So Now, Anger Is What The Good Guys Feel

There's so much to say about this recent American election - and so much that is actually being said -that, other than some short discussions and posts in social media (and a dinner-party discussion), I've been keeping a low profile, watching matters unfold, reflecting, and occasionally posting some of the better bits of analysis.  There's something almost like a communicative paralysis induced by the paradox of choice in the aftermath of this contest.  With so much that could be said, and so many things other are saying one might give a thoughtful response to, how do you pick?  Any choice you make, you leave something else out.

One of my hard-left colleagues recently posted an interesting piece from Truthout - Henry Giroux's essay, The Authoritarian Politics of Resentment in Trump's America.  And after reading it over several times, I now know precisely what to start with, at least on my account (I really don't need to think or speak on anyone else's quite frankly).  I'll give the sound-bite, the elevator pitch, or the thesis (depending on which favored term you're inclined towards) right up front.

In his essay, Giroux makes a mistaken distinction in a careless way.  He sets the anger of the left, the working people, the poor, struggling, and oppressed against the resentment of the right, the duped working people, the racists, the . . .  well, why not just call them the deplorables. Resentment is bad, while anger is good in his view.  And we can identify the good people and the bad along precisely those lines - with the added feature that Trump exploited the resentment of the bad.  As someone who researches, writes and speaks about, and deals with clients struggling with anger, this sort of narrative - and the underlying theory Giroux appeals to - strikes me as irresponsible.

How Does Giroux Distinguish Anger and Resentment?

As a number of incisive philosophical analyses of anger from ancient times reveal - and on this matter, those by Aristotelian, Stoic, and early Christian thinkers are particularly worth checking out - anger is one of the most complex of the human emotions.  It can adopt many forms and adapt itself to many situations.  When it arises, that's a sign that there's definitely something wrong, and most likely not just what an initial view judges it to be.  Quite a few of the ancients were, in my view, wrong in deciding that anger was always something bad, but even those who see a vital role for anger to play in moral life, in opposing evils, in standing up for good - Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine would be prime examples - knew that it is foolishness to endorse anger as something mainly good.

One way, however, to attempt to make anger into something good - and this is precisely what Giroux does - is to redefine it, to draw new lines to the advantage of oneself or of one's own favored side.  People who think anger is bad do this conceptual redrawing all the time by claiming that other people feel anger, while they instead are just "frustrated",  "impatient", or "upset".  Generally, they do this so that they can displace the onus of anger onto the other, the rival, the threat, the enemy, the aggressor - and so that they can then pretend that, since not feeling anger as such, their affective response is more rational, more legitimate, healthy, justified, or quite all right from a moral perspective.

Giroux instead shifts the line.  Anger is what is all right.  It's "resentment" that's bad, wrong, what those other people feel and act upon.  Here's where these closely related affects (Giroux rightly recognizes that resentment can develop from anger, as pointed out below) can be neatly divided from each other, according to Giroux:
Anger is connected with injustice, while resentment is more about personalized pettiness.
He's certainly right in saying that anger is connected with injustice.  Connected. . .  such a slippery, ambiguous, suggestive term, is it not?  Certainly, anger is - as again classic analyses (and contemporary ones as well) emphasize - connected with the perception or imagination of injustice. That's not the same as injustice simply existing.  In fact, there can in fact be an injustice staring us in the face, and we might in fact get angry, and yet we might be contributing something to it in terms of our own perception or imagination (framing the matter in terms that we have uncritically accepted, for example).

Anger arises from the perception of injustice, against oneself, or against those persons or things that one in some way identifies with, views as important, cares or has concern for (and it hardly needs to be pointed out that people can be off-base about these matters as well).  But there's more to anger than that.  It also involves a desire for something that Greek-speakers called timoresis - retribution, setting things right, or more literally, "re-honoring" - and Latin speakers, vindictio - the word we get "vindication from."  And what is this?  Thomas Aquinas rightly points out that the person who is angry wants to impose some evil on another, precisely because that seems to them something good - the good of justice being reimposed or restored to the situation or relationship.

