Anger’s Privilege

April 2, 2023   •   By Benedict S. Robinson

A PROGRESSIVE narrative about anger and politics has been circulating widely in the last few years. That narrative can be distilled into a few basic points: anger responds to injustice; it is right to be angry when experiencing or witnessing injustice; anger has the political and diagnostic function of telling us that something is unjust. Those principles are argued in a series of recent books: Myisha Cherry’s The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle (2021), Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (2019), Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger (2018), and others. “In anger,” Chemaly writes, “there is truth.” The roots of this line of argument lie in feminist thought, which—as Kathleen Woodward argued in 1996—has long defended the rationality of anger as a response to oppression. Anger was already a well-established topic in feminism when Audre Lorde gave her famous 1981 address “The Uses of Anger,” extending the problem of feminist anger to anger between women, as a result of racism and homophobia.

This tradition argues convincingly and fruitfully that we cannot think about anger without thinking about power, and that, as a consequence, anger is a crucial political issue. But I think we should also hear a warning here that complicates the sometimes optimistic takes on the politics of anger advanced in some of the recent books. From my own standpoint as a scholar of premodern European literature, I am struck by how hard-won and late in arriving any progressive account of anger has been. On that longer historical view, the dominant stories about anger have been entirely about the anger of the powerful. What can we take away from putting these two traditions in dialogue?

One of the main points of the recent books on anger—as of the earlier feminist arguments—is that there is a real divide between privileged and unprivileged anger. In 1989, Alison Jagger described the “epistemological privilege” extended to expressions of anger by men and other dominant social agents. “There is a politics of emotion,” Elizabeth Spelman argued in the same year. In fact, “the systematic denial of anger,” when it is expressed by the marginalized, minoritized, or unprivileged—women, Black people, LGBTQ+ people, the disabled—is itself a critical “mechanism of subordination.” A central goal of this work is to invite the oppressed to own their anger and to channel it into progressive political projects.

But if issues of identity and social power interfere with the capacity to express something that will be widely recognized as legitimate anger, how can anger be a force for progressive change? Will the anger of the oppressed be recognized by a society that has already systematically decided to sideline, discredit, condemn, or ignore it?

The problem may be even worse than this. Arguments for anger tend to frame themselves in terms of empowerment: in the face of oppression, we should not feel grief, sadness, or fear—we should feel anger. Anger motivates action. Anger is empowering. That seems clearly true. It surely is better to be angry than to be afraid or hopeless. Anger has an anticipatory dimension: it looks back at past injuries, but also forward to the possibility of redressing those injuries. But the link between anger and power should perhaps also give us pause. The most visibly angry people in the contemporary United States are, after all, not progressives, as these books all acknowledge. They are the newly vocal radical right, who are motivated by a series of more or less factitious grievances into expressions of anger whose aim is to instill fear in marginalized communities. This anger is a tactic of oppression. From slogans like “You will not replace us” to attacks on migrants, Black people, women, trans youth, the disabled, and LGBTQ+ people, this anger seems entirely activated by perceived erosions of power and privilege. What if anger feels powerful because it tends to reinforce existing forms of power? What if anger is more likely to “punch down” than to “punch up”?

Sometimes the distinction between the anger of the oppressed and the anger of the oppressor is handled by an act of renaming: the first is “anger,” the second “rage” (Spelman) or “hatred” (Lorde) or “resentment” (Chemaly) or “know-your-place aggression” (Koritha Mitchell). But the distinctions often dissipate. The great peroration at the end of Lorde’s address movingly warns that “it is not the anger of Black women which is dripping down over this globe like a diseased liquid,” and that “[i]t is not the anger of Black women which corrodes into blind, dehumanizing power.” The emotion that drives the oppressor now also seems to be anger. What do we do about a feeling that drives both dehumanizing violence and resistance to that violence?

