Friday, April 8, 2011

The Utility of Anger?

A couple years ago, I took a class called critical pedagogy. This class tends to be geared towards teacher educators, of which I am not one (I do history of education, and while I might be teaching future educators, my class doesn't deal at all with pedagogy). I didn't necessarily understand exactly what critical pedagogy meant going in, and the class spent a lot of time talking about it. The bottom line is, there isn't complete agreement between critical pedagogues, which already sounds like a parody of the ivory tower. The definition of critical pedagogy I most closely adhere to is that described by Peter McLaren:

The critical pedagogy which I support and practice advocates non-violent dissent, the development of a philosophy of praxis guided by a Marxist humanism, the study of revolutionary social movements and thought, and the struggle for socialist democracy. It is opposed to liberal democracy, which only serves to facilitate the reproduction of capital. It advocates a multiracial and anti-imperialist social movement dedicated to opposing racism, capitalism (both in private property and state property forms), sexism, heterosexism, hierarchies based on social class, as well as other forms of oppression. It draws its inspiration from philosophers of revolutionary praxis such as Paulo Freire, Raya Dunayevskaya, and other philosophers, social theorists and political activists and supports all those who yearn and struggle for freedom. Critical pedagogy is opposed to both state terrorism and individual acts of terrorism. As Freire writes in The Pedagogy of Freedom, "Terrorism is the negation of what I call a universal human ethic." Critical pedagogy is driven by the engine of class struggle in both national and international arenas.

In order to sign on to such a worldview, I believe, a person needs some anger. I have lots of that. Lots and lots. Anger - or rage, as we called it in the critical pedagogy class - comes pretty easily to me. But one of the things we talked about in the class is the combination of rage and hope. I struggle more with the hope part, because it's hard to see how our capitalist overlords committed to the permanent reign of white cis hetero Protestant men is ever going to change.

Hope might just not work for me, as a concept. Gideon Levy - someone with reason to have a great deal of anger, and also a hero of mine - said that you have to be rational enough to believe in miracles. As he says, things don't happen on their own, but the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, and South African apartheid have fallen. Mere months before those events occurred, they looked impossible. Without a lot of anger, would they have happened? I think I like "rational enough to believe in miracles" more than "hope," even though I'm an atheist. The miracle here is that humanity will get its shit together and stop kicking each other around, and the rational part is important to me. What I really want is a more rational world, not one in which people find stupid and arbitrary reasons to kick others out of their sandbox.

We also talked about love in that class - specifically, radical love. Understand that I am not always a very squishy person, but I really love people. Well, some people, and that's where my problems with radical love come in. Am I supposed to love transmisogynists and Exodus International? I try to be empathetic and to humanize them, which is more than they will ever do for me, but I'm not sure that's enough. But loving my people comes easily for me, I'm not afraid to tell people that I love them, and I think that's also the source of my rage. When I hear someone tell me that her mom kicked her out when she was in high school, or that his brother is raising children to be homophobic, or if someone harasses one of my friends on the street, it cuts me deep, and I want to fly into a rage. I'm not good at hope in those moments.

You know who's really good at love, though, is Cornel West. What an inspiration. He can refer to people I would rather have a root canal than deal with as "my dear brother/sister." That instantly humanizes people, and isn't that the goal here? But it's never that simple.

Nic (again! I'm telling you, between Nic, Kyrie, and you, probably, I am never without genius people) encourages me to think about anger as not just anger but a set of complex emotions, and that is completely right. Anger is just part of the mix. Love and sadness are also involved. I'm just so sad that some people - my loved ones, yours, someone else's - are badly treated, and that those doing the mistreating will never understand what amazing people they are. The way Nic put it was great, so I wrote it down: "Anger is energetic anguish."

I think anger is something I see expressed a lot by some of the feminist writers I most admire . I have friends who I think find my tendency to anger endearing, and certainly reliable. People post links on my Facebook wall that they know will piss me off because they want to see what tapestry of profanity I will weave. Other times, I think they want genuine reactions (more so since Kyrie and I started this blog - now we both get requests to write about various issues, which we are delighted to honor).

