On Anger

IssueApril 2014
Feature by Barbara Deming
Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Seven Deadly Sins
or the Seven Vices - Anger. Photo: via wikicommons

I have been asked to talk about the relation between war resistance and resistance to injustice.

There are many points to be made that I need hardly belabour. I don’t have to argue with any of you at this conference that if we resist war we must look to the causes of war; try to end them. And that one finds the causes of war in any society that encourages not fellowship but domination of one person by another. We must resist whatever gives encouragement to the will to dominate.

I don’t think any of you would object to my stating the relationship between the two struggles in another way (restating it, for it has been often said): Bullets and bombs are not the only means by which people are killed. If a society denies to certain of its members food or medical attention, or a political voice, the sense of their own worth, the freedom to exercise their talents – this, too, is waging war of a kind.

No, I can’t imagine a very lively debate here about whether or not the two struggles are one struggle. I can remember well enough when this question was debated among us, but it isn’t any longer.

Now, I think, another question troubles our minds and divides us among ourselves: What should our relation be to the very many people we find struggling alongside us against social injustice and against a particular war – comrades who are not committed, as we are, to nonviolence. That’s what I am going to try to talk about.

Two struggles

I think it relevant to go back for a moment and talk about the time when we were still arguing over whether or not the two struggles were one.

“I found that expressions of the male will to dominate began to rouse in me anger in a new degree – anger rising from my toes with a force that startled me at first.”

I remember the first Peacemaker conference I ever attended – in 1960. (This was my introduction to the nonviolent movement in this country.) At the time, you’ll remember, there were very few activists in the field, but almost all of them professed a faith in nonviolence. The reverend Fred Shuttlesworth attended the conference and talked about his experience of the nonviolent discipline, struggling in Birmingham for integration. And the question as to whether or not pacifists should take part in civil-rights actions began to be discussed. Many pacifists who were present said that we shouldn’t. Because there were so few of us and disarmament was such a pressing priority, they were afraid that we would dissipate our energies. I remember one man making the point: ‘If we all blow up, it’s not going to matter whether we blow up integrated or segregated.’ That fight was for later. Many disagreed, of course.

I remember, too, all the discussion we had before setting out on the first peace walk through the South – the Nashville to Washington Walk, in 1962. A walk, again, speaking to disarmament. We had endless discussions about whether or not to talk about race relations, too, as we went. One black man, Bob Gore, was walking with us, so the subject was sure to come up. Should we pursue it, or should we try to get the talk quickly back to disarmament? Almost everyone who advised us – including James Farmer, then head of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) – advised us not to try to mix the two issues. It was hard enough to talk about either; it would be harder if we linked them. And we wouldn’t be helping black people by associating ourselves with their struggle – we would just be dumping on them the added burden of that association.

Most of us who were actually on the walk felt very uncomfortable about the advice given us and felt in our bones that the two issues had to be joined. And what happened is that in the course of the walk itself, we just naturally, inevitably, did join forces with the civil-rights people.

But no – it wasn’t inevitable, and we almost spoiled it. The very first day, walking out of Nashville, we walked right past a Simple Simon’s where several black students were sitting in. Walked dutifully past – feeling that it was wrong to do. It felt wrong enough so that we talked about it at Scarritt College there – and learned that the students felt it made no sense either. A dialogue between us had begun. And blacks began walking with us for certain stretches, near their home towns – turning it by that act into a walk for integration as well as disarmament. We began to stay at black churches. And our causes were joined. Our encounters with each other added strength and insight. I think we learned more from them than they from us; but it worked both ways.

As I look back now at the discussions before the walk started, I find them a little hard to believe. And I imagine that some of you must, too. Here we were, two groups, pitifully small in numbers, both committed to nonviolence, and we were wondering whether we should link forces. It hardly seems real. But I think it is very important to look back and remind ourselves that it was real indeed. The obvious did not seem obvious to us at the time. So it may not now.

What did seem obvious to a lot of pacifists then was that a black man who professed belief in nonviolence was inconsistent in his thought, was fooling himself that he was nonviolent unless he came out against war. I remember at that 1960 Peacemaker conference one young pacifist flinging that challenge at Shuttlesworth – who had been risking his life daily, remaining nonviolent under the most extreme provocation: ‘The key to whether you have really adopted nonviolence or not is: How many of your men refuse to go into the army?’ But it wasn’t obvious to a lot of pacifists that they were inconsistent in their nonviolence if they didn’t act against racism. I remember an editorial of [Dave] Dellinger’s in Liberation, entitled ‘Are Pacifists Willing to Be Negroes?’

