According to Freud, depression is just anger turned inward. And if internet memes are to be believed according to “the Buddha,” which may or may not be referencing Siddhartha Gautama according to the meme maker, “Anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.”
They’re not wrong. But they’re not right either. Anger has a purpose. Sometimes that purpose can be distorted or manipulated and certainly too much of anything is bad, but if you’re never angry then something is likely very wrong. Anger is like any other emotion. You are not always happy or sad or nostalgic or fearful or succumbing to ennui and it would be weird if you were. But you have experienced all these things. And sometimes you indulge them. Sometimes we actually seek out ways to feel these emotions safely just because we want to feel them.
We do this with anger too. We just don’t admit to it or do it safely.
It is difficult to say what kind of anger is appropriate, and the reason it is the one emotion everyone seems to be ashamed of is because anger’s entire purpose is disruption. Anger exists because of the perception that something is wrong. Anger exists to point out that problem and scare it away. Anger disrupts the system. Anger is aggressive and loud and big and scary. Anger does not strategize advanced chess moves but flips the table.
Within society, we often accept and reward anger from people already in power while shaming it in people without. And I do apologize for dropping some peri-Michel Foucault on you without warning — as usual, please send all complaints to Jon Oliver at HBO — but there’s no other real way to talk about this. Disruption is scary when it comes from below because it might disrupt your position, but accepted when it comes from above in part because you want to placate the powerful out of fear, and in part because — you hope — they might be angry on your behalf.
Additionally, the standard dismissal of justified anger from BIPOC, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and cult survivors among others is that their anger is actually irrational. This goes way back to the classical ideology which separates pathos from logos and the accompanying idea that humans are not “beasts” but not quite gods because we think and because — presumably — our rationality transcends that of any animal. (Increasing scientific literature suggests it probably doesn’t, but I’m sort of on a kick where I posthumously embarrass Greco-Roman philosophers, which really serves no one, but everyone needs a hobby.)
But, by whose definition is anger irrational? And if anger is only meant to disrupt a system where something has gone wrong, then why should anyone in a culturally powerful position ever express it? So, if mockery of anger, and calling out anger as irrational or wrong is meant to embarrass or silence then it is doing so by reinforcing previously extant socio-political positions.
In media and our every day lives there is a very real temptation to dismiss particularly Black female activists as the archetypal “Angry Black Woman.” Well … why shouldn’t she be angry? Why should her anger be irrelevant? Contrary to the trope, her anger is incredibly rational. She is the ultimate victim of white supremacy. Why shouldn’t we listen to her and help her disrupt the system.
There is also a complaint among cancer survivors — particularly female cancer survivors — that they were asked during treatment to never express anger or sadness. I cannot even with that. It isn’t healthcare providers asking that of patients but society writ large with the idea being that the disease becomes more virulent and is even caused by these negative emotions. That is not true and I — for one — believe that it exists to alleviate any guilt friends and family may have by placing all the negative emotions associated with potentially terminal illness onto the sufferer. So in being unable to express their full range of emotions while staring down their own mortality cancer patients are being almost prepared as an emotional sacrifice.
According to culture they can live, but if they die it’s because they gave up. They didn’t fight hard enough. They weren’t positive enough. They gave into negative emotion. And that’s absurd. If you’re suffering with cancer or ANY potentially fatal disease and you want to scream your anger to the world then LET IT OUT. It’s your life and you don’t have to perform for the comfort of others until the bitter end. I grant you catharsis.
I did also mention anger from people who have survived cults or left religion. I do personally have a problem with organized atheism because — like everything else — it does have a pretty decent dose of irrational misogyny and has become in structure if not practice a religion unto itself, but that does not negate the anger atheists, agnostics, and particularly pagans have towards their nascent religions. People don’t leave formal religion to escape their God. They don’t even leave it to escape the culture. They leave because of abuse from those in power and enforced ignorance. This is why so many religions have sex scandals and even a culture of rape and sexual abuse among their clergy or “elders.” Those people have power and they are demonstrating it through abuse.
When a religious person, particularly one who is proselytizing mocks or derides the anger of an atheist, agnostic, or pagan they are not saying what they think they are saying. They believe their message is “you have rejected God’s love, and that is why you are lost and sad.” What they are actually saying and even embracing in their hearts is, “you have rejected the power structure and your anger is a reminder that I am still subject to an abusive system in which I will never advance so I desperately need to shut you down or my world as I understand it will crumble.”
Anger gives you the strength to break out of the ties that bind you. It absolutely is destructive, but so is a wildfire. Both serve their purposes. A wildfire burns away the dead and dry brush allowing the trees more space to grow. It is terrifying and destructive and hot, but it is healthy. If it doesn’t happen for years and years the trees grow slower, the ground is choked with dead and dying foliage and when another fire does come it will be even more destructive.
Like anything else, anger is not something you should always feel. But sometimes it is good for you. You shouldn’t be perpetually happy either. If something is wrong it is okay to feel anger. And if something is wrong for someone else it is okay for them to even express anger. Without anger, how are we going to point out all the many structural inequities of our system and undo them? Alexander the Great is said to have slashed through the Gordian knot rather than trying to carefully dismantle it. I think we need to do something similar with the various power structures which keep BIPOC, women, and others “in our place.” Anger helps with that. Let it burn.