‘Who is man that is not angry?’ That was Shakespeare. He had a lot of angry characters, didn’t he? People who railed against fate, against injustices, against betrayals. Some of them use their anger to good effect too.
And yet, we have all been told that anger is a bad emotion, a destructive emotion, the root of a lot of evil. The Bhagavad Gita is very sure about its bad effects. ‘Krodhat bhavati sammoha’ (From anger comes delusion), it says very clearly and then a whole series of bad effects follow from that, ending in total destruction! The Bible is no less certain. The Psalms tell you to ‘Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.’ I’m sure all other religious books also advise their adherents to forsake such a negative emotion.
But when you see anger flare up against injustice, against cruelty, you wonder if matters are quite so simple. It is from anger, that a number of reforms and changes have come about in this world. Anger at an injustice, if it does not contain hatred for the perpetrator, could be a force to change the lives of people affected by the injustice. A mild voice, or even a number of reasonable voices, saying, ‘That’s not fair, you can’t do it like that’ may not be sufficient to attract the attention of the society and the world at large. It may require angry shouts from a number of throats, to get people to listen. Visible anger, rage that cannot be contained in politeness and good behaviour, can shock people into listening to what is being said. There is so much noise around that very often only shouts and screams saying, ‘No, you shall not,’ reach across the indifference of people otherwise engaged, and are heard.
And in those cases, anger, a just anger, is a force for the good. If sufficient people are angry at a piece of cruelty, if sufficient people find a practice abhorrent, and react angrily, it is likely that the cruelty will be ameliorated, the abhorrent practice will be abandoned. Often, it is one instance of injustice, of unfairness, that provokes reactions that go beyond the confines of that particular incident. Gandhiji being thrown out of the first class compartment changed a westernised man clad in a three piece suit into a ‘half-naked fakir’ and the world was changed forever. A lot of things that were taken for granted collapsed. The indignation of a woman being asked to vacate a seat on a bus in a small town in the United States changed the way a nation looked at a piece of systemic injustice.
All this was a generation or two ago. Sometimes it seems as though we have lost the ability to feel that kind of indignation and to react with anger. A kind of lassitude seems to have settled on us where such reactions are concerned. Perhaps the lessons of non-violence have become ingrained. We feel that loud noises and angry shouts are somehow demeaning. This could be because protests and revolts, when they do occur, appear to be politically motivated rather than set off by righteous indignation and resulting anger. Even the violence that happens is often orchestrated. Normal people, people who are not politicians, are hardly involved in the protests. Even the non-politicians are there because they have a particular point of view to highlight. And not because they are genuinely angry at something.
Anger and indignation about mean trifles is a very personal matter and probably bring about only frustration and weariness. But genuine anger at larger wrongs can be a very positive force, charging the protests with life and energy.
I think we need to retrain ourselves to feel that anger, that violent reaction (violence does not mean you beat up your neighbour or that you break windows and shop fronts) that can bring about social change. We don’t need Wilfred Owen’s ‘the monstrous anger of guns’ for this. We need to cultivate that anger we have lost in the process of over-civilizing ourselves. As Malcolm said it, ‘Let grief convert to anger, blunt not the heart, enrage it.’ That is because sometimes only anger can provoke us to act strongly, to stop a particular instance of bad practice.