Well the problem back then seems simple to us now – the problem of how we were going to relate to others who professed the same nonviolent faith. The question now seems much more complex: How are we going to relate to those who don’t profess that faith?

Our own inconsistency

But I submit that the answer is basically the same. We are in one struggle. There is a sense, even, in which we can say that we do share the same faith. When we define the kind of world that we want to bring into being, our vision and theirs too is of a world in which no person exploits another, abuses, dominates another – in short, a nonviolent world. We differ about how to bring this world into being; and that’s a very real difference. But we are in the same struggle and we need each other. We need to take strength from each other, and we need to learn from each other.

I think it very important that we not be too sure that they have all the learning to do, and we all the teaching. It seems obvious to us right now that the methods they are sometimes willing to use are inconsistent with the vision we both hold of a new world. It is just possible – as we pursue that vision – that we are in some way inconsistent, too. For we have been in the past.

The question I want to try to discuss is: What kind of thinking on our part is likely to result in our learning the most that we can from them and their learning the most that they can from us?

I’m going to talk particularly about our relation to anger, because I think that lies at the heart of the question. A lot of people next to whom we find ourselves struggling are very angry people. Black people are angry. Welfare mothers are angry. Women are furious, as one of the buttons claims. Gay people – in spite of that name – are angry. Veterans, GIs, prisoners are angry. How do we relate to their anger? And how do we relate to anger when we feel it in ourselves? Because that has a lot to do with how we relate to them.

I started thinking about this most especially after a recent experience I had with a friend, a sister – a young woman who has been very deeply touched and changed by the women’s liberation movement. When I first met her she was much involved in the antiwar movement and committed to nonviolence. Now she has concentrated above all on resistance to her own oppression and that of her sisters; and she was no longer sure that she was committed to nonviolence. Though in the past she had remained nonviolent in the most extreme situations – taken jailings, taken beatings, she told me that she could now all too easily imagine killing a man.

We had a long talk. I spoke to what seems to me the deep, deep need for the women’s movement to be a nonviolent movement – if we want to make the changes that we need swiftly and surely as we can, and if we want to see the fewest possible people hurt in the struggle. For I can more and more see this struggle becoming a very bloody one.

I spoke of the need I see for us to reassure men continually as we take from them the privileges they have had so long, take from them the luxury of not having to be weaned from their mothers’ care, because they can count on wives, mistresses to play mother to them still; spoke of the need to convince them that this loss will not be as grievous as they fear, that the pleasures of relating to others as equals may really prove greater than the pleasure of relating to others as merely shadows of themselves, second selves. I spoke of the inevitability of panic on most men’s part; they are so used to the present state of things. And so, the need to reassure them at the same time that we stubbornly refuse them the old relationships.

Well, it was a long talk. I wasn’t at all sure how persuasive I was being. And, as it happened, some time later a mutual friend reported to me that my sister felt estranged from me. And here is how she summed it up. She didn’t feel that I sufficiently respected her anger.

This took me by surprise. For I feel that I do indeed respect it. I have often enough felt very deep anger myself, about the roles in which women and men are cast.

I told myself, at first, that someone who was giving up a faith in nonviolence must feel, in spite of herself, jealous of the person who still holds it. And I think there is some truth in this. But I began to think, too, that I shouldn’t be sure that this was the whole answer. I had better question my relation to her anger more deeply – meaning, really, my relation to my kindred anger.

Perhaps I had withheld from her a full description of that anger, because it was painful to me to describe it and to look at it. I think that I could not kill anyone. But when I study myself I have to acknowledge that in many moments of anger I have, in effect, wished a man dead – wished him not there for me to cope with. So I should have acknowledged precisely this to her, during our talk.

Unreal purity

I think of a chapter in Erik Erikson’s book, Gandhi’s Truth, in which he writes a letter to Gandhi as though he were still alive, and offers certain criticisms of him – in the light of insights introduced by psychoanalysis. He writes, of certain things Gandhi wrote: ‘I seemed to sense the presence of... something unclean, when all the words spelled out an unreal purity.’

He charges Gandhi with seeming to be unaware of – wanting to wish or pray away – a coexistence of love and hate, an ambivalence, which, he says ‘must become conscious in those who work for peace.’ He found this especially when Gandhi wrote of very close relationships.

He says: ‘If, in order to fathom the truth, we must hold on to the potential of love in all hate, so must we become aware of the hate which is in all love.’

He submits that only if we accept the presence of ambivalence in the most loving encounters does truth become just what Gandhi means by it – that which supports evolving human nature in the midst of antagonisms, because these antagonisms call for conscious insight rather than for moralistic repression. (Erikson says that of course Gandhi could not possibly have known of the power of ambivalence. But contemporary Gandhians do know of it, or should.)

