Pissed Off

Barbara H. Rosenwein, Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion

Yale University Press, 229pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780300221428

reviewed by Alexandre Leskanich

Without exception, my earliest memories of being extremely angry occurred at school. Because I didn’t like being bullied and belittled (which is to say, made to feel powerless so someone else could feel powerful), blows as well as words were frequently exchanged. Regrettably, one of my nastier tormentors could properly punch: schooled in the noble art, he memorably delivered a perfect left hook to my liver, leaving me immobilised. On another occasion, I attempted to throttle an unpleasant peer into submission; and in a brief tête-à-tête kneed a goading antagonist in the groin during a playground football match. Once, while enduring a routine taunting in a design and technology class, I hit another boy over the head — hard — with a large wooden paintbrush. This must have hurt, because he promptly punched me in the face. Another recipient (or victim) of my anger I kicked squarely in the balls; only to later discover he was a haemophiliac when his parents complained.

I remained unrepentant. Another time, a heavy-set protagonist rugby tackled me into the wall of a mobile classroom, which rattled precariously. Furious, I proceeded to throw a vengeful flurry of inaccurate punches. And so it continued. At the time, my anger seemed justified; it seemed only natural to want to hurt, or punish, my assailants. These were, in retrospect, petty masculine quibbles over status and bruised honour. Aristotle would have rightly understood the anger of my adolescence as a simple desire for vengeance provoked by a demeaning slight against my person. Having exacted my revenge (such as it was), my desire for retribution was satisfied.

As anecdotes about anger go, these are about as banal as it gets. Happily, Barbara H. Rosenwein, a Professor Emerita at Loyola University Chicago, begins her engaging history of anger with an equally ordinary anecdote of her own; namely, her beat-down of a favourite rubber doll when she was a small child. Her mother observes disapprovingly to a friend that her daughter ‘has a lot of anger in her’, and young Barbara feels instantly ashamed. Clearly, this isn’t what sensible, well-mannered girls do. There’s a double standard, of course: for my own amusement, I recall repeatedly punching a fabric toy rabbit until its head began to depart from its body, and this was considered (or so I recall) merely irritating. That I also traipsed around the family farm beheading vegetation with sticks and gunning down imaginary combatants didn’t raise any eyebrows either. Evidently, the forms and limits of acceptable anger are set at different thresholds, and whether an action is perceived as ‘angry’ depends upon who is performing it (including in what context), and what sex they happen to be. In any case, her attack upon this innocent object, Rosenwein conjectures, may have been because she grew up with anger — as to some extent we all do — around her: her father and mother frequently fought, venting their dissatisfactions, lamenting their inadequacies, while Barbara and her sister hid behind the sofa; listening, and — more significantly — learning.

Certainly, the range of behaviours we call ‘angry’ manifest first and foremost as neurophysiological responses, ‘present in primates, useful for survival, separate from reason, and passed along to human beings in their DNA.’ But it can’t be overemphasised that anger is also learned: the brain, Rosenwein points out, ‘constantly monitors sensations from both within and outside of us, tries to make sense of them, and works to create bodily states which are conducive to survival.’ She aptly describes groups ‘that share the same or very similar norms and values about emotional behaviour and even about feelings themselves as ‘emotional communities.’ The basic idea here is that, just as culturally we are trained to observe a whole host of conventions concerning our bodies (how they should look, how they ought to move, what positions they should adopt under certain circumstances), ‘so too our minds are trained to know and respond to certain kinds of emotions, to approve of some, and to censure others.’ Thus young Barbara learned from her mother, as her mother had learned before her, ‘what she thought anger was’, and therefore that pummelling her doll was not ‘the approved’ way to express it. In the context of her family’s emotional community, anger, she learned, ought to be expressed in particular ways, ‘namely volubly and dramatically, with an admixture of grief.’ By the time she gets married, the author discovers through her husband a slightly different emotional community, and hence a different understanding of anger: ‘political, not personal’, ‘righteous, not self-pitying’. That we don’t all get angry about the same kinds of things is evidence that anger is a complex and fluctuating response to which a range of different feelings and behaviours apply. As a term, ‘anger’ is widely used in English-speaking countries, but is not universal, as Rosenwein observes. ‘It’ is prompted by different concerns, is manifested in different ways, and is evaluated according to different criteria.

This book aims to counter the simplification of ‘a very complex matter’, and hence provides no ‘handy definition’ of anger itself. Rather, Rosenwein more modestly starts with the ‘probability that “it” exists only as a convenient word that covers a great variety of feelings.’ If anything, the word is used too promiscuously, to the extent that so many different behaviours and feelings are labelled angry that the word often loses its intended resonance in everyday speech. She remarks that ‘although as a society we have become increasingly interested in “feelings” — our own and that of others — our emotional vocabulary has become progressively impoverished.’ Naming our emotions is a crucial means of understanding our feelings, in the sense that such names, e.g. rage, indignation, disgust, fury, wrath and peevishness, ‘organise and chunk together a great variety of sensations’. ‘Emotion words’ therefore ‘evoke whole scenarios of meaning, predict the responses of others, and take on new meanings.’ So, apparently easy to understand, anger is actually far from comprehensively understood, not least because there are various sorts of ‘angers’, and ‘divergent notions of anger — and various feelings of rage, irritation, resentment, frustration — jostle together within us, our families, our neighborhoods, and beyond.’ There isn’t mutual agreement on what anger is, what forms it takes, or under what circumstances we should feel ‘it’. Anger ‘did and does not “feel” the same in every culture and every period of time, even if the same word is used.’ As much a cultural as physiological phenomenon, then, anger is contingent on social development, on everyday ways of thinking and behaving culturally inculcated in particular communities.

