ALICIA WALLACE: Misconceptions of what anger is


Alicia Wallace

THERE was a time that I was afraid of anger. It appeared to be more than an emotion, bordering on a disease that temporarily transformed some people into monsters and inhabited others indefinitely, making their presence dark and unwelcoming.

Anger, to me, was synonymous with violence because the two seemed to be in all of the same places at the same time.

It seemed safer to stick with sadness. That would be a good enough response and a safe enough state when upset by a person or a situation. Sadness, however, did not get the kinds of reactions that anger drew, making it a lonely place.

Anger, I noticed, got people’s attention, though it was not usually positive attention.

I started to divide the people around me into two distinct groups — the sad and the angry.

The sad were good people and the angry were bad people, and there was no middle ground. I have since learned better.

Though I had learned to distinguish sadness and anger from one another, and I had learned to choose one over the other, it took a long time to understand the relationship between sadness and anger, and the usefulness of each one.

Sadness is often perceived as passive, and it can be conflated with self-pity. Anger, on the other hand, is seen as active, and though the actions most often associated with anger are violent, this does not have to be the case. Sadness and anger can result in the same actions; it simply depends on the individual.

A few days ago, I was engaged in a public conversation when some people who were listening - and likely had their minds made up about the topic - made the determination that I was angry.

Not only was I not angry, but it had been a long time since someone had called me angry, so it was surprising.

For a moment, I was offended. It was not because anger is bad. I, long ago, determined that anger has its uses, and it needs to be used in productive, non-violent ways. I was briefly offended because those people wanted to dismiss me for what they perceived to be an emotional response to what was, quite frankly, utter nonsense.

It is much easier to mischaracterise a person and draw attention to anything but the message in order to discount or muddy the message. While I am not a fan of this tendency in public discourse, it is an unfortunate norm that I know well and can still be disappointing.

The topic was a difficult one. It is debated every day, and most people are decidedly on one side of it with no interest in moving.

The conversation did not draw anger from me, partly because there were no new arguments. I had heard them all before, and in various ways. I have worked in human rights for several years, and I can often predict the points people will use based on the values they espouse. This has become so ordinary that it does not generally draw anger from me.

I do, however, have a relationship with rage. My experiences in this world, partially determined by discriminatory systems that respond to my identities with hostility, make it impossible to avoid anger altogether.

I can feel anger without letting everyone around me know it and, more importantly, I can turn it into something else.

If I become angry, I give myself the task of determining what I am going to do about it.

This is how my activism started. I was angry and it did nothing to change the state of affairs until I gave it that role.

Anger has to go somewhere, and it has to do something. It could be a protest. It could be a petition. It could be a letter to a person in a position of power. It could be a donation to an organization working on a related issue. Sometimes, when there is no obvious place to put it, anger could fuel a run or a full house cleaning.

We all have the ability to choose, if only we pause to identify the anger, the trigger, and the best course of action.

No matter how much self-work any of us do, there will always be the opinions of others. There will always be detractors. People will blame, complain, and deflect.

When people do not like your position, they will either try to disprove your points or try to discredit you to prevent people from listening to you. If the former fails, many resort to the latter.

One of the easiest ways to shift attention from the message to the person delivering it is to present them as unreasonable, and anger is often considered an unreasonable, unacceptable emotion.

“Angry” has become a handy synonym for many states of being, responses, and behaviours. It is a label that is hastily applied - especially to particular groups of people, including black women - who dare to oppose, to dissent, to refuse, to challenge.

“Angry” is used as a descriptor for people who are correct, particularly when they are deliberate in making their correctness clear.

People do not like being wrong. We have been taught that mistakes are both bad and personal failures. They are not presented as opportunities to learn. There is little acknowledgement that identifying a wrong answer is often part of a path to the correct answer.

Very early in life, we experience punishment for giving the wrong answer, and we experience shame when it is brought to the attention of others.

Outside of learning institutions and without an answer key, people can deny being wrong. When a person is very clear that they are correct, repeats their point, and provides evidence, it is difficult to argue the point.

In many cases, the actual angry person, who is wrong and likely ashamed, then calls the correct person angry for firmly holding their position.

“Angry” is used to describe people who are resolute. They speak with certainty. They do not back down or change their position when an inferior one is presented. They are consistent and confident. They repeat themselves, because what they said the first time was enough.

“Angry” is used to describe people who dare to respond when challenged. They do not sit quietly while someone else mischaracterizes them, misrepresents their positions, or disrespects them.

They may interrupt a falsehood. They may simply call a statement a lie or assert that a statement is misleading. They give a direct response. They may ignore attempts to derail the conversation, intentionally returning to the purpose and point.

They do not laugh at inappropriate jokes. Even when even-toned, this person is seen as angry for refusing to be silent, and refusing to wait their turn at the expense of observers who may be subject to disinformation.

“Angry” is used to describe people who demand action. In many cases, the written form, from one person or group to another person or group that has the power to take action, does not get the job done.

The demand for action frequently has to be amplified. The people who want action may have to find more people. They may have to get louder. They may have to make their demands often.

It should not be surprising that, by this point, people who were not angry before are angry at this point because it is so exhausting to be consistent and visible, and insulting that it is what it takes to be heard and acknowledged, all before they can finally see action.

Some of us are set up, by discriminatory systems, stereotypes, platforms, media, to be seen through the lens of other people’s anger.

People are angry that they are wrong. That they cannot back their positions with evidence. That they are irresolute, or that their resoluteness does not matter when their bigotry is recognised. That their challenges are met, and their tactics are named. That their failure to take action is sure to be a source of shame and cause future failures they wish they could avoid.

It is not just stones and glass houses. It is people making themselves into stone in the attempt to destroy those we can see clearly, intentions and all.


1 Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt.

A woman forming a relationship with an octopus may not seem like an interesting story at all. It is easy to assume the woman is, in some way, deficient and incapable of making real friends, or that the animal is indifferent and oblivious to her. Tova’s encounters with Marcellus, however, are not one-sided, and not accidental. This story is told from multiple perspectives, and the pieces come together to connect the characters at just the right time. This is a strong debut novel, set in a small town, peppered with the kind of preoccupations with the past, tempered longing, and questions about the future that make the characters believable and their desires relatable.

2 Only Murders in the Building.

The true crime genre seems to have taken over the entertainment industry. From The First 48 on A&E to the shocking number of podcasts dedicated to recounting terrible stories of the past and digging into mysterious, criminal events, it is everywhere. While far too much of it is graphic and can glorify crime and criminals for viewing and listening audiences, some manage to centre humanity. Only Murders in the Building is interesting because of the characters who would be completely indifferent to one another if not for their shared love of a particular true crime podcast and interest in solving what they believe to be murder. Each member of the trio is rather odd and they each have their own issues to face, so it is unsurprising that they would rather get lost in a murder mystery.


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