Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Essential Role of Anger in Social Change

The night that Ferguson burned, I was a thousand miles away. Still, I stared at my TV as orange flames licked up the sides of buildings and into the black Missouri sky while a singular phrase played in my mind, “Hunger is the dynamite of the human body”.  Carolina María de Jesús, a Brazilian peasant from the favelas of Sao Paulo, wrote this phrase in reference to the hunger pains that she used to feel as a girl living in the slums. And while I cannot say that I have ever experienced such hunger, I certainly do not doubt Carolina’s sentiments; her words strike a chord and I feel that I would be a fool not to listen.

The US has had a rough time of it lately, both on the domestic and international front. The massive protests in the wake of un-prosecuted killings of unarmed black men, a militarized police force, a racist judicial system, the release of the CIA torture report, the ever-increasing infiltration of big money in our democracy, and political gridlock over just about everything has caused a lot of anger and resentment, once waiting just below the surface, to boil over and become visible. People are hungry. Not for food, but for justice. The people are hungry for change.

The normative backlash from the traditional seats of powers, on comical display through the racism and ignorance of the major cable news outlets, has frantically tried to deny and re-direct this uncomfortable reality at every turn. But for the rest of us who recognize the essential utility of social and political critique, it seems like an eminent necessity that we better understand the anger that often accompanies our demands for justice lest it consume us or, worse, fizzle into nothing.

Anger, like the dynamite that is hunger, has both a creative and a destructive capacity. On the one hand, it can turn a city into ashes overnight. On the other hand, it is the impetus for great social change. Anger without progress is senseless; progress without anger is tepid and feeble.

When Ferguson descended into chaos, just like Los Angeles and Chicago and so many other American cities have done in the past, the hegemony shuddered and condemned the destruction. They blamed the black community, the instigators and the agitators. They blamed the ungrateful youth and the culture of [insert scapegoat here], but made no mention, paid almost no thought to their role in setting those fires. So many looked on and shook their heads but could not bring themselves to cross that emotional schism that separated their peaceful lives from the violence on TV. The anger was a foreign, alien force, one that they could neither commiserate with nor validate, only patronize and dismiss. 

Now, I make no claim to completely understanding other people’s anger, and so I speak here only about the anger I have personally felt in regards to the rampant injustice in our country. I am not marginalized or disenfranchised and I recognize that, if this is the how I feel—this deep, soul-rattling sort of anger—I cannot imagine how it must be for those with a more direct experience of this injustice.

Denying my anger is futile. To do so only buries these feelings, allowing them to fester and foment and erupt in even more vicious ways later. So I must acknowledge it, give it space, and direct it into channels through which it can be most effective. The key is for anger to be de-constructive, not just destructive. Breaking something apart—be it a system, a power structure, a prejudice, or a particular injustice—creates fertile ground in which the seeds of something better can be planted. But to raze the world haphazardly can also function to deepen the divide and ostracize the very people we are trying to learn to live with.

This is not meant to deny or belittle the cathartic role that anger plays in satisfying our collective grief and discontent. This does not mean that anger has to be nice or friendly. But anger must be controlled and calculated for it to be truly effective.

Anger is evidence of compassion. It indicates that our empathy is far reaching, a way of bridging differences instead of entrenching them. Anger means we care—for others, for causes and issues, and for a more just and equitable society.

Am I personally guilty of rash, at times even immature expressions of my own anger? Absolutely. But anger is a process as much as it is a moment and one that I am personally still trying to come to terms with, especially as of late. It is a process that we as a society and as individuals need time to explore and understand. If we truly desire change, we should allow ourselves to be angry, furious even—no one has the right to invalidate this expression, and no one can take this from us. It is absolutely integral, however, that after the smoke has cleared, we have the capacity and the energy left to build something better in its place.

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