Private anger is what is driving political change.

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Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

In a recent tweet, Nigel Warburton stated “In British politics, this is no time for Stoicism. We all need to be very angry. And to show it.”

In a recent blog post, I too considered Stoicism and anger as a political tool and came to a different conclusion. My focus is on the #metoo movement, not #Brexit, but the argument might still apply.

2018. It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It was the year of “angry” women, it was the year of “stoic” women. It was the year of rage, it was the year of reason. It was the season of “trivial whinging” and hysteria, it was the season of “moral outrage” and bravery. It was the winter of abuse and censor, it was the spring of hope, dialogue, and empowerment. We had 19 million women before us, roaring loud and clear: #metoo, me too, metoo.

The #Metoo Movement began in 2006 as a relatively quiet campaign to encourage empathy and sharing amongst women, mostly from underprivileged backgrounds, who had experienced sexual abuse. Just over a decade later, the movement erupted, when a much broader, louder, and angrier spectrum of women shared stories on social media and beyond. The movement has since produced countless written, spoken, and visual commentaries, plus a handful of full-length books which argue that anger — this dark, disorderly, and dangerous emotion — can be and ought to be harnessed as a political tool, a political emotion, and the super-powerful voice of activism. Women, now, had a moral duty to be angry.

At the same time, however, women were appearing in the public arena dressed not in armour but “wearing a stoic demeanour,” instead. Hillary Clinton was “stoic” watching the Trump inauguration. Alyssa Milano was “stoic” while watching the Brett Kavanaugh testimony. Anita Hill was “stoic” when delivering her own testimony. Uma Thurman was “stoic” when she announced her #metoo story. Olympic champion, Aly Raisman, in her own testimony, “exude[d] a level of composure that […] register[ed] as stoicism.” Australian Edith Cowan has always been a “stoic advocate for women’s rights.” Even Rose McGowan, the “fearless hero and flame-throwing narcissist,” was “stoic” during a hearing.

I don’t know about the private work these women might have done and might continue to do to make a judgement about whether their public look of “stoicism” might not, in fact, be “Stoicism,” but whatever private anger they carry, the public rhetorical force of the #MeToo movement is ordered, regulated, and controlled. More, it is based on the clearly communicated, pure in spirit, and reasonable principles of gender and social equity. Seneca would not call this “anger” at all.

According to Aristotle and Theophrastus, anger first manifests as some sort of complex bodily change that produces, unconsciously almost, a painful sensation or thought or desire. The unconscious response is the result of a feeling that some insult or injustice has occurred. The bodily response — the blood boiling and the altered tone of voice — comes before the judgement that an insult or injustice has occurred. For the untrained mind, this bodily response is almost Darwinian in its helpfulness. I remember now, as a 13-year-old, I had my first of many #MeToo moments and it was my body and senses that raised the red flag before my mind could articulate “injustice.” In my school uniform, on a crowded bus, the person behind me grabbed my bottom. Before I knew it, I’d turned around to face this person and punched him in the belly. Then, I turned back around to face the front of the bus. (Buses, injustice, and activism — there’s a theme!) It was years later, after a solid liberal arts education and after many more similar experiences, that my rational faculties caught up with a cohesive and reasonable view on the matter.

I can appreciate the Stoic’s “zero tolerance” stance on anger. We simply can’t have 13-year-old girls bearing fists on school buses! But when the stakes are so high, when there is systemic and epistemic injustice, abuse, and violence, that needs to be flagged and addressed, and if it is anger that first flags an injustice, oughtn’t we keep it? Is Stoicism then the unethical choice in our times, at least for women and their allies?

Anger is linked to activism. The motivating inception of the #MeToo Movement, for example, was found in the “deepest, darkest place” of founder Tarana Burke’s soul, presumably, the place where her anger dwells. From that same place, however, emerged a clear-headed vision for a principled programme of advocacy and change. Anger might be the enemy of reason, notes Seneca, but both anger and reason dwell in the same place.

Activist Charlene Carruthers, in a conversation with Anxy, talked about helping people use anger to fuel the activist work they do. “Not angst or anger for anger’s sake,” she clarifies, “but how do we transform that energy into something that builds?” Here, Carruthers echoes Aristotle and Martin Luther King Jr. who spoke of organizing and uniting people “so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” In a study of the psychology of peace activists, “in one autobiography after another, we find the same story — the initial action for peace and justice is motivated by anger against injustice.”

This is a familiar story and a familiar approach to anger. It is Aristotle’s. Make good use of your anger; moderate it, and direct it to the right cause, to the right persons, at the right time. Seneca’s approach to anger is also familiar. Don’t go there, resist it, it’s just too difficult to control, and your head can’t work properly if you’re angry.

Aristotle: Your head will work just fine. Just control your anger — use it as a solider not a general.

Seneca: But, if your head can control your anger, are we still even talking about anger?

Seneca thinks not. If we can control and impose limits to our anger, and then transform it to do good, moral, rational work, then it “ceases to be anger,” which Seneca understands to be “unbridled and unmanageable.”

So, maybe we just need a new word for anger. In any case, I think it’s important to keep Aristotle in the conversation here. As civic-minded souls in the contemporary world, the Aristotelian approach to anger is familiar, desirable, and legitimate. I think I am right to say that we all want the political and social freedom to express our moral outrage in a reasonable and sane way, in the right manner, to the right persons, for the right reasons. This is especially important for women right now, because for so long our emotions have been, at best, ridiculed, and at worse, demonized. Reclaiming anger is also, it seems, a way of redressing another injustice — the inequality of legitimate access to our emotional spectrum.

At the same time, we know that access to this emotional spectrum, especially that madness called anger, can be so destructive to our internal tranquillity and also to the tranquillity of our relationships in our social circles. Seneca makes a good point that while other vices can be “concealed and cherished in secret,” anger shows itself openly and just makes one look and sound disgusting. And there’s no shade of lipstick that goes with that. Thus, we want and must manage our anger, and of course, where it is of no use at all or where there are no rational grounds for it, banish it.

In my reading on anger, activism, and #MeToo, I was struck by the potential of a statement, made by Harvard scholar Moira Weigel, on finding anger most productive in private life. “Really private,” she said, “as an individual processing emotions. And in activist settings with feminist friends.”

There is a suggestion, in the article in which Weigel is quoted, that private anger, or anger expressed in small mutually supportive groups, is what is driving political change.

This reminded me of Marcus Aurelius and all the private work he did processing his own emotions in his “notes to himself.” Over and over again, he continually writes about the same problems, anger being one of them. In the privacy of his own journal, he is able to address and re-address his Stoic convictions and control, moderate, or even banish his anger. I wonder, then, whether private Stoic practice, Stoic journal writing, or practice in small mutually supportive groups might be where the Aristotelian work of anger moderation and transformation (or, yes, even banishment) might take place. And what about activism without rage? There is a suggestion, in the article in which Weigel is quoted, that private anger, or anger expressed in small mutually supportive groups, is what is driving political change.

Originally published on the Stoicism Today blog.

Therapeutic writing, writing for transformation, Stoic journaling.

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