[What follows is much more of an emotionally exploratory essay than a logically rigorous proof of something… though at times I’ll probably make arguments that I allege are logical.]
El Greco’s painting and the story to which it alludes speaks to the attraction and potential danger of the public display of anger. On the one hand, I can very directly relate to the urge Jesus is giving voice to. On the other, obviously, we wouldn’t have much of an orderly public world if everyone could just go around metaphorically knocking over whatever figurative money-changers’ tables we encountered.
(I guess another example that works here is Homer Simpson’s brief discovery of demanding satisfaction and the “glove slap” – one only gets so far before the old man who says “sihhhr” and demands “pistols at dawn”).
The image, of course, depicts a nonverbal act of anger, but one of the reasons it works as art is that is speaks to an ambiguity that is inherent in speech acts as well as other non-speech ones: one wants to say it’s acceptable, even necessary, to feel and express anger at certain times, and in public, but one also wants to say that’s not something you should just do every day, or even very often at all.
So when should you? Anger being such a concrete emotion, and the question being so abstract in nature, it’s difficult to answer. I’m tempted to adopt a “I know it when I see it” sort of answer, but then, that’s obviously question-begging.
I’ll work with the Jesus example to see if I can get anywhere. Suppose one wanted to defend the claim that anger was never acceptable. They might argue something like this:
“Jesus did not consider the full effect and context of his actions. Sure, there is hypocrisy inherent in money-changing in a temple, especially by allegedly believing pharisees. But getting mad about it is likely, first of all, to be counterproductive, and also, it treats those with whom he speaks disrespectfully. Those money-changers, after all, are making a living, everyone’s a hypocrite sometimes, how does he know they don’t have a severely ill spouse or child at home? In fact, it’s possible they use some of their profits to donate to charity, and if it weren’t for the inequality their existence perpetuates, the poor would be worse off than they are now etc. etc.”
Obviously I’m exaggerating but the issue seems to be – anger is something we’re likely to say should be overcome in pursuit of something like respect for others. It’s not acceptable to disrespect someone else even if you feel very strongly that their actions are wrong. Speech-acts delivered in anger generally involve disrespect, therefore such speech-acts are wrong.
I don’t profess to have a great argument to the contrary, but I will say I have very strong intuitions to the contrary, and those intuitions aren’t things I can easily set aside in some sort of reflective-equilibrium-type process. I’ll try to set them forth.
My reaction to the El Greco? I don’t look at this painting and think “Jesus should not have done that.” I’m guessing that’s not how many people (Christian or otherwise) see this painting. When I watch interviews with Malcolm X, I don’t think “he would have been much more successful if he had just mellowed out.” When I read pieces by Jonathan Franzen, I don’t think “that guy should just get over twitter and be happy.” When I read a letter by Ezra Round, I find something satisfying in its vitriol. Socrates’ contempt for the jury and his sarcastic proposals for alternate sentencing after they convict him make me laugh.
I recognize that my embrace of these various angry personages has an obvious explanation: I too am too angry. Just like Nates takes issue with my enjoyment of Pound’s letter, it took about 10 minutes for Twitter to strike back at Jonathan Franzen. And Malcolm X’s reputation precedes any study of his ideas. When we read Socrates in my high school class, many students are glad when he finally dies.
Still, there’s a part of me that wants to say “when you’re right you’re right, regardless of the mode of expression you’ve selected” or more strongly “when you’re right you’re right and sometimes you need to to get anyone’s attention.” A memorable example in this respect comes midway through Spike Lee’s Katrina documentary: then-mayor Ray Nagin goes on the air on a radio show and starts yelling about how no one is helping his city. One wants to ask what else you can reasonably expect from such a person in such a situation.
That makes it sound very instrumental in justification though – like if anger works, it’s okay. It’s probably true that anger sometimes works, but that’s not the sort of defense I’m looking for either.
I feel like the real explanation lies somewhere behind the cliche “if you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention.” What all of these acts of anger have in common seems to be the strident revelation of hypocrisy. Martin Luther King’s negative-positive peace distinction (it’s probably not his but he does use it) “a positive peace which is the presence of justice” vs. “a negative peace which is the absence of conflict” feels relevant here as well.
Maybe that’s where the argument for anger needs to start: with a critique of the very notion of “anger” in the first place: we’re accustomed to label as “angry” behavior that produces conflict. But a couple of the examples I’ve cited above are examples where an underlying absence-of-justice is more important than the absence of conflict it disrupts. If Malcolm X does some yelling, he’s also yelling about something that we’ve all just become accustomed to a form of structural violence that his yelling brings to the surface. Blaming him for being violent becomes a convenient rhetorical justification for continuing to ignore the very violence that his speech is highlighting.
That’s the power of the Jesus example: sure, he’s turning over tables, and sure, that seems bad, but, I want to say, “THEY’RE MONEY-CHANGERS AND THEY’RE IN THE TEMPLE!” The money-changers may be “civil,” but so are all white-collar criminals, and so were many segregationists and Nazis. But if their civility is in the service of a violent system, their civility hardly counts as a good thing.
There is no virtue in their civility if it serves as a rationalization for exclusion and injustice. So there is consequently no problem with anger in such a situation either. But then, we need to be sure injustice is involved. That’s a whole other issue, obviously, but if there is, if the angry party really is right, there’s no real problem with it.
Of course some of the best arguments against anger all rely on the likelihood of someone’s being wrong. The idea is – be civil because your interlocutor might be right. But what about when you’ve actually done all the work necessary to prove to yourself that they’re not? You’re a slave on a plantation being forced to do inhuman labor – are you wrong to yell about it? Probably not. But all the normal anti-anger cliches apply here, right? “Your owner is a person too.” and so on. Still I’m inclined to side with the slave.
So a couple of provisional conclusions. Speech-acts we label as “angry” are often just things we don’t want to confront. Anger seems justified when it’s rhetorically effective and the underlying cause is just. It’s probably wrong when it’s not.
One last bit – I do agree with Nates that we quite often find totally out-of-proportion expressions of anger and misunderstandings that begin from anger in contemporary political discourse. I think this has a lot more to do with the medium of those communications than any issue with anger per se. The internet has become the site of a million microaggressions (and consequent microaggressions about microaggressions) a second. Think of all the posts in your feed that essentially say “can you BELIEVE what [this guy you’ve never heard of] said about [a group you allegedly care about]?” Temporary outrage seems to work well to generate clicks. But none of the examples I’ve given are about that – such click-bait just seems to be a set of cases where the cause is not just. If it were – and it were truly thought out, like I take Franzen’s, Malcolm X’s work, for example, to be, I don’t see the problem with it.