The Efficacy of Anger: Recognition and Retribution

In Ana Falcato (ed.), The Politics of Emotional Shockwaves. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 27-55 (2021)
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Anger is often an appropriate reaction to harms and injustices, but is it a politically beneficial one? Martha Nussbaum (Journal of the American Philosophical Association 1 (1), 41–56, 2015, Anger and Forgiveness. Oxford University Press, 2016) has argued that, although anger is useful in initially recruiting agents for action, anger is typically counterproductive to securing the political aims of those harmed. After the initial shockwave of outrage, Nussbaum argues that to be effective at enacting positive social change, groups and individuals alike, must move quickly out of the state of anger. Feminist theorists (Frye, The Politics of Reality. Crossing Press, 1983; Lorde, 1997; Narayan, Hypatia 3 (2): 31–48, 1988) on the other hand have for long highlighted the efficacy of anger, as well as its moral and epistemic value, in fighting against the oppressive status quo. It might be thought therefore that for political action to be effective, a continued state of anger is preferable. Protestors must after all create and sustain a sense of moral obligation and justice. A main way of doing so is to promote successive moral shocks that trigger outrage (Jasper, Emotion Review 6 (3): 208–213, 2014). I present a novel, empirically informed defense of anger’s efficacy in political action. Nussbaum holds a traditional view on the nature of anger, inherited from Aristotle and the Stoics, which holds that anger constitutively involves a desire for retribution. The view that anger is counterproductive falls out of this and is dominant in academic work as well as in our personal and political lives. Based on work in social psychology, I argue that we need to reconsider this. In doing so, I highlight anger’s aim for recognition, rather than retribution, as key. Furthermore, I uncover conditions for anger’s political efficacy, as well as reasons for why the traditional view of anger has been so pervasive.

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Laura Silva
Université Laval


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