Seeing Red

On Radical Anger Management

This post is a guest contribution by Anne Russell. 

After a year of trying to manage various personal and political fallouts with seethingly angry leftist men and others, I was too depressed and anxious to eat or sleep properly. Rationally or not, leftist politics had virtually become a trigger for me, so I tried to drop out of them to work out my new life as a quiet gardener. Although angry men do this kind of damage wherever they are, the ways in which these men’s rage emerged was specific to leftism, and indeed is something shared by many women and non-binary people within social justice movements. Almost everyone involved in progressive politics has had moments like mine, which sometimes turn into months or years or lifetimes of either trying to avoid political scenes or letting one’s bitterness infect whole movements.

Anger management within leftism is sometimes difficult to conceptualize, because anger is one of the key emotions involved in fighting oppression, and is not by any means an inherently negative one. In the 1976 film Network, the increasingly unhinged newscaster Howard Beale tells his audience that, “You’ve got to get mad! You’ve got to say ‘I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!’” The feeling of hope is intrinsic to anger, the idea that somehow things could have been different. Leftism introduces people to the idea that society never had to be this bad, and consolidates that anger into collective action. Indeed, anger management for the dispossessed, such as women and/or people of color, often involves letting anger out rather than repressing it. But if allowed to run on indefinitely, self-perpetuating anger can merely produce the knowledge that things didn’t have to be like this without offering any real vision of what they’re actually supposed to be like. As in the scene in Network, the Left often turns into a disparate group of people yelling over the top of one another, with no commonality beyond rage.

This is not to say that communism and anarchism have not mapped out visionary utopias, but that many of its adherents are unwilling or unable to behave in ways that would have any hope of producing them. The delight of the TV executive in Network upon seeing Beale’s on-screen tirade—“Son of a bitch! We struck the motherlode!”—demonstrates how easily leftist rage is co-opted by capital, used as primetime TV or clickbait. Many people who are new to progressive politics tend to regard non-political people with a certain contempt, an attitude most common amongst conspiracy theorists, who view the struggle as a face-off between a handful of corporate elites and the stupid masses. However, this smugness is allowed to persist long into certain strands of communism, feminism, queer movements, and more, wherein learning how to be patient and kind seems to be optional—or at least gets pushed to the back of the agenda.

Some of this comes from the unwillingness to conceptualize intimacy and emotional life as political realms. This comes from a belief that intimate bonds, particularly ones involving sex, have somehow escaped the capture of capital and its brutalities, and that any abuses that happen within them are a natural part of the immutable chaos and incoherence of love. Because of this false divide between the emotional and the political, many people do not prioritize confronting or excluding their comrades from progressive projects, even when their interpersonal conduct has ground the movement to a halt. Courtney Desiree Morris, in her article Why Misogynists Make Great Informants, wrote that: “What the FBI gets is that when there are people in activist spaces who are committed to taking power and who understand power as domination, our movements will never realize their potential to remake this world. If our energies are absorbed recuperating from the messes that informants (and people who just act like them) create, we will never be able to focus on the real work of getting free and building the kinds of life-affirming, people-centered communities that we want to live in.”

Scum floats to the top of radical scenes as much as anywhere else, and within the Left are people who would rather watch the whole thing burn than put their egos on hold. Ironically, some liberals and even conservatives are temperamentally better suited to collective outfits than some radicals. Sometimes these neoliberal leftists are easy to spot; they often float amongst the crowds who dismiss concerns about racism as divisive, or think misogyny is still acceptable if it’s merely confined to trans women. But even people who hold ‘correct’ anti-oppressive positions can still apply them in destructive and self-interested ways. It is fascinating to watch people use leftist rhetoric to justify this; the inevitable harm done by their outbursts is usually reframed as evidence that they care more about the overall cause than anyone else, not less. Two years ago, Katherine Cross wrote that:

It was with noble intentions that many of us rallied around the idea that “tone policing” was an oppressive construct meant to deny us the eminent humanity and cleansing fire of anger. We had a right to be angry, as surely as anyone else; moreso, even. Oppression ought to make one angry. But in the process, “the tone argument” came to be understood less as a complex piece of social machinery than an easily identifiable trope; it then became a badge that could be waved at will in any discussion to absolve one of responsibility for their words. Even though we as leftists quite literally wrote the book(s) on why and how language matters, we suspend that understanding when it comes to our own community members because we have come to value the sanctity of their anger over the integrity of the wider group. Some of us excuse this on the grounds that we provide the only safe place for certain people to express anger without being shamed for it, and that living with oppression leaves us with pent up rage that demands expression. The individual catharsis, then, comes to matter more than the collective, and responsibility to a wider community is blurred, if not quite lost.

