The taboo of anger

Anger for anger's sake is ridiculous but anger that seeks to tear down age-old institutions which oppress, or which gives legitimate expression to oppressed people's wants and needs, is no bad thing.

There are plenty of reasons to be angry right now.

To show anger effectively wards off depression, which is as good a reason as any to vent and shout. Last week, like many in Britain I fulminated at the contemptuous behaviour of Boris Johnson and his Svengali, one Dominic Cummings. That ultimately grew tiresome, but I enjoyed it all the same and don’t regret calling them scumbags. They are – scumbags.

The activist and playwright, Larry Kramer has passed away of pneumonia. I don’t know much about him, but what I do know is that he stood up to people who were lying about AIDS and stood up for those who were dying of the disease when so many looked the other way. He wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but he was angry when being angry mattered and Ronald Reagan was refusing to support gay men.

Gay, Jewish, Larry Kramer was apparently pugnacious. I don’t want to be remembered for my temper but there’s a lot I can learn from a man who acted with conviction and courage when indifference would have marked out an easier life path.

This week, plenty of people have reason to be angry in the United States. I don’t condone any of the looting or fires, nor of course can I condone the state violent being directed against protesters. I do condemn centuries’ of endemic racism against people of colour and Black people in particular. I am not at all shocked this violence has broken out. Trump deserves to face people’s ire. I hope he falls.

I am angry about an ongoing family situation which unceasingly causes me headaches and not a trivial amount of heartache too. A close family member is in an abusive relationship. They are partnered to someone who is arguably living with a long-term mental illness – narcissistic personality disorder. It is to the best of my knowledge undiagnosed and in any case, even were it named and shamed, the condition is extremely difficult to treat. At times, refracted and reflected through a thousand mirrors and phone calls, I feel like Alice in Wonderland’s great-grandson, wedged in a narrow rabbit-hole with nothing to guide me but a set of ripped up maps.

I may write more about this issue in the future, but for now I only mention the problem to highlight a secondary challenge, which is that I am pissed off so many people have shown concern and called out my anger. I mean – why? Anger, like sadness, and happiness, is a natural emotion and one we arguably show too little of when it’s needed to fight injustice and inertia.

An acquaintance sought to correct me when I celebrated Larry Kramer’s legacy and praised how in establishing Act UP, Kramer showed that anger matters – that still today we must make anger count. Implicitly referencing Trump and populist politics, he said some of today’s problems are rooted in uncontrolled anger: the anger that politicians trade in and which conceived as a commodity, has a share value that never drops. I didn’t disagree with him as such, but once again, referring back to Black Lives Matter, I asked him what huge injustices ever get corrected without anger. Anger for anger’s sake is ridiculous but anger that seeks to tear down age-old institutions which oppress, or which gives legitimate expression to oppressed people’s wants and needs, is no bad thing.

In recent weeks, the History of Ideas podcast organised by the academics at Talking Politics have highlighted the work of Gandhi and Frantz Fanon. I don’t intend to share a philosophical treatise on their work or political thought, but to my mind, both were angry, it’s just they showed their anger in remarkably different ways. Gandhi controlled his angry feelings towards the British Empire and put it to constructive use. Anger need not beget violence.

Democratic politics in the UK has depressed the vanquished liberals, like me, who define themselves as internationalists. I have shouted about and cursed the UK government’s miserable performance on social media platforms. And yet friends have contacted me to say, “are you sure you are alright?” I appreciate the gesture and the love that lies behind their question, but why wouldn’t I be? Would it be saner and more natural for me to sit inert and smile and clap like a performing seal every fucking time Boris Johnson expects us to?

No. No. No. Anger matters, it counts and it’s healthy. I am angry about so many things right now and the political and the personal cross-pollinate with narcissists buzzing between press conferences and my loved ones’ lives.

I’ll calm down soon enough, but is that a more natural or more ‘respectable’ emotional state?

I’m angry that for years as a gay boy and teenager I had to hide my true feelings with all the pain that created.

I’m angry that being angry is such a taboo in polite British society.

I’m angry.

And you know what, I think plenty of other people are too. We just don’t say it enough. There’s a stigma. It suggests a loss of control. But why would we prize total control? It’s an illusion. We can’t control our outside world and since it intrudes so much on our internal lives, why would we pretend to have total control of our emotions?

Larry Kramer – he had the right idea. Fight. And don’t care a jot about respectability and being liked. Some things in life are more important.









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