Martha Nussbaum opens her essay Beyond Anger with this claim: “There’s no emotion we ought to think harder and more clearly about than anger.”
This year's election vindicates Nussbuam. The campaign has shown the power of anger. As a candidate, Donald Trump effectively harnessed this dangerous emotion. It's a strategy that speaks to the devils in all of us with the potential for short-term success and a guarantee of long-term degradation. Clinton has an opportunity to lead with a response to anger that is more courageous, a response that is representative of who we are — and who we can be.
Three Ways We Can Respond to Anger
At the beginning of her essay, Nussbaum digs deep into philosophy’s past for a definition of anger:
Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback.
Agreeing with Aristotle, Nussbuam notes:
[A]nger does contain a sort of strike-back tendency. Contemporary psychologists who study anger empirically agree with Aristotle in seeing this double movement in it, from pain to hope.
But this tendency — this hope for payback — doesn’t make sense, Nussbuam urges. In arguing her case, she imagines a scenario in which her friend has been raped:
I urgently want the offender to be arrested, convicted, and punished. But really, what good will that do? Looking to the future, I might want many things: to restore my friend’s life, to prevent and deter future rapes. But harsh treatment of this particular wrongdoer might or might not achieve the latter goal. It’s an empirical matter. And usually people do not treat it as an empirical matter: they are in the grip of an idea of cosmic fitness that makes them think that blood for blood, pain for pain is the right way to go. The payback idea is deeply human, but fatally flawed as a way of making sense of the world.
However, Nussbuam argues that the idea of payback can make sense in a limited situation:
There is one, and I think only one, situation in which the payback idea does make sense. That is when I see the wrong as entirely and only what Aristotle calls a ‘down-ranking’: a personal humiliation, seen as entirely about relative status. If the problem is not the injustice itself, but the way it has affected my ranking in the social hierarchy, then I really can achieve something by humiliating the wrongdoer: by putting him relatively lower, I put myself relatively higher, and if status is all I care about, I don’t need to worry that the real wellbeing problems created by the wrongful act have not been solved.
These two responses — the hope for payback and the pursuit of ‘down-ranking’ — aren’t all that’s available. Payback and down-ranking are only two of three paths:
A wronged person who is really angry, seeking to strike back, soon arrives, I claim, at a fork in the road. Three paths lie before her. Path one: she goes down the path of status-focus, seeing the event as all about her and her rank. In this case her payback project makes sense, but her normative focus is self-centred and objectionably narrow. Path two: she focuses on the original offence (rape, murder, etc), and seeks payback, imagining that the offender’s suffering would actually make things better. In this case, her normative focus is on the right things, but her thinking doesn’t make sense. Path three: if she is rational, after exploring and rejecting these two roads, she will notice that a third path is open to her, which is the best of all: she can turn to the future and focus on doing whatever would make sense, in the situation, and be really helpful. This may well include the punishment of the wrongdoer, but in a spirit that is deterrent rather than retaliatory.
So, to put my radical claim succinctly: when anger makes sense (because focused on status), its retaliatory tendency is normatively problematic, because a single-minded focus on status impedes the pursuit of intrinsic goods. When it is normatively reasonable (because focused on the important human goods that have been damaged), its retaliatory tendency doesn’t make sense, and it is problematic for that reason. Let’s call this change of focus the Transition. We need the Transition badly in our personal and our political lives, dominated as they all too frequently are by payback and status-focus.
Trump's Angry Route to the White House
It's tough to read Nussbuam’s essay and not think of Donald Trump’s campaign for president. As an individual, Trump is angry. The GOP establishment, the media, and opponents did not take his candidacy seriously. Trump's obviously fragile ego can't handle these slights and as a result, a deep anger boiled to the surface. He shamefully and painfully sought to delegitimatize a fundamentally decent president with the disgusting birther lie. Far from uniting his party, Trump sowed disastrous discord in the GOP, constantly seeking to humiliate — and thus down-rank — those who dare challenge him. Outlets that don't give him friendly coverage get banned and he shows wanton disrespect for the freedom of the press.
His campaign is also a reaction to an angry America. Some of this anger is understandable. When folks are left out of the political process, they gravitate towards someone who they feel can listen to them. Other anger is less sympathetic. As our country pushes for greater racial and gender equality, the status of the white male is threatened.
Trump's shameful denigration of the "other" is an obvious expression of down-ranking, appeasing those who feel their place in America is becoming more complicated and less privileged. Trump has insulted Mexican-Americans, Muslim-Americans, African-Americans, women, and people with disabilities. In response to Clinton's use of a private email server and a brazen example of payback, Trump has stoked the fire of anger by wildly threatening to jail his political opponent if he were to win the election.
In short, Trump's campaign is rotten to the core with anger.
Clinton’s Mandela Moment
In her essay, Nussbuam talks about how Nelson Mandela struggled against anger in South Africa:
[Mandela] often said that he knew anger well, and that he had to struggle against the demand for payback in his own personality. He reported that during his 27 years of imprisonment he had to practise a disciplined type of meditation to keep his personality moving forward and avoiding the anger trap. It now seems clear that the prisoners on Robben Island had smuggled in a copy of Meditations by the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, to give them a model of patient effort against the corrosions of anger.
Nussbaum relays a parable that Mandela used to tell people:
Imagine that the sun and the wind are contending to see who can get a traveller to take off his blanket. The wind blows hard, aggressively. But the traveller only pulls the blanket tighter around him. Then the sun starts to shine, first gently, and then more intensely. The traveller relaxes his blanket, and eventually he takes it off. So that, he said, is how a leader has to operate: forget about the strike-back mentality, and forge a future of warmth and partnership.
Mandela truly embodied this "patient effort against the corrosions of anger." Nussbuam details some of his acts of leadership: learning the language of his oppressors (Afrikaans), pushing the adoption of an inclusive national anthem, and rejecting opportunities to humiliate others.
Obviously, the context in this election is different from Mandela's story. However, Mandela demonstrated the courage one can have in leading with warmth when anger is understandable and the prospect of payback and humiliation is tempting. He chose a path in response to anger that was noble and pushed his country forward.
If elected, Clinton will have a similar opportunity. As president, she can respond to the anger of this campaign with divisiveness and further widen the chasm between fellow Americans. Or, she could chart a new path. I don't know if Clinton has the capacity to do so. However, I know that our country sorely needs a leader who can bring about reconciliation and cooperation.
At the close of her essay, Nussbuam issues a clarion call:
Whenever we are faced with pressing moral or political decisions, we should clear our heads, and spend some time conducting what Mandela (citing Marcus Aurelius) referred to as ‘Conversations with Myself’. When we do, I predict, the arguments proposed by anger will be clearly seen to be pathetic and weak, while the voice of generosity and forward-looking reason will be strong as well as beautiful.
This election has been too much about anger. On November 8th, we are faced with a pressing moral and political decision in who we elect as President of the United States. We should, as Nussbaum suggests, clear our heads. I can only hope that the results on Election Day validate her idea that arguments made in anger are pathetic and weak and that the counterpoint will prevail.
We must choose that which is strong and beautiful, even if the vehicle for our becoming is flawed, broken, and frustrating. There will always be anger in society. It is up to us to decide how to respond to it.