I think that this is a chapter all pacifists should read and muse about. Because I believe that the response he describes is a response to us experienced by many of our comrades. They sense in us an unreal purity. It is a response that puts a fatal distance between us, and makes them feel that they have nothing to learn from us. They feel – too often – that they can’t learn from us and can’t count on us, because we don’t really know ourselves, don’t dare know ourselves.

There is a terrible irony here. Because we want above all to be able to persuade people that truth is a powerful weapon – the most powerful weapon if, to use Gandhi’s phrase, one clings to the truth – not only speaks it out, that is, but acts it out, and stubbornly. (The truth, above all, that every human being deserves respect. We assert the respect due ourselves, when it is denied, through noncooperation; we assert the respect due all others, through our refusal to be violent.) But how can we communicate the power there is in acting out truth, if we give the impression of not daring to be truthful to ourselves – about our own deep feelings; not daring to respect them?

Let me quote from a letter from quite another sister, in response to a pacifist mailing. She ascribes to middle-class hangups what she, too, clearly feels to be unreal purity on our part: ‘It’s a rotten shame that middle-class people get so uptight, uneasy about so-called violence. Y’all, in fact, seem not to understand that often the most healthy, beautiful thing to happen is for people to have a knockdown, dragout fight. It’s just another form of communication for ghetto folk... .All I hear is peace, peace, love, love, Barbara, that is not what I want. I want friction, confusion, confrontation – violent or not, it doesn’t matter. People grow when they are agitated, put up against the wall, at war. All the peace talk is merely a cover-up for weakness, or unwillingness to wage total struggle.... This I have learned from experience.’

Well, it’s easy enough to point out that she fails to make certain distinctions. She’s right that for people to grow there has to be confrontation, agitation – disturbance of the peace, the charge often is. Whether it’s violent or nonviolent, it’s almost always called violent. But no, she doesn’t distinguish clearly between the so-called violence of many such confrontations (including, I for one would grant her, certain knockdown fights) and the very real violence of those that actually harm or kill. If someone ends up dead, then the confrontation hasn’t been just a form of communication, and certainly can’t be said to have been healthy for that person.

So it may seem easy to put the letter from us. But I think we shouldn’t. I think we should pay close attention to the evidence in this letter and other statements like it that many people feel that we fear so-called violence quite as much as violence itself. That we fear any stark confrontation or communication; fear telling-it-like-it-is. And fear the emotions roused in us at such moments – don’t want to have to look at them.

I recall a letter from still another sister. I had written her about feeling a lot of anger in myself and written that I had found that anger exhausting. She wrote back: ‘Good healthy anger at the appropriate target is.. Just as pure and justified as feelings of love, joy, etc... .Your reason for not accepting it may be similar to what mine was; being brainwashed all my life into thinking that such emotions were wrong.’ (This is another sister, by the way, who is turning from nonviolence.)

There is the word ‘healthy’ again. Many radicals feel that we are not quite healthy. They feel that there is health in anger. In the women’s movement, a song has been written that sums up their positive feelings about it: ‘Our anger is changing our faces. Our anger is changing our lives.’

They see anger as a necessary emotion if there is to be change.

I think there is some truth in this. I think there is clearly a kind of anger that is healthy. It is the concentration of one’s whole being in the determination: this must change.

We must both change

This kind of anger is not in itself violent – even when it raises its voice (which it sometimes does); and brings about agitation, confrontation (which it always does). It contains both respect for oneself and respect for the other. To oneself it says: ‘I must change – for I have been playing the part of the slave.’ To the other it says: ‘You must change – for you have been playing the part of the tyrant.’ It contains the conviction that change is possible – for both sides; and it is capable of transmitting this conviction to others, touching them with the energy of it – even one’s antagonist. This is the anger the sister who wrote me that first letter speaks of: it communicates.

“Healthy anger is the concentration of one’s whole being in the determination: this must change.”

I think, by the way, that it is accurate to say that AJ Muste was often in states of anger. And they were healthy states indeed – did change faces, change lives. I can remember a number of meetings about one project or another, in which everything had started to fall apart, because of differences about tactics, because of differences about whether or not the action was feasible at all. And AJ would begin to describe the existing situation the project was a response to – all that was outrageous about it, demanding our resistance. And our differences would begin to seem unimportant, we would be energised anew, unified by his anger. I think one has to call it that.

It strikes me, though, that when I talked about AJ at a memorial service after his death, I talked about just such moments and it never occurred to me to use that word.

