This is part of a series of columns on public philosophy by Agnes Callard; read more here.
Racism doesn’t tend to make me angry. You might think this is because I don’t belong to a marginalized race, but sexism doesn’t tend to make me angry, either. Nor am I reliably angered by elitism or abuses of power, despite the fact that they seem to rankle many around me. My decidedly Holocaust-centric childhood failed to instill in me hostile emotions toward Nazis, or anti-Semites generally.
And yet I would not describe myself as blessed with a peaceable temperament. I can become furious over what others perceive as trivialities, and am liable to see profound betrayal where the other sees a simple misunderstanding. In the context of public speech, I am hypersensitive to rhetorical coercion, capable of experiencing even well-meaning generic advice as an attempted use of force.
When your anger won’t play well with the anger of others—when it turns down invitations to surface, and persists despite the absence of company—you frequently find yourself on the receiving end of attempts at anger management. Sometimes these conversations can be settled by the introduction of new information or the correction of a misperception, but when those strategies fail, they often devolve into a pure emotional tug-of-war in which you hear that your anger is unproductive; that it’s time to move on; that we are ultimately on the same team. Or, alternatively—for this, too, is “anger management,” though it isn’t usually called that—you hear that if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention; that unless you’re with us, you’re against us.
“If you don’t stop being angry, you’re irrational.”
“If you don’t start being angry, you’re immoral.”
Neither of these speeches tends to go over well—at least not with me.
After Cain, having murdered his brother, lies to God about Abel’s whereabouts—“I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”—God explodes at Cain: “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil.” God can hear Abel’s blood crying out, but Cain cannot. God’s anger substitutes for the hole where Cain’s love for his brother should be: if Cain can’t fully grasp the wrongness of murdering his brother, someone must. The story makes clear, with remarkable economy, both that there are real, objective moral facts, and that access to those facts is–even for God!—sometimes predicated on anger. Anger is a moral sense.
Among humans as well, at times it is only the angry who are in a position to apprehend the magnitude of some injustice. For they are the ones willing to sacrifice all their other concerns and interests so as to attend, with an almost divine focus, to some tear in the moral fabric. When I am really angry, it is not even clear to me that I can calm down—the eyes of the heart do not have eyelids—and the person making that request strikes me, to adapt a locution of Socrates’, as trying to banish me from my property, the truth. They are calling me “irrational,” but they seem not to see that there are reasons to be angry.
On the other hand, there are also reasons not to be. Aristotle says that anger is a desire for revenge, and he is right, though angry people will tend to call it by another name. Anger inclines people to apply exalted labels (“justice,” “accountability”) to acts of vengeance; it is a fog in which bad things look good, just because someone else did bad things first. Consider, for example, how people who would otherwise think it patently immoral to mock others’ physical appearance often feel free to do so when the target has been deemed unjust.
Anger also leads people to see victims of injustice in a noble light—as though being wronged morally improved a person, instead of distorting their psyche by reorganizing it around moral injury. Even as a child, I was wary of this bitterness, and resisted the pull of the anti-anti-Semitism that my family and teachers presented as my Jewish inheritance. Most of the people who would have otherwise been my relatives were killed by the Nazis, and so I can hardly call it irrational that those who survived kept saying “never forget”; nonetheless, I refused to always be remembering.
There is something very puzzling in the impulse to resist both forms of anger management. Why don’t I hear the calm-downers as trying to dispel my bitter, vengeful fog; and why don’t I experience the call to anger as directing my moral sense to truths about injustice? How can the question of whether anger is a form of ethical insight—a moral sense—or a corruption of moral vision—a vengeful fog—depend on whether one is currently angry?! This is the puzzle of anger management.
I believe the solution requires us to acknowledge a split in our ability to respond to justice: the more perfectly one attends to the gravity of the wrongs done, the less sensitive one becomes to the gravity of the wrongs one is poised to commit in response. The perspective of the angry person is sharply divided from the non-angry one: each can see only the side of justice they are looking at. When it comes to anger, and the lack thereof, we have reason to resist others’ attempts to transfer their reasons to us. This is why, although attempts at conversion may begin in rational discourse, they often devolve into bullying in which the “convert” is pressured into pretending to see what they cannot, or into pretending not to hear the cries ringing in their ears. This anger divide lies at the heart of our political predicament, and structures our interactions with one another at the deepest level. And yet, for this very reason, it is itself difficult to recognize.
To get it into view, I propose we reverse Plato’s strategy. Plato thought we would understand justice in the soul better if we first saw it writ large, in the harmonious, unified city. I think we will understand injustice in the city—our conflicts with one another—better if we begin with a study of the conflicted soul. For there is an intrapersonal analog to the conversations that we cannot seem to have with one another, namely the conversations we fail to have with ourselves. Sometimes, the parts of a single soul speak different languages.
