Practical Philosophy

What Good is Anger?

Hearing someone lash out in anger, near me but not at me, often makes me contemplate the foolish impotence of anger in modern life. Anger is a very intense feeling, and it’s so common there must be something to recommend it. But I often struggle to find that benefit.

The Downsides of Anger

The most potent and sure thing about anger is that it’s spurred on by a feeling of sharp intense pain. I think of it a bit like a hot coal, surely burning someone. And who’s it definitely burning? The person possessing the anger.

Now it may be the case that an angry person is able to successfully transfer some of that seering pain onto someone else. Surely there are many stories of the weak being made to suffer the anger of the powerful — whether that be through wars between peoples, or the prototypical angry father lashing out at his helpless wife or children. But even in those circumstances, there’s scant evidence to support the idea that the initially angry person is made less angry by having spread their frustration around.

Aside from the obviously problematic transference of anger, it’s got another really bad quality: the angry mind is off-balance; a roiling cauldron of unreason that’s ready to do stupid things. How many dumb choices throughout history were made because someone was angry? When anger made it impossible to reason correctly? Almost certainly too many to count.

So, what good is there to be found in anger?

There are a couple upsides to anger. The most potent is probably evolutionary: anger is a clear and animalistic corrective to slights to an individual. Imagine a pack of monkeys where the most powerful male has dispropiatate breeding rights to all the females in the group. If he doesn’t get angry when his dominance is threatened, he’s likely to not be dominant for long. And so he’d have fewer offspring than those males more jealous in the protection of their role and power.

That sways me: anger is an effective low-intelligence impulse to beneficial social competition throughout the history of life. It also, in a more subtle but not trivial way, impels even meaningful correctives to problems of injustice in modern societies. While we idealize the struggle against British rule of India, for civil rights in the USA, or against apartheid in South Africa as rooted in a deep sense of love for justice, we’re being foolish to pretend that all three of those moments weren’t fueled by righteous anger.

But in those three movements, there is the paradox of anger in modern human society. Those movements are remembered fondly by people on both sides of them not because of the righteous anger or impulse to violence that started them. The troubled and largely unsuccessful history of the America’s militant Black Power movement (and specifically the Black Panther Party whose manifesto you see above) — rooted more deeply and completely in righteous anger than its predecessor — makes clear that while anger is an effective impulse to create action, it’s not a very successful way to fight systemic injustice in the long term.

The Strategic Use of Anger

The civil rights movements that are most fondly remembered on all sides — from those in power, and those fighting that power — were not violent or overtly angry. They were quiet and slow and deliberate. They thus allowed the powerful space for learning and understanding the scale of the injustice. They allowed the oppressors a period for growth (or culture-driven democratic replacement), and made space to cultivate wide understanding of complex ideas like love, justice, and forgiveness.

Anger’s use, then, is in sensing and finding the places where wrongs are being committed, and being sharply aware of them. Anger’s risk is that it convinces us that it knows the most effective response to that wrong. And if history shows us one thing, it’s that the violent and angry response, even if justified by the facts, is unlikely to lead to meaningful stable change in the long term.

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Practical Philosophy

The Obligations of the Lucky

Every once and a while, something makes me realize just how lucky I’ve been. After I was born and before, a lot of fortunate things broke my way. A short list:

  • I was born as a naturalized citizen in the United States, at a time when the country was near its height in world prestige and importance.
  • I was born a white-skinned person in those United States.
  • I was born to comfortably middle class family, which fast-tracked me to a comfortably middle-class debt-free existence.
  • I was never abused as a child, nor made to quietly suffer any meaningful injustice.
  • I was never told by the dominant society that my sexuality was unacceptable or disallowed.

I could go on, but you probably get the point: I’ve had a privileged existence so far. And very little of it is a result of any specific actions I took, qualities I adapted, or hard work I put in. I’ve just been lucky.

I think one of the hardest things about being so lucky is that you become blind to how many good breaks you got. If you see people struggling where you’ve never struggled, and you miss your luck, you’re not very empathetic to their hardship. You’re likely to think that everyone else should just work as you did and would have success as simply and painlessly as you’ve had.

I think that way sometimes. I think “Wow, everyone should just do the things I do and see the things I see. Then they’ll be as well-off as me.”

But then, usually, I catch myself. I recognize how much random good-fortune and the privileges of traits about myself I never really picked factor into my success.

Any anger I publicly display is — as a white man in America — likely to be read as legitimate and worthy of consideration. It’s not really more likely to be well-founded than the anger of a black woman, but her anger is likely to be read as pedestrian and misguided by the world at large. She’s much more likely to be considered touchy, angry, or disagreeable than I am, because of her unchosen characteristics.