It's interesting that Giroux would attempt to spin off ressentment as something entirely separate from anger by saying that it is more about "personalized pettiness".  By that measure, much of what authors from antiquity down to the present labeled as "anger" wasn't such - it was just resentment. That should be a sign that he's attempting to redefine these terms in ways we ought to evidence suspicion towards.  Notice how this distinction plays itself out.
We see elements of crucial anger among the many supporters of Bernie Sanders, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement and the Indigenous-led movement to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. Anger can be a disruption that offers the possibility for critical analysis, calling out the social forces of oppression and violence in which so many current injustices are rooted. 
Meanwhile, resentment operates out of a friend/enemy distinction that produces convenient scapegoats. It is the stuff of loathing, racism and spontaneous violence that often gives rise to the spectacle of fear-mongering and implied threats of state repression. In this instance, ideas lose their grip on reality and critical thought falls by the wayside.
Does it strike you - whether you go by what you're reading in social media, seeing reported in the news, or the personal experience of your own interactions with others, that anger and resentment sort out quite so neatly.  There aren't any resentful people on the right, perhaps even among Sanders supporters or Black Lives Matter activists?  None of them employ a friend/enemy distinction, engage in any scapegoating, or indulge in any spontaneous (or for that matter, planned) violence?  

Notice - to shift topic slightly - that much of what Giroux says in the rest of the piece could be quite true (could being the key term, not is) - and he would still be off-base in the way he makes the distinction between anger and resentment along what are essentially lines of ideological commitments.  It seems entirely right that Trump did mobilize many people who fit the description of resentment.  It also seems quite likely that not all of the people he did mobilize were so motivated, and some of them may in fact have been angry rather than resentful.

Giroux is clearly correct to point out that the discourse of civility and incivility has been employed for - among other things - purposes of silencing angry voices.  That, of course, has been done by both side, left and right.  He's also right to point out that there is a wider culture of resentment, though he's understandably selective in his assessment about who the agents and who the victims are.  But, being right about - and helpfully raising - some matters does nothing to ameliorate what is essentially exactly the sort of us-vs-them perspective Giroux denounces, identifies with ressentment as opposed to righteous anger, and then reproduces in his own essay.

Shifting the Criticism - What Is Righteous Anger?

It's easy to point out inconsistency and selectivity when it comes to political analysis.  While that is certainly useful - it would be great, for example, if both left and right started living up to the demands they make upon their opponents, rather than playing games with the body politic - it can't be the end of an analysis of something like Giroux's glorification and call for mobilization of anger felt by his side coupled with accusations of ressentment conveniently cutting off the opposed side from any affective legitimacy.  Why not?  

So we point out that both sides - left and right - contain some members who are motivated by anger, and others who are motivated by ressentment (even assuming that we're able to make a strict distinction between these affects). Good guys and bad guys, all mixed in together, perhaps in some cases - since after all, let's be realistic about what human beings are like - motivated by both.  What then?  Both sides are inconsistent, self-serving. . .  what else is new?  We already knew that - or at least, if we haven't sold our minds and hearts to one side or the other, we should already know these things to be the case.  

What ends up being left out of Giroux's analysis - and what can take us beyond merely noting that matters are more complicated than the simplistic picture he's outlining - is the fact that not all anger is, by virtue of being anger, morally good, legitimate, or justified.  In fact, much of it is in fact bad in some respects.  There's a number of ways in which anger goes wrong.  And, when someone inevitably responds by asking"what about righteous anger"?, already by putting the question that way, it becomes clear that at least some anger is not righteous.

In fact, as I'll discuss a bit more below, this is precisely one of the main challenges in adequately understanding, evaluating, dealing with, and responding to anger.  As an affect, anger tends to produce or intensify an associated sentiment of being right, of being legitimate, or justified, or even necessary.  That's not to say that sometimes anger isn't the right response.  But angry people typically become not only bad judges of what they are angry about, but abut their anger itself.

So some anger is not a good or right emotional response, and some perhaps is - how then do we determine this?  The criterion for this - if we're being honest with ourselves, and responsible members of our political communities - cannot be whether the angry person belongs to one political camp or another.  It is entirely off-base for conservatives to discount legitimate anger felt, for example by Black Lives Matter protestors in an era marked by daily abuses of police power, and to treat their own anger as legitimate when it is over out-of-control health insurance costs produced as a foreseeable side effect by the Affordable Care Act.  It's just as off base for those on the left to treat their own side (and whoever else they identify with) as having a monopoly on legitimate anger.

How should we make this determination then?  How should we distinguish good anger from bad anger?  It can't be solely in terms of its consequences - not least since the totality of actual consequences often have not yet occurred at the time when anger is being aroused, felt, expressed, and acted upon.  A person's anger might indeed end up producing good consequences, but at the same time be entirely wrong for that person to feel and act upon.  It also can't be in terms of what provokes or causes anger.  A person can be legitimately angry over a genuine injustice that ought to be redressed, and still go wrong in anger in a variety of ways.  Allowing that originally legitimate anger to spill over against more convenient targets than the one who provoked the anger - and then finding a way to justify that to oneself - is a common example.

