I was raised in New York City during a recession, and it often seemed like an angry place, at least in public. I recently read that New Yorkers smile less than people in any other city in America. I have spent a lot of my adult life trying to learn to be less angry and less defensive. I read stoic philosophy and practice mindfulness meditation and seek to be a calm and peaceful person. And I believe that to the extent I’ve succeeded at this, it’s helped me be a better Ethical Leader.
So I was challenged by James’s Platform “Get Angry, Make Change,” and his argument that “it is heat that allows us to bend the iron of the world. Hot hearts make change, not cool heads.” I have often wondered at how to ensure that calm does not mean apathetic, and peaceful does not mean inactive. At the same time, I believe that the most effective change is brought about by a hot heart ruled by a cool head, or at least that the two need not be in conflict. I think anger can be great and even necessary in the gas tank, but I worry when it’s sitting in the driver’s seat.
James referenced psychologists who differentiate between anger and rage, with anger being a motivator of positive action and rage being a blinding emotion that causes people to lash out. This reminds me of what I read a couple months ago in The Book of Joy, in preparation for my Platform Address “Is Comparison the Thief of Joy?” The book is a set of discussions between Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, two men who maintain joyful outlooks on life despite seeing and experiencing great hardship. They differentiate between what we might call “righteous” anger, which is anger on behalf of others that motivates us to fight injustice, and what we might call “self-righteous” anger, which is more about our own egos.
There are also tactical considerations with anger and its use and expression. There is a difference between being motivated by anger and expressing ourselves angrily.
I took to heart James’s call that we should “try to become more comfortable with the anger of others–particularly the anger of women and people of color, who are often subject to damaging stereotypes when they allow themselves to show anger.”
Yet a practical problem with angry rhetoric is that it whips up those who already agree with us but alienates those who don’t. And anger is almost always met with anger—so if anger is motivating, then making our opponents angry also motivates them. And then you have a fight rather than dialogue, debate, or negotiation.
I’m really not sure how I feel about anger, to be honest. Maybe James is right and sometimes you need to have a fight to have any change at all.
James shared several videos of people who had lost loved ones to gun violence; their anger was palpable, and contagious. And indeed their anger has reignited a movement that might turn out to be even more powerful than the weapons industry. I certainly hope so.