If both of those things are really anger, then the critical difference can’t be secured by the emotion itself. It has to be secured by the difference of the objects and aims of that emotion. It has to be secured by the different relationships to power at issue in different expressions of anger. Right-wing anger is directed against those who are seen to have violated some established norm or hierarchy, and it aims to affirm that norm or hierarchy. Progressive anger targets norms and hierarchies in order to expose their injustice. That difference can also be obfuscated, deliberately or unconsciously: right-wing anger tends to present itself as if it were anger at injustice, presumably because, even today, relatively few people are willing to admit—to others or perhaps to themselves—that they are trying to keep people down. In the rhetoric of right-wing populism, white, straight, cis, Christian men talk as if they were a persecuted minority. This should not leave us confused about what is happening, but it should make us at least a little skeptical about how anger works.

This is of course not a deep reading of the nature and sources of right-wing anger. But I think arguments about the politics of anger need to take at least the fact of right-wing anger on board. That anger does not choose its targets arbitrarily: it takes aim at those it sees as infringing on established forms of privilege. It punches down assiduously, mercilessly, accurately. Perhaps anger is always more likely to reinforce than to overturn existing forms of power.

What evidence do I have for that suggestion?

Numerous psychological studies suggest that people in positions of power are more likely to express anger directly, and that people in disadvantaged social positions are more likely to get pushback for expressing anger. Power amplifies anger, as feminist scholars have long known. Since the 2016 election, the gendering of anger has come clearly into focus: men who express anger are seen as strong; women who express anger are seen as irrational. Comparable biases are at work around race. A 2013 study suggests that expressions of anger are evaluated relative to the “cultural background”—I would also say race—of the person expressing that anger. A 2022 study found racial bias in the ascription of anger to children by teachers. Black people seem to be perceived by white people, in the United States, as if they are angry when they are simply speaking. Marginalized people in spaces dominated by straight, white, cis men clearly get the message that they need to regulate their self-expression in ways that cater to dominant perceptions. There is a gap between privileged and unprivileged angers. That gap constitutes a kind of affective injustice, closely linked to epistemic injustice: the difference between those whose accounts are marked as credible and those whose are not.

Philosophical discussions of anger can broadly be sorted into “pro” and “con.” Martha Nussbaum’s 2016 Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice is emphatically pro-forgiveness and anger-skeptical; Thomas Brudholm’s 2008 Resentment’s Virtue: Jean Amery and the Refusal to Forgive argues that resentment is the virtuous option in some cases, and that to insist that injured people forgive those who have injured them is to add another injury.

It is useful to look at some ancient versions of this debate, because they so openly connect anger to questions of gender and power. One key defense of anger comes from Aristotle, who argues in the Nicomachean Ethics that it can be as much a fault not to feel angry as to feel anger inappropriately. In the Rhetoric, he emphasizes anger’s social content. “A man expects to be especially respected by his inferiors,” Aristotle writes, citing among his examples the rich and the poor and the ruler and the ruled. He quotes the Iliad: “Great is the wrath of kings.” A few pages earlier, Aristotle claimed that “we feel comparatively little anger, or none at all, with those who are much our superiors in power,” because anger requires believing vengeance is possible, and here it is not.

The Stoics seek to sever anger’s relationship to power and masculinity. For them, anger is weakness, not strength, because it entails admitting that one has been injured. “Everything weak is by nature given to complaint,” Seneca argues. For him, that means—predictably—that anger is “womanish.” This is an argument expressly urged against a culture nourished on epic literature, a culture in which it was widely believed that “one who does not know how to become angry cannot be considered a real man,” as Cicero puts it. Aristotle affirms anger because he associates it with power. The Stoics read it as disempowerment specifically in order to delegitimize it.

While philosophical and psychological discussions of anger do not always situate themselves in fully realized social worlds, literature does so almost of necessity, simply by giving anger narrative form and thereby also a more or less richly imagined context.

Earlier forms of literature openly recognize anger’s relationship to power. Aristotle quotes the Iliad, where Achilles refuses to let go of his anger because Agamemnon has treated him “like some vagabond,” in Robert Fagles’s translation. Achilles is angry because a privilege he thinks he deserves—access to and power over women—has been taken away. His anger is a response to lost privilege.

