On Anger and Revenge  

I was just reading this interesting article about the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s new book “Anger and Forgiveness” about the dangers of anger – and inevitably given the current zeitgeist, most of the discussion centres on the role anger has played in the American election. Being a political junkie, this is of coruse endlessly fascinating. I am altogether unconvinced that a strategy of meeting anger with calm reason can actually change political discourse, given that we humans are generally very emotional animals, although some of us are especially talented in the use of reason to create convincing intellectual arguments that justify our beliefs and ideologies. We seem to be less capable of using our reason to understand our own or anyone else’s emotions, though.

Surely anger has been the fuel that has brought much needed political change – even if right now it’s fuelling a backlash against the liberal quest to eradicate inequality in all its guises?  Her whole argument that anger is not socially useful seems to me to boil to the “Calm down, dear” approach to injustice.

On a personal level though, I cannot quite get my head around the idea that Nussbaum claims to have never been angry. To my mind, that makes her analysis suspect. Either she is being honest, or she is unaware of her own anger – and either makes her less capable of understanding the impossibility of what she’s asking of us ‘lesser’ beings.

Of course, I am fascinated by the impulse to revenge – I’ve just published a thriller exploring the question of whether it can ever be justified.  There’s a reason why we have a long tradition of revenge stories ending in tragedy. And we know the quotation from Confucious, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  In the case of my heroine Kate, perhaps it might be wise to dig more… we shall see.  Culturally we are aware of the risks of anger. We are brought up to hide and disguise our anger – this is especially true of women, of course. And I sometimes thing squelching down on angry feelings, bottling them up, can make them more dangerous.

I suppose the difficulty is deciding where it is appropriate to draw the line. Someone who has never been angry probably isn’t best placed to decide that, any more than someone who is always angry.

In this context, I am reminded of the parable of the snake who refused to hiss.

Once upon a time, a holy man went from village to village visiting the people and giving assistance wherever he could.  One day he came to a town and entered the market place.  The people were all looking so unhappy.  “What is the matter, good people?” the old man asked.  “We are so frightened,” they said.  “We can barely do our work for fear of the snake.  It bites us all the time.  We don’t know when it will appear.  We are afraid to go to work in our fields, to let our children play in the streets, to even be here in the market place.”  The old man wandered on and soon came upon the snake.  “I hear you have been biting the people,” he said, “and I would like you to stop.  They are frightened of you and don’t get a moment’s rest.”  The snake realizing how much the holy man loved it agreed not to bite anyone again.

The old man continued on his journey and a few months later came back to the same village.  When he got to the market place he found the people were laughing and shouting.  Everyone was so happy.  “What has happened?” he asked.  The villagers told him that the snake had stopped biting them, that it came out each day from its hiding place but no longer attacked them.  The old man wandered about the village and soon came upon the snake lying in the gutter.  It was bleeding, and badly cut and bruised.  The old man could see that the snake was dying.  He gently picked it up and took it into the forest and laid it down out of the hot sun.  “What has happened to you?” he asked the snake.  The snake on its last few breaths said to the holy man, “ I did what you told me.  I stopped biting the people, but they started attacking me.  Wherever I went they would throw stones at me and kick me, and thrash me with sticks.”

The holy man held the snake with great love and tenderness and stroking the snake said to it ever so tenderly,  “I told you not to bite, but I never told you not to hiss.”

My favourite quotation on anger and revenge comes from Charlotte Bronte.

Jane Eyre is talking to Helen Burns (a girl who shares Nussbaum’s views on morality, as I recall) who has just been punished by the cruel teacher Miss Scatcherd

“… you are good to those who are good to you. It is all I ever desire to be. If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people whould have it all their own way; they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should – so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.”

The best revenge, they say, is living well.  But living well must also include taking action to prevent further harm. Sometimes that might require no more than hissing. Sometimes it might require more drastic action. Or so my protagonist, Kate Savage, would argue…

Ann

Sources

Article on Nussbaum’s book in The Nation – here

The parable of the snake who forgot to hiss – here

Jane Eyre Chapter Six – here