Why do we who believe in nonviolence shy away from the word?

Well, because there is another kind of anger, very familiar to us, that is not healthy, that is an affliction, which, by the way, is the first synonym for anger that is given in the big Webster’s International Dictionary.

This anger asserts to another not: ‘you must change and you can change’ – but: ‘your very existence is a threat to my very existence.’ It speaks not hope but fear. The fear is: you can’t change – and I can’t change if you are still there. It asserts not: change! but: drop dead!

The one anger is healthy, concentrates all one’s energies; the other leaves one trembling, because it is murderous. Because we dream of a new society in which murder has no place; and it disturbs that dream.

Our task of course, is to transmute the anger that is affliction into the anger that is determination to bring about change. I think, in fact, that one could give that as a definition of revolution.

It is crucial to the task to distinguish between the two kinds of anger. And I think it is very much our task. But I think we are not as capable as we should be of teaching the distinction. To become more capable, I think that we have to face the anger that afflicts us more honestly than we sometimes have. One cannot transmute anger that one represses, but only anger that one faces honestly in its raw state. And it is awkward to try to teach others to do what we haven’t done ourselves.

It is particularly hard on us as pacifists, of course, to face our own anger. It is particularly painful for us – hard on our pride, too – to have to discover in ourselves murderers.

I remember suddenly the beautiful frankness of Thomas: ‘Lord, I believe! Help thou my unbelief!’ We have to be as frank: Lord, I love my neighbor. Help me to stop wishing him dead!

Killing without hating

I should remark, parenthetically, that there are, of course, radicals who would assert that it is quite possible to kill without hating – kill simply out of that determination to bring about change I have called healthy, kill with a sense of tragic necessity. I think that we should acknowledge that it is possible to kill in this spirit – as Che Guevara surely did, as many North Vietnamese surely do. I don’t have to argue here, of course, that if one kills – even in this spirit – one blurs in spite of oneself the vision of a society in which all have the right to life.

But I was talking about the difficulty, for us, of confronting the anger that is affliction. Clearly the anger that is most frightening, because least in our control, almost impossible to try to look at without its rising up to overwhelm us, at least for a time, is anger about our own particular personal oppression.

I think again of the sister who was nonviolent under great provocation while resisting war – but now is resisting her own oppression as a woman and is not sure that she can be nonviolent.

"It is particularly hard on us as pacifists, of course, to face our own anger."

It is not, I know, that she did not feel the war as an oppression of her own being – the war against the Vietnamese and also the possibility of nuclear war; the one a threat to our moral well-being, the other a threat to our very right to be. But to one who is a woman – or black, or chicano, or gay – there is of course an oppression that is more personal than this. It calls into question one’s right to be oneself, fully oneself. It touches one’s pride in the deepest sense.

Now anger at this has to exist – for it is pride in one’s own fundamental worth, is the affirmation of it. But when this anger – this pride – is under the duress of oppression, and when it feels alone, helpless to work the change its nature demands, it can exist only in hiding. And there it becomes less than itself.

It does sometimes find ways of keeping itself in relative health. In To Be a Slave Julius Lester describes how slaves on plantations would meet in secret in the woods and there hold meetings, dances – in which they could be themselves. He quotes from a song from the time: ‘Got one mind for the boss to see, Got another mind for what I know is me.’ In secret, they would be themselves – keep those selves precariously intact.

Black people have done better in this regard perhaps than women – for they did jointly acknowledge their oppression, which was more obvious, and jointly acknowledge that they had other selves than the selves presented to the master. Women have had, for the most part, to try to keep alive their pride in isolation from one another. And they have all too often hidden their anger even from themselves. Black people have done this, too, of course. But women have done it more.

A friend of mine had an eloquent dream about this. She is divorced from the man she lived with for many years. She dreamed that she was living with him again and in the dream he had killed a young girl – by accident – and was asking her to help him conceal the fact; and she was doing so. Before she woke from the dream, she asked herself: Why am I living like this? Why am I helping to conceal this murder? I asked her: ‘Who do you think the young girl in the dream is?’ – making my own guess. And she answered, as I would have, that the young girl was her Self.

A dream that speaks a classic truth. For when we are oppressed but see no way out of that oppression, we often actually conspire to suppress the truth about the damage being done to us – and our anger about it.

Just because our anger is in great part hidden – from others and even from ourselves – and when it is finally allowed to emerge into the open – this pride – it is shaking, unsure of itself, and so quick to be violent. For now it believes and yet it doesn’t quite dare to believe that it can claim its rights at last.

