Anger and Angry People

By Thomas Harrington

If you poke around a bit in the emerging body of literature on the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, you will find that one of the more oft-repeated elements of advice from well-wishers concerns the need to avoid being, or even appearing, overtly angry.

As celebrity occupier Mark Ruffalo said, echoing the frequently repeated words of others, “We must be peaceful.”

There is, of course, a deep, compelling and proven logic to the idea of non-violent resistance, one that I generally embrace.

However, I can’t help but think that there may be a much more craven subtext to these repeated calls to “be peaceful” than most pro-OWS activists would care to admit.  Though I cannot prove it, my sense is that this obsession with appearing good-humored and positive is about wanting not only to follow the noble examples Gandhi and King, but also to avoid being tarred as “angry” by the country’s right-wing media machine.

“What’s wrong with that?” I can hear many of you saying. “Every movement must choose its tactics. In this case, avoiding frontal confrontation with powerful forces out to sink us is simply a matter of common sense.”

What’s wrong with that, I would respond, is that it allows those who already exercise an overarching control of the messages emitted in our public space to do something that we, as people seeking to expand notions of democratic dignity, should never let anyone do: define the parameters of our own language of self-expression.

As is the case with so many of the tropes that are repeatedly deployed in our media environment, the practice of disparagingly labeling select people as “angry” has a documentable history. And that history is neither capriciously constructed nor innocent in nature.  Any of you who listened, as I did with morbid fascination, to the early years of the Rush Limbaugh phenomenon will know exactly what I am talking about.

Back then, Rush spent a lot of time deriding those that could not just accept the way things were and enjoy the fruits of living in the “greatest society in the world” as “angry liberals.” By repeating this trope over and over again, Limbaugh and his many imitators effectively turned the practice of arguing forcefully for a better society into a kind of pathology rooted in the individual’s inability to contain his or her negative emotions.

And as is their wont, most baby boomer liberals responded to the increasing circulation of this trope in society not by fighting back and debunking its implied slander, but by working assiduously to “please the man,” that is, by avoiding any hint of “anger” in their public modes of expression.

Out of this crouching and unseemly cowardice, a new liberal esthetic was born. To be taken seriously, one must be, above all, polite and upbeat.

Someone takes your job and puts your pension into their pocket, be polite and upbeat. Someone marches you into murderous and wasteful wars on the basis of lies, be polite and upbeat. The government suspends most of the Bill of Rights, be polite and upbeat. In short, if you ever really want to “get anything done,” you must, before all else, be polite and upbeat.

If you don’t believe me when I talk about the degree to which the so-called left has internalized the message that being unflinchingly critical is tantamount to being pathologically angry, try the following sometime.

Walk into a room of middle-of-the-road Democratic voters and point out what is undeniably true: that the United States is, to paraphrase King, far and away the biggest purveyor of death, destruction and terror in the world. Even if you do so in the most affable and breezy of tones, I guarantee that within a few minutes at least one, and probably several, of the people hearing your exposition will assail you with charges about your being pathologically “negative” or “angry.”

This is exactly what Rush and his masters wanted when they started out in the late 8os and early 90s. They wanted to effectively stigmatize idealistically minded social critiques rooted in the unsentimental accumulation of facts.  It must warm the very cockles of their hearts to see how the people of the so-called left now actively reprimand those in their own ranks who still dare to engage in these necessary practices.

What makes this effort by the Right even more galling is that it has occurred at a time when the expression of anger has not only become accepted, but lionized, in the highest business and governmental strata of the society.

In today’s world there is no truer measure, we are often implicitly told, of a CEO’s or a CEO wannabe’s “leadership skills” than his or her ability to regularly and remorselessly inflict a nutty on the underlings. Think back to how Michael Dukakis supposedly “lost” his debate against George Bush Sr. because he couldn’t summon up enough “anger”—the underlying rage it is suggested we need and require in our leaders—when asked about his wife’s would-be rape.

So let’s be honest.  For many out there in our society anger is good….just as long as the person expressing it is perceived as being at the top of the Darwinian heap.

But when those who do not live in this rarefied territory express it, anger is a pathology that one must conquer if one expects to be taken seriously.

In reality, of course, anger afflicts everyone. In fact, the further down the social totem pole you are, the more angry you are likely to be.

But perhaps more importantly, anger is not, nor will it ever be, an unmitigated negative. Indeed, a very strong case could be made that no significant leap of social consciousness or human rights has even been carried off in the absence, among the fighters for justice, of great and heaping reserves of its raw but incandescent energy.

So, yes, I get the narrow tactical argument for suppressing anger put forth by those occupying Wall Street and other iconic spaces around the world. That said, I must say I have my doubts about any attempt—if in fact such an attempt exists—to present this suppression of anger as a general and unalloyed good.

Anger exists for many reasons. One of the more important of these is to spur us to engage in acts of moral renewal. The Right knows this all too well. This is precisely why they have spent a generation assiduously teaching common people to feel shame about expressing this most human of emotions.

Isn’t it about time we stopped being such good students?

Thomas Harrington is Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford where he teaches courses on 20th and 21st Century Spanish Cultural History, Literature and Film. His areas of research expertise include modern Iberian nationalist movements, Contemporary Catalonia, and the history of migration between the peninsular “periphery” (Catalonia, Galicia, Portugal and the Basque Country) and the societies of the Caribbean and the Southern Cone. He is a two-time Fulbright Senior Research Scholar (Barcelona Spain and Montevideo, Uruguay) who also has lived and worked in Madrid, Lisbon and Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.  He speaks (and writes in) Spanish, Catalan, Galician and Portuguese. In addition to his work in Hispanic Studies, Harrington is a frequent commentator on political and cultural affairs in the U.S. and abroad.

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