When I’m pulled over for speeding, there’s a high likelihood that I will safely and effortless make it through that traffic stop with nothing worse than a ticket. I’m not likely to suffer the indignity of being pulled from my car for an unnecessary road-side sobriety test. Or have my car searched for drugs or other contraband. I will not, as a browner skinned man might, see a police officer leer at me a little too hard and work unnecessarily to find something else to ticket me for.

The world I live in is a privileged one. And my first obligation is to never forget that. To remember that I didn’t earn all that I’ve got. I did work hard and I did earn some of it; it’s foolish to pretend that I’ve not had some impact on my own life. But I was also given opportunities, and the benefit the doubt, a lot more than others, and I can’t forget that.

Because I remember that, and because I know the subtle injustice of a society that makes it a little more likely that I succeed than most others, I owe it to them to keep the difference in mind. To do my best to listen and understand. To do my best to share to others like me, who fail to see their invisible good fortune, my understanding of the ways in which the system is failing those who haven’t quite had such luck. Privileged people seem to hear a little easier when their privilege is explained by similarly lucky people. Because I possess a straight, white, American, cis-gendered male form, my speech is more likely to be given a respectful hearing.

The world we have today is probably the fairest one to have ever existed. The rates of unstructured violence, of enslavement, of arbitrary decisions passed off as justice, are lower than they’ve probably ever been in history. But that’s a long distance from saying that our world is completely fair, just, and free of coercion. The obligation of those lucky enough to have it easy is to work extra hard — specifically because they don’t need to — to make the world fairer and more just still.

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american society, big ideas, personal

On Privilege

White privilege, as you may know,

is a sociological concept describing the advantages enjoyed by white persons beyond what is commonly experienced by the non-white people in those same social spaces (nation, community, workplace, etc.). It differs from racism or prejudice by the fact that a person benefiting from white privilege need not hold racist beliefs themselves.

There is also some noteworthy scholarship on male privilege and heterosexual privilege. All of it speaks to the ways in which being white, male, and straight allows me the freedom to never be asked to speak on behalf of any group in which I was randomly born a member. How my poor behavior is rarely seen as a reflection on anyone but myself. How most people will assume that I’m intelligent, safe, and trustworthy. How history, as conventionally told, is brimming with people who look like me and by people like me. How role models that look like me are everywhere in this culture. How people are unlikely to harbor any negative ideas about me because of who I am.

And aside from the privileges bestowed by being white, male, and straight, I’m college educated. My parents are still married. My parents are upper-middle class. I’m an American. I live in the United States of America. I have little discernible accent (at least to American ears). All of these are seen as things that make me a better person, despite my responsibility for none of them.

And those are merely those privileges that I can enumerate right now without effort. I’m sure there are many more that I’ll discover later and probably untold ones I’ll never be made aware of.

Discussion of privilege can quickly degenerate into theoretical issues and nit-picking on substance. Surely, you might argue, there must be some privilege’s in being black, Latino, or Asian. I wouldn’t contend that there aren’t. But that’s immaterial to the fact that white (or male or heterosexual) privileges in most countries–and especially this one–are far more numerous than those conferred by other identities.

And surely white privilege–even all the privilege’s I possess–doesn’t dictate my lot in life. A poor gay black man from Zimbabwe could make himself far more successful than I’ll ever be. But I feel rather certain that he’d have had to fight a lot harder to get there.

If–or when–one recognizes that they’ve received so many unearned privileges the obvious question is: what do I do about it? One bad answer to that question the easiest to give: nothing. To assert that though you’ve received these unearned privilege’s you should essentially forget about them. Or worse, you can make the absurd and disgusting claim that they’re rightfully yours because “it was earned for you by the hard work and self-discipline of your ancestors and relatives, whom you should learn to appreciate.

There is something to be said for conscious awareness of it. To recognize and understand what it may be like on the other side of that divide. It wasn’t until I spent fifteen minutes in a mostly-black grocery store near downtown Detroit that I ever recognized what it’s like to be on the minority side of any social situation. Aware that even if these people meant me no harm–and I’m sure of that–there was the immutable fact that I felt out of place. For a white heterosexual male who has lived most of his life in predominately white parts of a predominately white state it was an eye-opening experience.

Real awareness, I think, leads directly to action. Perhaps the greatest action you’ll ever undertake is to spread awareness of these privileges among others. Perhaps you’ll just vote for politicians who you think understand and would do their best to countermand these unearned privileges. Perhaps you’ll become an activist against these privileges.

Perhaps you’ll do absolutely nothing. But I do hope you’ll at least think about what a privilege you’ve been given, to be able to ignore the ways in which you’re privileged. The unprivileged have no such choice.

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