Danielle Allen argues that ancient Greek tragedies about women who pursue violent but secretive revenge—Clytemnestra, Medea, Creusa—differentiate anger according to gender. Legitimate anger is sudden, public, and masculine. Illegitimate anger is deferred, secretive, domestic, and feminine. “Women were defined as being incapable of guiding their anger into structures of legitimate action,” Allen writes.

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan offers a formula for privileged anger, invoking the “fixed mind / And high disdain, from sense of injured merit, / That with the Mightiest raised me to contend.” There is a long history of seeing him as the archetypal rebel, challenging a God he characterizes as an angry tyrant. But elsewhere, Satan stages an ostensibly open debate among the fallen angels in order to secure his preeminence among them as the “monarch” and even “a god.” Satan is Milton’s model for human kings: created beings who usurp God’s position by ruling over equals. Milton accepts monarchy in heaven while denying it on earth because he accepts the absolute ontological difference of creator from created. From that perspective, God’s anger seems nearly paradigmatic of anger: it issues from a position of ontological superiority and directs itself against lesser beings.

The text that gives this essay its title is Shakespeare’s King Lear. At the start of that play, Lear puts himself into a contradiction: he wants to be released from the burden of authority while retaining the distinction he is used to as king. The contradiction cannot last. When Lear finds the symbols of his dominance taken away, his response is a magnificent example of rage produced by loss of privilege. “I am ashamed / That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus, / That these hot tears, which break from me perforce, / Should make thee worth them,” he tells Goneril. “Touch me with noble anger,” Lear later says in front of both his daughters, calling them “unnatural hags”: “And let not women’s weapons, water drops, / Stain my man’s cheeks.” “Noble anger” is masculine; to be unable to act on such anger is to become a woman.

In the second act, Kent, a loyal nobleman, is sent with a message from Lear to Gloucester, another nobleman. En route, he encounters Goneril’s messenger Oswald, whom he attacked two days previously. Reminding him of that attack, Kent attacks him again, delivering a stream of abuse typical of “know-your-place aggression.” Caught in this act, Kent defends himself by arguing that “anger hath a privilege.” He means that his anger should be exempt from punishment: what we do when angry should not be subject to the same rules as what we do in cold blood. But the phrase also points toward anger’s role in defending privilege. Anger has privilege because it works to enforce privilege.

In the tradition that runs from Homer to Shakespeare, the angry self seems to be a nearly monarchical self, as Philip Fisher has argued. In that context, the anger of subordinates is with difficulty recognized as anger at all. Only relatively recently has the anger of weaker social agents become a significant subject of literary representation. Recognizing that should help us contextualize why, in our own moment, anger seems to motivate so readily the hostile defense of privilege. The terrible paradox of anger and empowerment may be that anger most empowers those who already have power.

To be clear, I am not telling people not to be angry. If your anger has helped you recognize and call out the power structures in which you are enmeshed, good. If anger motivates you to take positive action, use it. I also recognize that my own identity position shelters me from much of the violence of contemporary politics and therefore affords me a relatively privileged position from which to ask the questions I am asking. But I worry that making politics a matter of competing forms of anger is a losing proposition for the left. Anger is too easily mobilized in the service of power, or discredited when it is not, or deployed in aid of projects that adopt the rhetoric of anger at injustice in order to maintain injustice. I am also skeptical about the sentimentalism that seems to have gripped the left in recent years: the tendency to think that feeling can reliably define the terrain of politics. Anger discloses the truth—except when it works to suppress and deny it, or to silence those who speak it. The books mentioned at the beginning of this essay recognize this other side of anger too, though they do not always synthesize that recognition with their desire to see anger as a resource for positive political action.

Progressives have good reasons to be angry. It is the reasons, not the anger, that matter.


Benedict S. Robinson is the author of Passion’s Fictions from Shakespeare to Richardson: Literature and the Sciences of Soul and Mind (2021).