the inequality they stand against, but at the root of it, they are there because some small thing in their own lives, something they were no doubt told they just had to accept, made them angry. They are there because one day they realised they couldn’t afford their favourite drink, or they couldn’t get their prescription, or the gas bill was high. Those are small, small things in the scheme of things. They have water. They have a roof over their head. They aren’t starving to death. But they decided that ‘other people have it worse’ or ‘you just have to accept…’ was not an excuse any more.
The world *is* tough, we can’t fix everything, all the time. But, the more used we become to the phrase ‘you just have to accept….’, the more we are forced into convention, conservatism and the status quo, the more we lose the ability to change the things that are broken.
Anger can change the world for the better, one tiny, tiny step at a time. It doesn’t have to be the whole world, either. Just a little bit of it.