There’s a real temptation during social distancing to cut out negative emotions. What happens when so much around us deserve these “negative” emotions, though? What happens when abuses by the Trump Administration deserve your anger, but you’ve taught yourself not to be angry? Anger is useful, and it can be positive. Understand first that I’m talking about this as an activist, and someone who’s worked in politics. I’m not a psychiatrist, and this doesn’t engage anger problems. It is worth it to engage the everyday, earned anger that should not be chased out or numbed away during this time.
Anger and Politics
People can’t go about engaging in politics with only part of themselves. They can’t have their hearts break at something and then turn around and always try to rationally engage political offices that are gaslighting them. Anger is useful for communicating that such offices need to cut the shit. It’s useful for communicating: we both know what you’re doing, so I’m going to move past that and you’re going to listen to me.
Like anything else, anger can be taken to places where it’s counterproductive or useless, and it can’t be the sole contributing emotion for actions or community. It can be taken advantage of and gaslit in its own ways, just like any other emotion. Yet I deeply believe that many people can’t just operate on hope alone. Some days you communicate through hope, some through sadness, some through anger.
Some of the “positive” productive feelings get worn thin. Some days you just need to continue angry, and those angry feelings need to fuel you. There are still rules to that, so that you can be angry in a productive way, and so that you can protect yourself.
Emotions are fuels that we can harness to continue actions. Those fuels run out. Anger’s very useful as a bridge – maybe not the main emotion we operate out of, but certainly one that can reliably serve in a pinch to get actions done when the other emotions tire out. It’s not a replacement for self-care. Neither is it a solution for people who can’t handle their anger. Even people who can will begin to lose their grip on keeping it productive when they burn out. So it’s not for everyone, but if you can be productive out of it and you do the work to know when you’re hitting a point of diminishing returns with it, and you’re responsible about self-care and responsibility to others in relation to it, it’s fine. Anger comes with responsibility, but if you take care with that responsibility, it’s like any other emotion.
I’ve never thought we should chase our anger out. I don’t want to know how not to be angry because I genuinely fear not being angry. I fear the disillusion of comfort or the introduction of numbness. Self-care, taking breaks from it, processing in healthy ways – those are all things I believe in. But I don’t want to know how not to be angry. We should be angry. Not being angry is a privilege. I want to know how to use my anger effectively in activism. I want to create action out of my anger, out of my sadness, out of every emotion.
Social Distancing with Anger
I still feel heartbroken or exhausted sometimes. The Trump Administration is wearying. But I don’t feel powerless. Anger is only unhealthy if you use it in a toxic or harmful way. It can be a coping mechanism. It can help you still feel everything else, instead of going numb to it. It can help give you energy and motivate you to still take actions – big activist actions that create change, and modest actions that rely on thousands each contributing their voice to turn a tide.
Some of you may want your anger at everything that’s happening to go away. And that may be the right thing for a time; I can’t speak for everyone and especially not for those who have lost someone. But I see many asking how they can make their anger go away. There’s a temptation toward numbness during social distancing. We don’t want to be cooped up with negative emotions.
I know for myself, there are only two ways I can make it go away. I can harness it in a productive way so that I’m doing something to change the things that make me angry, or I can dive into a disillusioned fugue of numbness and isolation – which wouldn’t change anything and would simply transpose the anger into a resentment that loses perspective.
Maybe for some the anger’s overwhelming or debilitating. Maybe for others it’s toxic or harmful. Not everyone processes or finds motivation the same way, and that’s OK. They’re strong in other ways and may process emotions in ways in which I’m less practiced. For many who know how to harness your anger into action, for whom this is a coping mechanism or a motivation, for whom taking healthy actions from it helps you process it, who need to do something just to be able to start processing, that’s all legitimate.
Strive Toward Consistent Action
You might see something this administration is doing in the current crisis that makes you angry. Then you go about the rest of your day angry, but not knowing what to do with it. What can you possibly do to change this moment? Did you call about it? Call about it. Senators, representatives, governors, state legislators, whoever needs to hear you being angry about it. Still angry? Ask a friend to call about it, too. Call again tomorrow. Set up a time every day where you both call and then talk about how the calls went, and help each other process that anger through action.
There’s no purpose to getting angry about this stuff if you then fail to do something about it. And you can’t avoid getting angry, because this administration, its corruption and abuses, it all deserves your anger. Who would you be if you didn’t get angry at mistreatment and abuse? You’re going to get angry about it, which is legitimate. So take action with that anger to make sure that it’s heard, and to make sure that it goes toward changing something, that it goes toward someone you know helping you to make that change, doubling your voice.
Where you see abuse and mistreatment, get in its way. Put a wrench in its works. You don’t have enough wrenches? That’s not a reason to do nothing; that’s a reason to get your friends to call and throw their wrenches in. Still not enough? Then you keep going, cause this administration isn’t going to stop doing things that make you angry, and you’re right to fear the person you’d be if you failed to get angry – I fear that person in me. So I keep on getting in their way, keep on asking for help from my friends to get in this administration’s way. Even when we’re cooped up, we can still pick up the phone every day.
