How NOT to Save the World, Part 2 (or, The Fate of the Always Furious)
“The supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Anger feels good. It gives us a surge of delicious power. It gives us strength and the will to overcome that which would cause us harm. But like any weapon, wielding the sharp edged blade of anger requires proper training.
If we want to be a productive force for social change, we must learn to wield this weapon without causing ourselves or others unintended harm. Blind submission to the intoxicating power of anger will not succeed in achieving our goals. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this very well. He knew that anger alone and unchecked only led to more violence and setbacks for the cause of civil rights. Instead, he channelled the justified anger of the oppressed and helped them to use it as a force for social transformation.
We know the outcomes. The non-violent civil rights movement fought an arduous battle – but ultimately they changed the laws of America.
We also know the outcomes of violent conflicts throughout history. Wars dragging on for decades, centuries. The dead too many to count on all sides, the grudges passed down from one generation to the next like a family heirloom. Retaliation fueled by anger leading to retaliation fueled by anger leading to… on it goes.
Anger has its place in our lives. It has played an important evolutionary role, providing a burst of strength for the hunt and for defense from violence. When channelled, anger gives us single-minded focus on self-protection. When faced with legitimate physical danger, anger is unparalleled in its capacity to keep this body safe.
Anger has its place. But in our modern daily lives, how often do we question what that place is?
Interrogating the utility of anger requires discernment. Discernment requires both the willingness and ability to judge ourselves and our actions. Discernment leads to one of the best questions we can ask in life:
Is this helpful?
Looking at our goals for any given situation, we can ask whether a strategy is helping – or hindering. And then a follow-on question: are there better alternatives to achieving my goals?
Through honest reflection, we can find the answers to this line of inquiry. No doubt it is difficult to untangle ourselves from the veil of strong emotion – particularly when it comes to anger. The mind’s first response to the question of anger’s usefulness will always be a resounding, “yes of course it is!” The single-minded focus anger generates also presents us from seeing any other alternatives.
Further, the human mind is a justification machine. The rational mind constructs arguments for any behavior set in course by our emotional (and unconscious) mind. If we keep digging, though, we can see through the veil. We can see that anger, more often than not, is a tool to feel righteous.
Sometimes we need to be jolted out of it. For me, a direct experience of the counter-productiveness of anger helped to unravel the story it tells again and again to justify itself.
Many years ago, I got into a heated argument with a co-worker. It began innocently enough with casual conversation at lunch. Conversation soon moved into a subject for which she had very strong feelings: birth control pills. In particular, that birth control pills caused cancer in women. Had she simply presented some of these facts to me, we most likely would have continued with our casual conversation. I might have left with some curiosity to learn more about the evidence behind this.
But that’s not what went down.
Fueled by her anger about this issue, the intensity of her presentation of these facts felt like a jabbing finger. As she saw it, as a man with a girlfriend using birth control, I was part of the problem. In so many words, she argued that I was an uncaring perpetrator of violence against this woman I professed to love. If I cared about her, how could I subject her to cancer? Feeling accused and attacked, my anger rose to the defense. Her anger and my anger were soon shouting at each other across the table in our place of work. Classy.
At the outset of this furious argument, I held no strong views about birth control pills. Hadn’t thought much about it, other than some gratitude for staving off early parenthood. But I soon found myself digging in my heels on the opposing position, defending birth control pills as if defending my very liberty. We traded barbs back and forth…
Until in a flash, I saw how stupid this was. I stopped. She stopped. We looked at each other, like “what the hell just happened?” We talked it out, apologized, and left a little bit wiser.
In the reflection of her intensity, I saw myself. I saw how many times throughout my life I had done the same thing. So many times I have presented an argument to someone with such angry intensity… that in essence I forced them to take the other position. I saw that she turned me into an “enemy” through her anger, just as I had turned others into enemies so many times before.
I see this same angry intensity in the face of many of the activists I have known or encountered. Fueled by righteous indignation at legitimate issues, we take to the streets. We take to the social media airwaves. We pour out this fury in attacking our ideological enemies, trading tweet hate and chasing people out of restaurants.
If our goal is to create endless conflict, this strategy will succeed. But if we want to enact transformational change in society, succumbing to disorganized anger is a road to failure.
Is anger helpful? Yes, it can be. But in the spirit of Dr. King and many other great non-violent leaders, we must learn to channel this emotion into wise action, not just gratification. If we are to improve the quality of life for all people, then we must improve the quality of our actions. If we are to save the world, we must learn to save ourselves – from ourselves.