About Anger i. Saeva indignatio
by Ursula K. Le Guin
In the consciousness-raising days of the second wave of feminism, we made a big deal out of anger, the anger of women. We praised it and cultivated it as a virtue. We learned to boast of being angry, to swagger our rage, to play the Fury.
We were right to do so. We were telling women who believed they should patiently endure insults, injuries, and abuse that they had every reason to be angry. We were rousing people to feel and see injustice, the methodical mistreatment to which women were subjected, the almost universal disrespect of the human rights of women, and to resent and refuse it for themselves and for others. Indignation, forcibly expressed, is an appropriate response to injustice. Indignation draws strength from outrage, and outrage draws strength from rage. There is a time for anger, and that was such a time.
Anger is a useful, perhaps indispensable, tool in motivating resistance to injustice. But I think it is a weapon — a tool useful only in combat and self-defense.
People to whom male dominance is important or essential fear women’s resistance, therefore women’s anger — they know a weapon when they see one. The backlash from them was immediate and predictable. Those who see human rights as consisting of men’s rights labeled every woman who spoke up for justice as a man-hating, bra-burning, intolerant shrew. With much of the media supporting their view, they successfully degraded the meaning of the words feminism and feminist, identifying them with intolerance to the point of making them almost useless, even now.
The far right likes to see everything in terms of warfare. If you look at the feminism of 1960-90 that way, you might say it worked out rather like the Second World War: the people who lost it gained a good deal, in the end. These days, overt male dominance is less taken for granted; the gender gap in take-home pay is somewhat narrower; there are more women in certain kinds of high positions, particularly in higher education; within certain limits and in certain circumstances, girls can act uppity and women can assume equality with men without risk. As the old ad with the cocky bimbo smoking a cigarette said, You’ve come a long way, baby.
Oh gee, thanks, boss. Thanks for the lung cancer, too.
Perhaps — to follow the nursery metaphor instead of the battlefield one — if feminism was the baby, she’s now grown past the stage where her only way to get attention to her needs and wrongs was anger, tantrums, acting out, kicking ass. In the cause of gender rights, mere anger now seldom proves a useful tool. Indignation is still the right response to indignity, to disrespect, but in the present moral climate it seems to be most effective expressed through steady, resolute, morally committed behavior and action.
This is clearly visible in the issue of abortion rights, where the steadfast nonviolence of rights defenders faces the rants, threats, and violence of rights opponents. The opponents would welcome nothing so much as violence in return. If NARAL vented rage as Tea Party spokesmen do, if the clinics brandished guns to defend themselves from the armed demonstrators, the opponents of abortion rights on the Supreme Court would hardly have to bother dismantling Roe vs Wade by degrees, as they’re doing. The cause would be already lost.
As it is, it may suffer a defeat, but if we who support it hold firm it will never be lost.
Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice.
If women who value freedom are dragged back into open conflict with oppression, forced to defend ourselves against the re-imposition of unjust laws, we will have to call on anger as a weapon again: but we’re not at that point yet, and I hope nothing we do now brings us closer to it.
Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous. Nursed for its own sake, valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal. It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness. Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process. The racism, misogyny, and counter-rationality of the reactionary right in American politics for the last several years is a frightening exhibition of the destructive force of anger deliberately nourished by hate, encouraged to rule thought, invited to control behavior. I hope our republic survives this orgy of self-indulgent rage.