One can think of an example to illustrate Rosenwein’s point about anger being a ‘mutual construction’ if one considers cases when, depending on cultural tradition or religious belief, it either is or isn’t provoked: circumcision, for example. Unless one belongs to an ‘emotional community’ in which severing bits of flesh from a sexual organ is considered perfectly fine, it becomes a blatant violation of one’s person, and anger at this practice would, outside this setting, serve as a justified response to that violation. That men within certain social groups don’t feel angry at this mutilation inflicted without their consent is because they inhabit a space in which the practice is culturally mandated: to feel angry about being circumcised, from the standpoint of this perspective, would seem absurd. That it doesn’t occur to members of a social group that the practices occurring within it might give just cause for anger is a consequence of their inhabiting an emotional community in which what one can get angry about is limited to a shared spectrum of moral concern. Unless one sees others in your social group getting angry about some cultural practice or other, the feeling (however defined) is unlikely to spontaneously arise within you. Slavery only now fills us with abhorrence because our moral bandwidth has mutated or been otherwise extended through concerted intellectual and political effort.

Evidently, anger can function both as an ‘accelerant’ that motivates action against injustice, as manifested in recent months when Black Lives Matter protesters refused to allow the murder of African Americans at the hands of police to stand unchallenged; and operate as a block against reconciliation or compromise, an affliction of the will which leaves us at the mercy of our sensations. Anger can be inflected with nobility and righteousness, or with destruction and despair — sometimes concurrently. As usual, one’s level of analysis yields different results. At an individual level, anger often manifests as aggression, either through verbal outbursts or physical force. At other times, it is simply repressed. But collectively, anger at injustice, when channelled determinedly and effectively enough, can yield revolutionary legal and political concessions. Rights — e.g. for women, for workers, for African Americans, for LGBTQ communities — were not won without anger as a tool of resistance and reform. But just as anger can work to mitigate injustice, it can also function in pursuit of masochistic and manufactured causes as well. As we know, through the distribution of falsehoods, anger can be stoked and directed at politically opportune targets in order to advance an ideological agenda that has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with power. Anger which motivates the pursuit of social and political change — the seeking of justice and equality for the oppressed, downtrodden, and needy of the world — coexists with anger as a liability destructive of both oneself and others.

Expressing the view upheld by the Stoics, Montaigne observes that ‘one who out of natural mildness and good-nature overlooks injuries received performs a very fine and praiseworthy action; but another who, though provoked and stung to anger by an insult, takes up the weapons of reason against his furious desire for revenge, and after a hard battle finally masters it, is undoubtedly doing a great deal more.’ For him, the exercise of virtue is a ‘difficulty and struggle’ that requires an adversary; it demands ‘a harsh and thorny road’, some external challenge to contend with. Similarly, the Buddha’s injunction is to ‘abandon anger’, classifying it as a ‘form of hatred’ which is ‘ruinous for another.’ Fettered to the world by our hatreds, ‘which arise from our egotistical notions of ourselves’, anger is no more than ‘the bitter fruit of our self-regard.’ On this view, anger is a baleful form of suffering that must be transcended. But the master of one’s emotions is not necessarily virtuous: they may successfully avoid confrontation, and therefore intemperance, but their mastery is unlikely to effect any positive moral change in the world at large. So today, by contrast, we are urged not to abandon our anger, but to express or expel it productively. Indeed, following Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers, we are inclined to attribute to anger a moral role, celebrating its pivotal capacity to achieve justice, even lauding it as a duty integral to moral conduct. As a Black Lives Matter placard recently had it: ‘If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention’. But in Anger, Rosenwein also detects a return to the emotion as a reactionary response to personal injury: ‘with the internet, cable TV, misinformation campaigns, and radio chatter amplifying our sense of injury and encouraging us to get angry, we are beginning to lose sight of the other long traditions . . . of abandoning, controlling, and critiquing anger.’

Rosenwein concludes that being angry changes us, and not just on a physiological level. Emotionally, it can be an alienating, even self-defeating, experience: feel angry often enough, and one can become more susceptible to otherwise minor annoyances; more likely to react in ways that are unjustified or disproportionate. Ultimately, anger is momentary, prolonged, painful, banal, euphoric, revolutionary, explosive, and sometimes deadly. It can manifest in sudden, emotional eruptions, or can seethe undetected. It can motivate edifying action, or inflict undeserved agony. Mostly, it is reactionary; sometimes, it is virtuous; often, it is pointless. But both for better and worse, it continues to modify ourselves and our world, occasionally in new and unexpected ways. Anger can seize us with a sense of crisis, either in regard to our own lives, or in relation to some aspect of the world that concerns us. It can alert us to the severity of the suffering that befalls other people, or it can blind us to it. That we can neither wholly control, nor entirely escape its power, ultimately behooves us to try and use it as best we can in ways which are least harmful to others.
Alexandre Leskanich received his PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2020. His first book, The Anthropocene and the Sense of History: Reflections from Precarious Life, is under contract with Routledge. He lives in London.