The idea that “collective action for collective solutions” completely absolves people of responsibility for managing their own well-being is very appealing in the face of capitalistic individualism. But this use of radical politics tends to reframe one’s personal weaknesses as evidence of moral and political fiber—coincidentally, letting people do whatever they were going to do anyway. For a long time I semi-jokingly invoked a laid-back environmentalism to help me justify not learning to drive, arguing that the inevitable death of the car made it pointless. In reality, of course, I just couldn’t be bothered taking the test; which is fine, but dressing up this inertia in faux-radicality is disingenuous. This phenomenon gets less innocuous when, for example, people repeatedly ignore calls to stop being abusive or help around the house by claiming that kindness and cleaning are bourgeois.

Although oppressive structures dictate ways of being that permeate whole cultures, this attempt to disconnect the self from said structures prevents us from dealing with their effects at practical levels. As Teju Cole wrote: “There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner…we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic.” Identifying the sinners is not to deny that our individual choices aren’t heavily dictated by broad systemic oppression; it is merely to recognize that we are still making choices, albeit highly pressured ones. The social domination of self-care as a coping technique is certainly a product of capitalistic isolationism, but self-management will still exist after the revolution.

Different points of embodiment also dictate what the cry for collective action signifies. Society demands women, and especially women of color, to take on the concerns of everyone around them, hiding its demands behind a claim that this nurturing is a natural feminine instinct. A call from women of color for collectivism is a call to take an existent burden off their individual backs. In contrast, the same cry from those who could walk away from collective responsibility at any moment with no real repercussions looks flatly ridiculous. Indeed, this technique is often used by the bourgeoisie, who call for the public to “work together” to tighten their belts in times of austerity, but refuse to give up their live-in cat homeopath. Within progressive scenes, this manifests in situations like prominent abusers preaching about the need for kindness and tolerance. To tell people with power—from bourgeois white women to leftist bros—to deal with their own problems themselves can thus be a radical act. Going to therapy to assist personal growth is sometimes framed as bourgeois; and certainly, as Richard Brouillette argued, the profession needs to engage with progressive politics a lot more in order to be effective. However, therapy as a concept is the professionalization of the emotional assistance that people are already implicitly or explicitly demanding of their friends and comrades, often draining everyone in the process.

Therapy can be used badly for over-introspection and narcissism, particularly when it is detached from collective struggle. But self-care and collective care work in concert, not oppositionally. The reluctance to jettison aggressive jerks from social justice movements comes partly from the misguided belief that people only act out because of being unloved at some crucial stage, and that they just need a little more compassion to come around. But troubled and destructive people are not usually acting without agency. This approach ignores a significant part of anger that comes from being unloving and entitled; the white person who gets furious at people of color for refusing to accommodate their racism, or the experienced feminist who yells at newer women for using the wrong jargon. The Left is not big enough to be compassionate to those who never return the favor, and at the end of the day, no one really wants to build a commune with the guy who punches holes in the walls and pretends it’s just a by-product of the struggle. It is bizarre how many of these people are considered too vital to alienate from our movements, when charismatic firebrands within the Left are a dime a dozen.

Far less common are the leftists who are willing to do swathes of invisibilized diplomacy and internal damage control to no acclaim. These are the real people without whom progressive movements would collapse entirely; as a friend said once, the revolutionary question is not what you would die for, but for what you would do a lot of boring paperwork while nobody’s watching. The irreplaceable people in the Left are like the ones who sat and helped me talk through my problems as I finally cracked; the ones who held me as I cried in that way where tears just keep falling out of you. The fact that these same people have battled the cops on countless picket lines shows that the requisite skills involved are by no means mutually exclusive.

The hard outer shell of a passionfruit is purple; the color a mixture of red and blue, anger and sadness. The edible part of the passionfruit, the part that makes up most of the fruit, is the sweet yellow material inside. Passion is meaningless if it won’t get angry or upset to protect its object from harm. But the true core of leftist passion is enthusiasm for people and optimism about their potential, not rage at the system or at people’s failings. It is relatively easy to hitch a ride on the anger of the dispossessed without truly contributing to their movements, often fucking them up in the process. Many men, for example, are happy to mouth off at or beat up other, more overtly sexist men, but flop when it comes to treating the women in their life well, cheerleading women’s work, or patiently helping other men to overcome their issues. Other leftists will make speeches about collectivism out front of a rally, only to turn away in disgust from the actual people within it. This is not passion. These people are only holding hot coals of their own fury that will eventually corrode the insides of those to whom they try to feed them.

We have to keep the inside of the passionfruit intact above all else. We have to remember to love the thing we’re trying to protect.

Art by Jun Joestar. 

Anne Russell

Anne Russell

Anne Russell is a guest contributor and a New Zealand writer with an interest in the politics of intimacy. Follow her at twitter.com/elvisfchrist.

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