Sometimes things change quickly, sometimes they change so gradually, slowed bit by bit, gummed up over time until they reverse course, that it’s hard to tell if we’ve made a difference. It does make a difference, so long as your community keeps at it. Don’t measure it by days. Measure it by your norms – by still getting angry at the things that used to make you angry, by still taking action instead of growing numb to it, by still asking what helps people today, by still making sure others are joining your actions. This administration can move policies and shift norms, but if they can’t move people away from those policies and norms then they can’t do so for long. They can’t sustain it. Make sure you can sustain it, and make sure you do sustain it.
This administration can’t meet all our communities fighting them on so many fronts, and that means all our communities need to stay fighting this on every front. If they can’t move you off your anger at their abuse, they can’t normalize their abuse. Keep on going. Don’t measure it by how things look – they can make the situation look like anything in a given moment. Measure it by the fact that you still keep on going, that your community still keeps on going, that you keep on getting angry, calling, fighting, helping people. That’s what they want you to lose sight of, so make sure you carry it with you every day.
Anger Isn’t Impolite if It’s Earned
I’ve worked as a legislative aide. Those offices need to hear from people coming from multiple perspectives and emotions. If you pick up the phone and you hear everyone with the same script, same wording, etc., you go numb to it, you don’t really take it as seriously. If people are calling you with hope that you’ll listen, sadness that you haven’t, anger that you aren’t, you’ve got to start to pay more attention. You can’t just have the same reaction – in terms of words or your own emotions – as an aide anymore. You have to pay attention and engage actively, even with voicemails. Anger is dangerous because it can quickly make someone else defensive and opposed. There are more effective ways to use it, and I do think it needs to hit policy and specifics really fast off the bat to be useful in political communication.
From a more organizational perspective, anger is a quick way to galvanize into action. It needs substance backing it up, though. It needs direction and education as to why that direction is useful in some way, or else all you’re doing is getting people riled up and then failing to direct that emotion toward a useful action. Anger pretty explicitly requires knowledge and education on a topic to be useful. It should always serve something and get to a point, rather than have the action or the policy point serve it.
Some people think there’s some sort of ethic to political communication that requires we set certain emotions aside. I don’t see a use in that. Any emotion – positive or negative – can be abused, taken advantage of, and misdirected. Any emotion can be used to replace information and de-prioritize fact. Cutting out only the “negative” or impolite ones means that we’re really teaching ourselves to police part of our reaction on behalf of someone else and normalize the idea of numbing those feelings even in the face of policy that deserves those feelings.
Anger in politics is useless when someone can’t make it serve a point that helps someone – when it gets out of control. Yet I’ve encountered plenty of people who have hope that something will get done, and so don’t take the actions to do it themselves – when that gets out of control. Same with sadness, happiness, any emotion that’s prioritized over taking useful, helpful actions.
Anger is just an emotion that we can more readily recognize when it’s out of control. We don’t mind out of control hope that debilitates someone into inaction and causes help to be denied because we believe that hope is good, anger is bad. Either can be useful, either can be useless. Different people know how to harness and modulate each responsibly because they’ve done the work on different parts of themselves, and what politics needs is for people to become better aware of which in them serves them doing the work that changes things and taking the actions that help people.
“Negative” and “Positive” are What You Do With Them
Anger can be a clarifier. I don’t always like writing that way, and certainly I’ve written my share of hopeful, reassuring things – I couldn’t write criticism angry; I have to write that out of a place of hope. But anger connects and translates, too – any emotion someone’s done the work to understand better in themselves is useful for translating, clarifying, motivating, communicating, the whole bit.
Whatever emotion it is can’t be the end goal, though. It always needs to serve communicating or acting on policy or an action that helps someone. That’s the rule, I think, for any emotional communication in politics, regardless of the emotion. The goal shouldn’t be to justify anger, it should be to use the anger to communicate a policy that will help someone, or to stop an abuse that’s harming someone. The goal shouldn’t be to justify hope either, it should be to use that hope to communicate policy or stop abuse. In politics and activism, our emotions keep us going, but if the goal is to elicit a specific emotion in ourselves, then the approach is self-serving. Being cooped up, I get it. We want to chase what’s “negative” out. Yet if what’s negative is earned, it’s legitimate. It needs to be heard.
Whatever emotion helps get you to take actions in a consistent and responsible way that stops harm and enables help – those are the right emotions. Chasing them out won’t do anything but numb you to the things that deserve your anger. Who would you be then? As I said, I fear that person in me. Take responsible, helpful actions instead. Anger is only negative if you use it for harm. And that includes harming yourself with it by carving out chunks of your emotional whole. Hope and happiness can be negative if you use them for harm or to ignore harm, too.
Action is a form of processing emotions. Use those emotions to take actions that help people, and you’ve turned them positive. That’s it. No feeling is inherently negative or positive. The actions that arise from them are. You can’t decide your feelings, but your actions? Those you can decide, and they can help people. Decide them.
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