Wednesday, May 23, 2012

This I Believe.




I believe in anger. 

Not rage or hatred, but anger. 

It is an appropriate response to injustice.

For a person of even mild moral consciousness, the world is a terrible place. One can be thankful for what one has, but that general thankfulness should not override the sickening weight that comes with knowledge of the suffering of others and our complicity in the machinations that bring about their plight. 

When I was in high school, I drove with some friends to a pool hall. In the parking lot we encountered men who were deeply unimpressed with our racial diversity. They called us hateful names and made monkey sounds and threw bottles at us. One broke upon the windshield of my car as we frantically drove away. We had not driven a mile before we happened upon a police cruiser on the side of the road. We explained to the officer what had happened, that we had been taunted and attacked. I thought that he would call for backup, get our statements, or go find the men. Instead, he mumbled that he would check it out, rolled up his window, and proceeded to do nothing. We waited until we realized that he had no intention of doing anything. Then we drove on. That night, my fear in the face of my helplessness began its slow transformation into the anger that carries me today. 

Aristotle teaches us that the emotions must act in service to reason, that we can think of ourselves as virtuous only when we have harmonized what we feel with what we know to be right. So that if we encounter something wrong in the world, someone who has gotten something that they did not deserve, or someone who has been punished too harshly for a crime, we should be angry about it. We should not feel despair, for that is paralyzing. We should not feel blind rage, for that leads to foolish action. Instead of blind rage, we should feel the focused intensity that bell hooks has called "the killing rage." Which I understand as anger. 

Anger, properly controlled, is a stance against docility. Against complicity. Against the cultural distractions that an old French philosopher once called the Merchants of Sleep. We have to be mad enough about the state of the world to change it. My belief in the hallowed power of reason is not always enough to get me to speak up when someone casually says something racist in mixed company.  But my anger, which ultimately is in service of that belief, does the trick every time. 

These are hard times. They have always been hard times and the challenges ahead will not be met by equanimity or non-attachment or peaceful obedience. Nietzsche says that “the great epochs of our life come when we have the courage to rechristen our evil as that which is best in us.” 

If anger has ever been seen as evil, then I agree. 

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