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Don’t Call Me Angry

Barbara H. Rosenwein

We are tearing our body politic in two, and one reason why is that we simplify the idea of anger. We’ve all seen the headlines: “Global Anger Grows Over George Floyd Death”; “Indianapolis police fire tear gas to disperse angry crowds”; “Angry crowds set fire to Minneapolis police station.” But is everyone in a crowd “angry”? There is reason to doubt it. Some protestors may want vengeance; others may want justice; some demonstrators may be in mourning; others may be scared; some are simply ready for action. Are those who trash an electronics store angry? Or are they criminals, perhaps “thugs?” Or are they making a statement about the skewed importance of property over people in our society? Or all of the above? It’s too easy to call a whole crowd angry.

We have lost a whole vocabulary of feeling. Think of the possibilities we could use in place of angry: sizzling, frustrated, heated, wrathful, irate, infuriated, outraged, peeved, incensed, ranting. Think also of the fact that anger is often combined with other feelings. You can—you do—feel sad anger, loving anger. In the south of France in the Middle Ages the vernacular word for anger also meant sorrow. What a difference it would make to run a headline that said “Sorrowful crowds riot”! Why not? The horrible death of George Floyd sickened and saddened many of us—I would hope all of us. Sorrow is probably closer than anger to the emotion animating the protests in our streets—if we have to find one emotion for a thousand different shades of feeling.

The word anger isn’t neutral; it’s a value judgment, though what value we give it has changed over time. Aristotle thought that only free men could get angry; anger was a virtue—but only for the few. The Stoic Seneca said that anger was a misjudgment and a vice. Medieval Christians split the difference: they said that anger could be righteous—but only if it was the anger of God. It’s no wonder that for ordinary human beings, one of the Seven Deadly Sins is anger. When we call someone angry, we are not just labelling an emotion; we are making a judgment that is honed by centuries of moral conditioning. That judgment depends on whether we think anger is good or bad, who we think is permitted to experience it, and where we think anger leads. Calling a crowd “angry” usually means something bad.

Anger can be good when it catalyzes change. This happens a lot. Consider a lovers’ quarrel. A: “I’m fed up. You never help with the housework.” B: “You’re totally unfair. But ok. I’ll take over the dishwashing from now on.” Or even: A: “You never help with the housework.” B: “You are right. Give me a list of what you need.” Of course, less happy scenarios are possible. And I don’t mean to suggest that B might not be the one to start the dialogue. But when we imagine anger, we rarely consider its constructive side. We see a crowd smashing a store window, and we think: anger. As if when there is violence, there is anger. But there is and has been plenty of violence without anger. A hitman isn’t angry when he hits; he’s just doing his “job.” The guards at Auschwitz weren’t angry; they were simply following orders as they coolly consigned their prisoners to extermination. Buddhism teaches that anger must be abandoned altogether. When Myanmar’s Buddhists kill, rape, and expel Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State, they don’t feel “angry”: they feel righteous. They think they are saving Buddhism from those who want to destroy it.

So don’t call me angry. Don’t call them angry. Don’t call us angry. We have a lot to be angry about, for sure. But anger is just the start. We have a lot to regret, a lot to mourn, a lot to love, and above all, a lot to change.

Barbara H. Rosenwein is professor emerita at Loyola University Chicago. She is the author of numerous books, including Anger’s Past: The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Middle Ages and Generations of Feeling: A History of Emotions, 6001700.

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