I think of the severely suppressed anger of the Chinese peasants William Hinton writes of in Fanshen when, during the revolution, the property they had always been denied began at last to be divided among them; and they were encouraged, after a lifetime of oppression by the landlords, to speak out what they felt to be due to them from those men – speak out their anger. As they began to speak it, it would overwhelm them and they would often beat the landlords to death on the spot – in a passion, a passion, in part, of uncertainty that their new rights were really theirs.

It is, of course, precisely when some real hope is born at last, when a movement for change begins to gain momentum, that anger pushes up – and has to be contended with.

Surprised by rage

I have experienced this in the context of the women’s movement in a way that took me very much by surprise – because I thought my own anger as a woman was quite known to me. I thought I had noted the situation women are born to, disapproved it, and found my own way to face it. I had, for example, long ago made an instinctive decision not to marry. Given the obvious power relationship between the two sexes, I was afraid that my life would never be my own if I lived with a man – as his would be his own. I recall James Bevel at Birmingham talking about the relation of blacks in that movement to whites: ‘We love our white brothers; but we don’t trust them.’ I didn’t dare trust even a man who loved me to let me be myself – not merely his second self. Was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to live in comradeship with a man – as a woman can live with a woman.

And so, as I say, I thought I knew my anger. I didn’t think of it as suppressed anger – as it had to be in the cases of women who led married lives. And yet – as the women’s movement began to gain some momentum, I found that expressions of the male will to dominate began to rouse in me anger in a new degree – anger rising from my toes with a force that startled me at first. Even when the man would be a very young man and obviously under great pressure to act as he thought a man must – and I would know this and with part of myself forgive him. Part of me couldn’t forgive him. It was very painful for me to look at this new anger; and it is only gradually that I am learning to transmute it – into determination. For a while I felt helpless in its grip.

Now one way, of course, that we avoid looking at the anger that most afflicts us, one way we find of affirming our pride without facing its anger (which we sense can overwhelm us) is by resisting the oppression of that pride, as it were by analogy.

I remember some years ago being asked why I walked through the South; and I questioned myself and decided that perhaps the deepest explanation was my relation to a black woman who worked for my family for many years, and my growing painful awareness that she led too little of her own life, too much simply of ours. I think my love for her certainly had something to do with my walking through the South, but I think now that the more fundamental explanation is that I was protesting that there is any such classification as second-class citizen – and protesting it in my own name.

I am sure this is true for many of you who are white and who joined the struggle against racism. You didn’t do it out of altruism; you did it because you knew in your souls something of what it is to be a nigger. If you were gay, and known to be, you even knew what it was to receive the hate stare.

And as pacifists it was much easier for you to control the anger that was in you, to transmute it, to be nonviolent, in this struggle – where you could deal with that anger by analogy.

Some of us are perhaps tempted to continue to deal with it always by analogy; and I guess one of the main recommendations I would make at this conference is that we all resist that temptation.

I am not suggesting that we abandon any of the struggles that we have been taking part in. I am suggesting that if we will take upon ourselves the further struggle of confronting our own most particular, own personal oppression, we will find ourselves better able to wage those struggles too – because in more conscious solidarity. Confronting our oppression, I mean, in the company of others – for what seems deeply personal is in truth deeply political.

I find myself very much in agreement with Shulamith Firestone when she writes, in The Dialectic of Sex, that the sexual class system is the model for all other systems of oppression, and that until we resist this, until we eliminate this, we will never succeed in truly eliminating any of the others.

For those of us who are women – or gay – it is probably clear enough what anger I mean should be faced. Though it is often hard enough to admit to, even so. But I would very much include, among those who have a personal anger to confront, the men among you. For if women are oppressed by men, and cannot fully be themselves, men in succumbing to all the pressures put upon them from an early age to dominate, lose the chance to be freely themselves, too – to follow all kinds of contrary impulses. And I cannot believe that there is not in men a deep, buried anger about this.

I had written this in my notes for this talk, and I opened the latest WIN [a national magazine in the US focusing on nonviolence; it ceased publication in 1983] and there were two articles about just this, written by men. Apparently there are now men’s liberation groups springing up. I had been going to suggest that, as WRL has played an important role in counselling men who are unwilling to commit aggression in wars, it might consider playing a comparable role in counselling men who would like to know how to resist committing aggression at home – against women. I do still recommend this. I could entitle this talk, perhaps: ‘Are Pacifists Willing to Be Angry?’

I suggest that if we are willing to confront our own most seemingly personal angers, in their raw state, and take upon ourselves the task of translating this raw anger into the disciplined anger of the search for change, we will find ourselves in a position to speak much more persuasively to comrades about the need to root out from all anger the spirit of murder.