So, where should we go?  What criteria should we use?  How should we distinguish between good and bad anger?  How can we do this in the political sphere, in the midst of a contentious election, with a nation so fractured along ideological and cultural lines and narratives that one almost hesitates to call what we have at present a "political community"?  While not the sole set of resources I'd suggest turning to, I would say that classical moral theory is one place to turn.  If you want to understand anger better, there is a wealth of insight just in two main traditions (who by the way, disagree with each other on important points about anger, but provide systematic reasons for the positions they espouse) - the Aristotelian tradition and the Stoic tradition.

Neither the left nor the right would come off well - whether in terms of their own anger, or their characterizations of their own and their opponents' anger - when examined through the lens of substantive moral theories. In fact, the lines that, e.g. an Aristotelian approach, might draw between examples of righteous anger and examples of vicious anger would cut right across party lines - or any other distinction one might draw as well (class, gender, race, religion, region, education etc.)

Dangers Involved In Indulging Anger

One of the main dangers involved in anger - mentioned above - is that once a person becomes angry, he or she doesn't simply feel differently.  As Aristotle points out in his Rhetoric, the angry person does not judge matters the same way as when that person feels something else, or is calm - and this often results in misjudging things.  One of those - and this is precisely why anger can go astray in so many different ways - is one's own anger itself.  It becomes very easy to view one's responses - the things one says, how one says them, what one does or refuses - as legitimate, even as required of one ("you can't let them do that to you!"), when that same person viewing the situation in a different way might conclude that they did the wrong thing in expressing or acting on their anger - or even that their anger itself was off-base or more intense than it ought to have been.

Seneca observes - in his work specifically On Anger - that anger can set itself at odds with the truth itself, and get angry with the truth, when the truth contradicts anger.  That is, when a more rational, even-handed, level-headed look at things might suggest that anger isn't the right response.  Or that the amount of anger is out of proportion to some genuine offense, for which anger would be warranted - but not that much.  One can be off about just what sort - and how much - retribution or vindication is called for.

Worse, those who are angry - and who have at least some (though definitely not total) justification for their emotional response - often become blindered.  Not entirely blinded, but blindered, suffering under a kind of tunnel vision, unable to see what they really ought to see.  For example, it is a common response, when a person becomes angry with us, then expresses and acts upon that anger - particularly when they go too far in that expression and action - to become angry in turn with them.  And this can be quite often legitimate - at least as legitimate as the original anger.  Once a person has already become angry, however, and desires their vindication, an angry counter-response is the last thing he or she wants to encounter - though it is probably one of the more rational things to expect!

Anger also has a tendency to transmute into other affects.  An all-out, uncontrollable rage is one of those.  Ressentment of the sort that Giroux wants to contrast against anger is another.  Ressentment of the sort that Friedrich Nietzsche famously diagnosed (and whose analysis Max Scheler further developed in his study, Ressentiment) is another possibility.  And, as thinkers running the gamut from Aristotle to Saint Augustine observed, so is hatred.  Aristotle very usefully contrasts anger against hatred, arguing that, while the angry person wants the other to suffer in return - and thereby wants to maintain some sort of relationship - the person who feels hatred really wants the other person not even to exist, and would like to see them (and their kind) expunged if possible.

We could add to this various vicious dispositions that develop within a person when anger is poorly managed or understood, and then is indulged, expressed, acted upon, or misdirected repeatedly, and eventually consolidates itself into a habitual disposition.  Notice that being on the left or the right - or belonging to one class, one racial category, one gender or another - does absolutely nothing to ward off any of these problematic tendencies of anger.  There are resentful and ressentiment-full liberals and conservatives.  There are people with vicious tempers on both sides.  And there are people who tame their anger and direct it to better ends in both camps.

Giroux, unfortunately, doesn't see this - or at least doesn't envision it for his chosen side.
Anger is a double-edged sword and can be transformed into various forms of productive resistance or it can be appropriated and manipulated as a breeding ground for resentment, hate, bigotry and racism.
This is an excellent example of a true statement that doesn't go anywhere near far enough.  He's quite correct to point out that the right - and the alt-right in particularly noxious ways - has engaged in this sort of appropriation and manipulation.  And so, in a multitude of ways, has the left.  Often outright appropriation and manipulation aren't even necessary - the angry people manage to do the damage to themselves, rendering themselves worse off, but less able to realize that - and more blinded by self-righteousness - in the process.  What's really required is looking at the complex emotion of anger in more adequate, more sophisticated ways that don't evaluate it - let alone rename it (e.g. as ressentment) along solely political axes.  And so, that opens up a much larger conversation, to which classic moral theory offers much to contribute.