Anger is not generally seen as the most productive of emotions; it is also invariably seen as involuntary or difficult to control. In politics it can be polarising, motivational, violent or community-building. Furthermore, politics, tied up as it is in the everyday lives of ordinary people – and yet seemingly so out-of-reach – is naturally going to incite emotional reactions, and it will therefore be impossible to ever eradicate anger entirely, even if this were a desirable outcome. In fact, as destructive as it can be, anger in politics can also be positive, particularly for those who find themselves otherwise excluded from debate.
Anger as Emotion
Psychologically, “anger results from [the] combination of [a] trigger event, the qualities of the individual [getting angry], and the individual’s appraisal of the situation.” Thus, depending on whether the person getting angry has appraised the trigger event in a way that is reasonable and correct, the anger may be misplaced, or it may be justified. Personality, current mood and circumstance also enter into the equation. What is clear, however, is that anger cannot always be prevented. Even if the situation could have been appraised differently, if a person is naturally competitive or aggressive, or if earlier events have affected them in such a way to predispose them to anger at a particular moment, the fact that reasoning or logic might eliminate their trigger is irrelevant. It is a reaction. It is involuntary.
Therefore, it follows that political anger is much the same, and that cool debate may not always be an option. There are numerous reasons why politics may trigger anger in a person: from feeling attacked to feeling isolated. Moreover, “…politicians tend to make exaggerated claims …claims are often designed with the explicit purpose of making people angry. …[and] those who don’t believe them respond with anger over what they perceive as dishonesty.” In short, whether the level of political anger is productive or otherwise, it cannot be reduced just by wishing it so.
Minimising Potential Triggers
Anger cannot be eradicated, but there is good reason for it to be minimised where possible. Firstly, as Nussbaum argues, anger is divisive: it is bad because of its consequences—alienating political opponents, breeding revenge and violence, inhibiting progress…” This line of thought is only too evident in today’s politics, both in the UK and US. Anger and resentment divides Remainers and Brexiters in the UK, just as it does pro-Trump and anti-Trump supporters in the US. In both cases, bridging the ideological divide seems like a daunting task. For the sake of national unity at least, unnecessary anger needs to be quelled in some way.
Moreover, as hinted previously, those in power have learned to utilise political anger to consolidate or elevate their position, and halting this abuse of public feeling for personal gain is especially important. Although apparently evident in the campaigns of Donald Trump and ‘Leave’, this phenomenon is not new. It was observed by then-student Nick Licata in 1968, upon visiting a rally for presidential candidate George Wallace. “He was a master at reading the crowd and reflecting their anger.” Nick goes on to note that such an ability is not limited by a person’s ideology: conservative, liberal, communist… it is a method widely employed by politicians.
Although it may be infuriating that politicians are actively promoting division, this is a solvable issue. Leaders could be prevented from knowingly creating anger, something which could be policed particularly via outlawing deliberate factual distortion or lying. People could still be angry at policy or behaviour, but preventative measures against deliberate public provocation is one way to minimise anger in politics, and thus minimise the alienation and violence Nussbaum fears, and thus promote progress.
A Tool for the Oppressed
While removing unnecessary anger may desirable, and while alienation is best avoided where possible, this does not mean that anger – even anger which may cause some negative effect – should be discouraged in every case. In fact, when one discourages marginalised groups from expressing anger, one is enforcing the status quo and quite possibly legitimising the oppressed person’s plight. This is because discouraging justified anger means that one is failing to acknowledge its root, and in doing this, one dismisses the person expressing it and deems their concerns unimportant. Doing this to a marginalised group angry at being sidelined by society, one only further entrenches that marginalisation. This idea is perhaps put best in response to Nussbaum‘s staunch anti-anger stance:
The anger of women, or black people, or gays, or Palestinians is counterproductive…because those in power have made it so. It is a matter of contingency…that women’s and black people’s anger is dismissed as evidence of their inferiority and used as an excuse to bar them from public life”
Significantly, this is not just theory. A very notable example of it is that of the depiction of the suffragists and suffragettes during the fight for women’s suffrage. Cartoonists depicted the campaigners as grotesque, unlovable, hysterical old maids – an attempt to dismiss their anger and thus retain the status quo. They were made ridiculous. Although it is debatable whether militant or peaceful tactics were most significant in gaining the vote, anger was a vital component of the movement. It was a motivator, an organiser; it drew these women together. They alienated men and women alike, but few today would argue that their eventual achievement of their goals was not worth it.
Today, perhaps the dismissal of anger by marginalised groups is less blatant, but it is still present. An example that gained a great deal of publicity comes from a Prime Minister’s Question Time in 2011, when then Prime Minister David Cameron told Labour MP Angela Eagle to ‘calm down dear’ as she shouted out in protest. As the clip below demonstrates, the room is filled with angry exclamations – but it is a female MP whom he particularly chooses to chastise. He dismisses and patronises her in a way that he fails to do with his other hecklers: implying that her anger in particular is less justified.
If a woman as privileged as her cannot be taken seriously by her peers, why should other women be forced to speak quietly about their grievances?
Of course, ideally, anger needs to be minimised in politics. If a person’s privilege allows them some form of platform where they will be taken seriously, reasoned debate is preferable and sensible. Accusations and harsh words are unlikely to endear a person or group to their opponents, and thus calm, peaceful debate is likely the best policy. This should ideally apply for settling differences within allied groups too. Moreover, steps need to be taken to prevent those in power from promoting divisiveness through aggravating rhetoric. However, anger does have a place in politics. If one does not have a platform, or if one’s opinions and emotions are used to dismiss or de-legitimise that person or group’s position, anger is an entirely appropriate response…and possibly the only way to incite change.