Just being angry is almost always a negative in one's life,
especially when it's the petty kind of anger - being upset
at some real or imagined insult or slur on your precious perfection
- or howling rage at some phenomenon a person of experience
would recognize as a normal condition of life, like corruption
in politics, or at something you can do absolutely nothing
to ameliorate. An intelligent person who wants to accomplish
things and contribute something of value to the world would
do well to control his or her anger.
At the same time I would argue, however, that a certain kind
or degree of controlled and channeled anger can not only contribute
to one's success in reaching personal goals and in helping
make the world a better place, it may be essential. There
have always been - and sadly will probably always be - conditions
and people in the world that can and should make a decent
The trick is to figure out what should make us angry enough
to act (or in some cases to write) and what to do about it.
It's not easy.
I would hope, for example, that had I lived in the era of
slavery, it would have made me angry enough at least to speak
and write against it. But what to do about it?
In the United States we fought a civil war (or War Between
the States) that led to the deaths of about 578,000 people
and almost 221,881 wounded. The war ended chattel slavery,
but it also reinforced and expanded the power of the central
government and made secession (a potential relatively peaceful
check on tyranny) unthinkable.
In Great Britain, a largely Christian-based movement, after
some decades, led to the abolition of slavery at a much lower
price in blood. Could that have worked in the United States?
We can't know.
Graduates who want to be useful human beings - both to themselves
and to others - need to cultivate a certain indignation, but
also the prudence and judgment to do something effective about
the objects of one's anger.
Here are a few things I think are worth being angry about.
The forced subjection of any human being to the will of another
mere human being should make any decent person angry. Some
people willingly subject themselves to others, which may be
pathetic. But forced subjection is outrageous.
Anybody who purposely humiliates another person, intellectually,
physically or psychologically, should earn the righteous anger
of decent people. You might not be able to stop it - although
bullies, even physically imposing ones, are more often than
not cowards at heart - but you shouldn't accept it.
Lies and the damned liars that tell them - left, right, middle,
for political, business, religious, social or personal purposes
- should make anybody angry. But recognize that truth can
be elusive even in the face of honest search for it, and many
people find lies more comfortable than the truth.
Intelligent, perceptive people who use their abilities to
curry favor with the mighty or to explain why abuses of power
really aren't abuses after all deserve contempt. But if you
share that opinion, be prepared for frequent disillusionment.
Most intellectuals through most of history have been more
likely to dance attendance on the powerful - to flatter power
- rather than to speak truth to power. And more often than
not, at least in the short run, truth is no match for power.
The hard part is using your anger intelligently and shrewdly
rather than settling for spluttering and ineffectual indignation.
One shouldn't stoop to the distortion of facts many use to
bolster their prejudices (and even considered opinions), tempting
as it might be. One shouldn't demonize one's adversaries even
if they have demonized you. Pointed and even harsh words are
often appropriate, but they can be overdone and are no substitute
for analysis and intellectual honesty.
Finally, don't let anger, however righteous and merited,
turn you into a gloomy pessimist. There is plenty of injustice
in the world, but you can find decent people trying to do
the right things too, often in unexpected places. And despite
all the exploiters and thugs, humankind has made remarkable
progress and people have a stubborn capacity for nobility.
So don't be afraid of anger, but don't let it sour you or
spoil your fun.