The anger of hope vs the anger of despair

Around the world, women are speaking up; we should listen

On November 25th, 2019, on the streets of Santiago, Chile, several hundred women gathered in a public square for a performance orchestrated by Chilean feminist collective LasTesis. It’s… incredible. I can’t watch this without getting chills.

Over the last two weeks the protest anthem has gone viral around the world: yesterday police dispersed a mirror effort in Istanbul. But it’s too late. As one woman said:

There’s a global awakening and people are starting to say what they feel. Women have a lot to say about gender violence and inequality.

This is a brief reflection on this moment, and what it heralds.

1) We live in the age of anger. Indian author Pankaj Mishra wrote a book with this title in 2017, and it’s stuck with me ever since. This line in particular I can’t shake off:

The two ways in which humankind can self-destruct — civil war on a global scale, or destruction of the natural environment — are rapidly converging.

2) There is something unique about women’s anger. Indeed, since Trump’s election and #MeToo, it’s spawned its own mini genre. Soraya Chemaly captured the zeitgeist with her 2018 book Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger (other notable contributions from Rebecca Traister, Brittney Cooper, and many more). The quality these women identify in female anger is its transgressive force: women who are told not to be angry, not to speak up… are finding their voice (this juxtaposed against the obvious backdrop of men’s anger: so often socially sanctioned and indeed admired… see Kavanaugh’s outburst in his confirmation hearings).

3) I have a complicated relationship to anger. I’ve grown up associating it with negative connotations: anger for me carries implications of losing control, of letting your emotions get the better of you. Which, as a man socially conditioned under patriarchy, is a bad thing. I also associated male expressions of anger with toxic masculinity: I eschewed violence at an early age, and found it deeply alienating. This is partly a function of privilege: I’ve always been among the biggest people in my class, in my school, in the world, and of course I’m white — I had the luxury of not needing to fight to prove my masculinity. Indeed, for me it often took the opposite form. I’m a large man (6’4”, 200 pounds), so I’m very careful about how I present in the world: I realize that I can scare people. My mere physical presence — the act of existing — can be daunting.

4) Anger as an expression of love? Dr. King famously said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

But it wasn’t until early 2018 that I really grappled with that sentiment. I went to Mt. Zion Baptist church in Seattle’s Central District for the 45th annual community celebration of Dr. King’s life, and witnessed a powerful speech by Ijeoma Oluo on “the love and anger of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” This:

We fight this harm — you fight this harm — because you love. You love your kin, your community, your people, and you love your humanity. You love so much that even when all seems against you, even when hate and bigotry has been voted into our highest offices of government — you are still here. You are angry and tired and hurting — and you are still here.

5) Two kinds of anger. This was still sitting with me when I listened to Ruby Sales beautiful interview for On Being. There she introduced me to a way of thinking about anger in the context of love:

Love is not antithetical to anger. There are two kinds of anger. There’s redemptive anger, and there’s non-redemptive anger. And so redemptive anger is the anger that says that — that moves you to transformation and human up-building. Non-redemptive anger is the anger that white supremacy roots itself in. So we have to make a distinction. 

I have interpreted this as saying something about the source of anger: rooted in love, or rooted in hate.

6) The anger of hope vs the anger of despair. This morning I had the unique privilege to interview feminist scholar, author, and activist Carol Gilligan as part of a collaboration with the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We were discussing her new book, co-written with Naomi Snider, called “Why Does Patriarchy Persist?” The whole book is brilliant and deeply provocative, challenging our deeply held — and often unexamined — beliefs about a complicated topic (see my full review here). But the thing that I want to call out is an extended reflection on the subject of anger.

She is channeling the work of psychologist John Bowlby’s landmark work on attachment theory, where he observed young children reacting to loss by protesting. They start first with what he calls the anger of hope which “acts to promote, not disrupt, the bond” with their caregiver. This he distinguishes from the anger of despair, which — when attempts to repair have failed — gives way to “a deep-running resentment… [leading to] the cold malice of hatred.” Gilligan summarizes:

Silence and violence thus mark the shift from protest to despair.

It’s a really subtle point, and for me speaks so powerfully to this moment, and the gendered way anger is currently being unleashed on the world.

7) Not only the age of anger… but a question of which anger will win the day. What I came away thinking, watching the women take to the streets of Chile, of Spain, of Turkey, of India, of the United States… is that they are expressing the anger of hope. An anger born of righteousness, of love of self and each other, of solidarity: expressed with the conviction that things can be different.

And this set against the equally visible rising tide of male anger: the very violence (femicide) that these women are protesting. It’s no accident that the authoritarian movements everywhere ascendant in the world are led and promoted overwhelmingly by men… and opposed overwhelmingly by women. But it’s too simple to say it’s about gender… though it is. It’s about anger, and love, and what we think is possible together.

As always, I welcome reactions, and would be curious what others are seeing, particularly those involved in or close to these protests.