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Open for Debate


15 July 2019

Anger is a red mist, which blinds us. It blinds us to the good in other human beings, and to the danger in violent or uncompromising action. Accordingly, expressing anger in public spaces is detrimental to the cultivation of mutual trust and to the pursuit of justice. Or so it is often said. In the early days of his 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden told an assembled crowd in Philadelphia: ‘Some say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity. That they are angry, and the angrier you are, the better. … Well, I don’t believe it.’ More famously, Martin Luther King, Jr., once remarked that Malcolm X’s ‘fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettoes … can reap nothing but grief.’

Yet many seem to suggest precisely the opposite. For the poet and activist Audre Lorde, anger is a ‘spotlight’ which is ‘loaded with information and energy’. Or take William Lloyd Garrison, who insisted that, when exposed to Frederick Douglass’s enraged anti-slavery rhetoric, the anger he experienced rendered his perception of slavery’s injustice ‘far more clear than ever’. Anger, both are suggesting, is a source of knowledge. And publicly expressing anger is a way of spreading that knowledge.

But how can Lorde and Garrison possibly be right, if—as popular wisdom would have it—anger blinds us? How can anger be both a red mist and a spotlight? How can it reveal truth, if it also obscures it? To make sense of this puzzle, we need to look more closely at emotions more generally. Emotions typically involve distinctive bodily feelings. When you’re angry, you might feel hot, have an increased heart rate, or even tremble. But there’s more to emotions than bodily feelings. Emotions also have a cognitive dimension. They represent objects in our environment as being a certain way. They modify the way we see, imagine, or remember things. They are, in other words, ‘distinctive ways of seeing a situation’.

Distinctive how? First, emotions are sources of salience. They highlight particular features of our environment, and bring them into focus. Different emotions highlight different kinds of things. Fear, for example, puts a spotlight on potential sources of danger. If I walk home at night and am afraid, my fear highlights the street’s emptiness, the absence of lighting, and the footsteps behind me. Grief, on the other hand, fixes your attention on what you’ve lost. This salience function of emotions is hugely important. We live in extremely complex environments, which bombard us with all kinds of information. By making some pieces of information more salient than others, emotions help us navigate these environments by processing information efficiently.

The second important cognitive property of emotions is that they can deliver information that we don’t yet have a label or concept for. In this respect, emotions are similar to visual perception: just as visual perception allows us to discriminate between more shades of blue than we have words for, so too emotions can help us sense or appreciate normative issues (danger, loss, injustice) even whilst we lack the words or concepts needed to name them.

Consider what this means for anger and its public expression. The distinctive object of anger is not danger or loss. It’s injustice or wrongdoing. So, as a source of salience, anger highlights potential sources of injustice. This matters, because injustice—even grave injustice—is often hidden or masked. For example, when the ideology of the American Dream asserts that success is within anyone’s reach, this masks the injustice of egregious inequalities. Expressing anger is a way of inducing in others a state of alertness to injustice, which helps them see through such ideological distortions. Anger casts a spotlight on shrouded injustices.

The second upshot is that, as an emotion, anger can get us to register or sense injustices, even when we lack a word or concept for those injustices. This too matters greatly. We often lack the labels needed to understand specific injustices, and to communicate about them. There was a time when, although sexual harassment was rampant, the concept of sexual harassment did not yet exist. In such settings, anger serves as an alarm bell, which helps us sense that—though we cannot yet name this wrong—a wrong is taking place. And arousing anger in others, by extension, is a way of getting them, too, to sense that something is wrong.

So, there are good reasons to think that public expressions of anger constitute an important spotlight, which exposes injustice. But notice that this is actually consistent with the idea that anger also blinds us. It’s not that Malcolm X is simply right and King is simply wrong. Far from it. The fact that anger blinds us is actually a flipside of the fact that anger selects information and renders it salient. Salience is comparative. What this means is that, when anger makes potential sources of injustice salient, it also makes other things unsalient. Anger therefore comes at a cost: when I am on the lookout for how others may have wronged me, I am more likely to overlook what there is to trust, love, and respect in them.

This cost matters. Tackling grave injustices requires social cooperation, which in turn depends on mutual trust and respect. So, while we shouldn’t dismiss anger as a mere red mist, we should also recognise that spotlights too can narrow our vision. The lesson is that we need public expressions of anger, but we also need their opposite. Malcolm X and King may have disparaged each other publicly, but they depended on each other—sometimes explicitly so. While King relied on Malcolm X to expose racial injustices in uncompromising terms, Malcolm X relied on King to make visible the possibility of progress and reconciliation. The same goes for the Democratic Party. Calls for anger and calls for unification may seem opposed. But we should steer clear of the temptation simply to choose one and reject the other.