Anger and the Greater Good

“Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” is the tagline of Dr Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk himself. In Pixar’s delightful film Inside Out, Anger is personified as a fiery figure who spews lava from his head when his buttons are pushed. Throughout popular culture, anger is considered a negative emotion, associated with shouting, a red face (or green, in the case of Dr Banner), and raised blood pressure. Who would want to be angry?

Yet last month I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend Benita Matofska and Sophie Sheinwald’s launch of their book Generation Share. The book details people from around the world who have made a difference in the lives of those in their community and beyond through sharing their time, experience, and resources.

During their introduction to the book, the thing that stood out to me was the comment that many of the featured change-makers got their start because they were angry, whether about unfairness or waste or unfilled needs. And instead of just living with anger, or complaining on social media, or moaning to friends and family about the problem, they sprang into action. They harnessed that anger and turned it into something positive. I found myself nodding along during the talk because that’s how Off the Ground got started: I was angry at the litter I saw around me and I had an epiphany—I could actually do something about it.

Then just last week I found myself watching Chris Jordan’s 2008 TED Talk about art and statistics. Jordan takes statistics that can be hard to grasp—one million plastic cups are used every six hours on American airline flights—and finds ways to illustrate them that can be viewed and felt emotionally, rather than just going in one ear and out the other as a dry number.

Near the end of the talk, he says, “I have this fear that we aren’t feeling enough as a culture right now. There’s this kind of anesthesia in America at the moment. We’ve lost our sense of outrage, our anger and our grief about what’s going on in our culture right now, what’s going on in our country, the atrocities that are being committed in our names around the world.”

This was filmed over a decade ago, and I would argue that, in the interim, both the US and the UK have turned into very angry countries indeed. But is the anger productive? Is it helpful? Is it something that will lead to a solution, or something to be stoked by politicians to keep people from thinking?

Reacting to manufactured outrage benefits hardly anyone: certainly not the people who have been whipped into a frenzy of shouting nor the unfortunate group who has been scapegoated. The only beneficiary? Those at the very top who are manufacturing the outrage to distract from what is actually going on.

The backlash I’ve seen against the environmental movement is a case in point. For those who are striving to bring about positive change, it is done for the greater good, whether it be to benefit others now and generations in the future, or wildlife and the natural world, or the environment as a whole. There is a desire to look beyond themselves and take a long-term view.

Yet for those who are actively dragging their feet and resisting, these changes are viewed as something that is done to them. There is a refusal to think beyond themselves and instead it’s only about how they might be impacted now.

For example, take one of my favourite bugbears, balloon releases. These are typically done to commemorate a life or to celebrate an event, but they cause enormous environmental damage: wildlife die entangled in string or choke on the balloon itself (to sea turtles, a deflated balloon looks like a tasty jellyfish). Livestock likewise get injured or killed by ingesting the balloons that can come down hundreds of miles from where they are released. Even people are affected by balloons that get caught on power lines and train electric cables.

Yet so many times when this is pointed out to charities or sporting events, the response is anger. Anger that their desire to do something is being questioned. Anger that they are asked to think about the effects of their action and outside of themselves. Anger that they might have to change. It is the equivalent of a teenager in a strop shouting “You’re not the boss of me!” while slamming the door.*

The saying “A rising tide lifts all boats” has its origins in political discourse to represent the economy and how a strong one benefits everyone at all levels. But I would argue that it is applicable to a range of topics, from cleaner air and water to the ability to enjoy the biodiversity of the planet in all its wonders. And doesn’t it make sense to embrace the idea of making things better for everyone—both those alive now and the generations yet to come?

If we don’t, we’re stuck with the metaphor of the crab bucket: the idea that escaping the cooking pot is within our power, but we keep pulling each other back to prevent others from getting ahead. The result? We all end up fried.

So returning to my original question—who would want to be angry?—I must add: Who does the anger benefit? Because it is this that can make all the difference. Is it selfish, with a focus on the individual? Is it about an unwillingness to change the status quo and instead keep things as they are?

Or is it an anger that sparks a desire to make things better for the good of all concerned? If it is traded for action, then this should be encouraged: it is this that can right wrongs, seek solutions instead of just shouting, and bring about lasting positive change. I dare say that even the Hulk would approve.

A rare exception was my recent conversation with the WhoCares campaign; they were unaware of the environmental damage and are now seeking alternatives to balloon releases. Please consider signing their petition.

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