A few weeks ago, I was mailing my friend a gift for his upcoming birthday when I recalled that he got me nothing for my birthday. I experienced a flash of anger, and was tempted to trash the package instead of mailing it. Being torn between these two options is not like being torn between two delicious-sounding items on a menu, or between a vacation by the sea or one in the mountains. In those cases, I can step back, survey my options and arrive at a preference-ordering that would, for instance, rationalize opting for my second choice if my favored dish or locale ends up unavailable. All the parts of me are ultimately on the same side. The birthday quandary doesn’t work this way: if love wins out over spite, but the post office turns out to be closed, that doesn’t mean it makes sense for me to revert to my second-best option and seek out a nearby garbage can.
The difference between the birthday choice and other kinds of choices is a deep one. Indeed, the split in the birthday case is deeper even than what we find in “tragic choices” such as Sophie’s choice between the lives of her two children. What makes a tragic choice tragic is that the two values are incommensurable: the life of one person doesn’t compensate you for what you lose by way of the death of the other. One intensely wants to have both, and is forced to choose between them. In the birthday case, by contrast, the difficulty is that one cannot want both—at least not at once. The point of view on value that makes trashing the gift look good—the so-called “friend” is actually a thoughtless jerk who doesn’t deserve me as a friend!—is one on which mailing it doesn’t look good at all; likewise, when I indulge in imagining his enjoyment of the gift, that mental activity is incompatible with the impulse to destroy it from spite.
I can vacillate between these points of view, but I cannot really occupy both at once. I can’t ask “all things considered, what should I do?” without begging the question as to what things are being considered: there is no “all” that includes both the spiteful pleasure of disappointing my friend and the joy of making him happy. These values are more than incommensurable, they are incompossible.
Now let’s shift from the soul to the city, by distributing these incompossible values over multiple people. Consider the conflict between the person whose sense of justice makes it impossible for her to give up on her anger, and the person whose sense of justice makes it impossible for her to become angry. If we consider each of these people as the analog to one of the opposed ethical perspectives between which I vacillated in the birthday case, we can see why the interactions between the angry and non-angry turn into a tug-of-war. There is no rational way to adjudicate their conflict—the best a third-party mediator could do is flip back and forth between who they want to side with.
The anger divide is frequently experienced as a political disaster: How can we ever hope to get everyone on the same page? Why are people so impervious to having their minds changed, anger-wise? I have been suggesting an answer: it is because they are rational, and care about justice, that people resist the coercive tactics of anger management. Those who stick to their guns are refusing to allow others to banish them from their property, the truth.
Perhaps justice really is something divine, something on the wrong scale to be taken in by a single human response. Instead of lamenting our inability to arrive at a unified response, we should be grateful for the heterogeneity of human psychology: it affords us coverage of one another’s blind spots. If no human being is emotionally complete, then real moral authority is collective, and we need—and need to learn to recognize our need—for those animated by incandescent, unquenchable, focused anger. They see what the rest of us cannot see, and we shouldn’t reflexively pressure them to calm down. We also need to recognize the virtue at the opposite end of the spectrum, of those who are preternaturally calm and judicious, and to stop thinking of such a person as improved or humanized by being able to get a little pissed off.
The story of the birthday quandary is true; it is something that happened to me just a few weeks ago. Oddly enough, however, it also fits the template of a fake example I constructed for my book years ago, of a bitter wife tempted to trash a letter that her thoughtless and demanding husband tasks her with mailing.
But life didn’t quite imitate philosophy. My Bitter Wife was left to adjudicate her internal conflict solo, but when the thought experiment came to life for me, I was not alone. As I headed out to the post office, my son, who was bored from having been cooped up in the house all morning, asked if he could accompany me on the walk. He was by my side as I experienced the flash of anger—which wasn’t so much about the fact that my friend hadn’t gotten me a gift, but the fact that he had endeavored to explain it away, to make excuses for himself, and the larger pattern of behavior that was embedded in…—and that was when my eyes darted in the direction of where I knew the trash can was.
It wouldn’t have been the first time in my life I destroyed something in vengeance. And I might well have done it again, if my son hadn’t been there. But under the circumstances, how would I explain myself?
“What’s in the package?” my son asked me as we walked.
“A birthday present for a friend.”
“Tell him happy birthday from me—or actually, on second thought, he might not be so excited to get a happy birthday from some kid he’s never heard of whose mom just told him it was his birthday…”
I told my son I would convey the birthday wish, in exactly those terms, and I did.
The very presence of other people can make us better, even when they don’t make us more like them, or change us, or even understand us. Sometimes other people help us exactly by not feeling what we feel, exactly by remaining resolutely who they are.