Anger, I believe, is really important to social justice work. There is the basic level of "that pisses me off, I want to change it," without which social justice work cannot happen. But anger, for me, sustains my commitment to social justice and feminism. It keeps me from slacking off or writing things off as other peoples' problems. It's not just Nic's problem if someone tries to run her over on the street - it's my problem, it's your problem, because that's a human being we're talking about. Without anger, or rage, or whatever you want to call it, it's easy to lose motivation and sink into a depression because people you care about or will never meet are being targeted for the dumbest reasons imaginable. I've been depressed before, and let me tell you, I was completely unproductive. Not only could I not do anything for anyone else, I could barely get my own shit done. When I began to understand that one of the reasons I was so depressed was because the world is so fucked up, I started to feel a lot better, because I could focus on action. Now I try not to allow myself to sink into despair. Rage keeps me from doing that.*

If you're an activist, is anger something you deal with, and if not, what sustains your activism? If you don't consider yourself involved in social justice work, what is your perspective on this?

* I have a derby friend named Rage, so this is kind of a funny sentence for me to look at. But she keeps me from sinking into despair, too. Love her.


  1. How could you have missed the opportunity to quote Bill Adama on this one? "Betrayal has a powerful grip on the mind. It's almost like a python. It can squeeze out all other thought, suffocate your emotion until everything is dead except your rage. I'm not talking about anger; I'm talking about rage. I can feel it. Right here, like it's gonna burst. I feel like I wanna scream. Right now, as a matter of fact."

  2. My limited exposure to critical pedagogy in a class was not a positive one, though I have read McClaren and Freire on my own. When the instructor was constantly ranting, and felt the need to apologize to me personally because I was in the military (I still am not sure what she was suggesting there, or why she apologized), I kind of closed off. Is that right? No, of course not. But it is one of the issues with the ivory tower approach to discourse.
    As a teacher educator, I have no problem with critical pedgagogy, as it certainly responds to a need, but I know that I simply do not embrace many of the significant elements of the ideology, especially regarding capitalism and the nature of history. I do try to expose my students to it, and if they embrace it, good for them. But this again raises the question of whether or not we should require or expect teachers to desire to 'change the world' or challenge the system.
    Great post. Enjoy New Orleans.

  3. I agree that the ivory tower approach to discourse is very problematic, and I don't know who you had for that class, but it sounds really weird.

    You and I differ on our approaches to these issues, and I have some problems with critical pedagogy also, though mine tend to come from a place of not feeling that it's as critical as it should be. :)

    I can't speak for everyone, but if I can't be challenging the system, I don't know why I'm here. You know?

  4. For me, the big question is whether or not anger is useful. If anger helps spur one to action, it's a good thing. For me, anger leads to paralysis. If I just sputter with rage, I can't do anything. I can try to channel that anger, but I'm not very good at it. Personally, I'm better at channeling empathy and love into action. I want to help those around me; empathy allows me to see suffering that I am unable to experience; and love allows me to move forward.

    For me, the injustices of the world are massive, so most actions I throw against them simply bounce off with little effect. It's easier for me to turn empathy and love into a rejuvenating space where movements can be nurtured and gain momentum. I'm of the mind that activism needs to start local and build up without stretching itself too thin or burning out. To allow for this, safe spaces built on love and nourishment are needed.

    In the end, I think it's about perception. If one perceives anger to be useful, then I think it is; and similarly if anger is not perceived as useful, then it is not. What differentiates the perception is lived experience, collective experience, and current context.

    As an aside, I'm intrigued by the notion of righteous anger and its cultural context. I've certainly grown up with it, but it appears to be a European Christian tradition (perhaps expanded to Abrahamic tradition). I'm curious to see how the role of anger varies depending on time and space.

    When I think of anger and rage, I think of the Illiad and Achilles ("Sing, o Muse" and all that). Anger and rage are useful emotions to Achilles because he has the means to channel those energies (one can argue about their utility, but Achilles certainly perceives them as useful). In the context of the martial Argive society where combat is emphasized, it's easy to see anger playing a useful role. To contrast, I think of Arjuna's anger in the Mahabarata. Arjuna, like Achilles, is a warrior, but Arjuna's anger and rage are not good things. Krishna works to help Arjuna be liberated from his anger.

    My goal is not to say that the Yogic construction of anger is better -- I think anger's utility is highly subjective -- but to explore how anger functions in different cultural contexts (while recognizing variance within those contexts).

  5. I was having a similar conversation about this today. We were talking about all the "niceness" that seems to go on, on the surface at least, in our college. Even the critical pedagogy class seemed kind of "nice." But "nice" is oppressive in different ways.

    Lately, I've been wanting someone in our ivory tower world to try and make us angry, incite something. I don't mean angry in a way that they do or say some reprehensible thing we have to fight against. I mean someone who inspires that anger/rage, someone who encourages it, challenges us, and helps us think about how to channel that into something useful, something productive.

  6. Grrl, you gotta come to my history of ed class. I think those people are out there. Check out Catherine Lugg.