Musings on Anger, Art, and Social Justice: A Response to Neil Gaiman’s Guardian Piece on Terry Pratchett

“Damn it Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. [to Sybok] I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!” Captain Kirk

“I rage at the imminent loss of my friend. And I think, ‘What would Terry do with this anger?’ Then I pick up my pen, and I start to write.” Neil Gaiman

My spouse has always liked the sentiment behind the above quote by Captain Kirk from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I’d argue that we don’t just need our pain; we need our anger, too.  Our anger is valuable and should be respected. Yet, it also needs to be tempered.

One of the points that Arlie Hochschild makes in her book, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Feeling, is that societies have rules for feeling. In certain situations, we’re expected to feel a particular way and, at times, our feelings actually violate those rules. In the case of the workplace, the expectation is that we ignore (and express) certain emotions for our wages. This is called emotional labor.

Hochschild studied flight attendants, who were expected to express emotions like happiness, even when they were being treated poorly. They were supposed to ignore their real feelings of anger or sadness. Hochschild posits that this can lead to negative outcomes for people like alienation, or estrangement. (The last time I researched this topic, researchers had found support both for and against various harms relating to emotional labor.)

Often, people fear anger because they view it as inherently destructive. We’re told to repress or not display it, especially if we’re women in the United States. Women who fail to follow the norm are often seen as deviant and are often subjected to name calling or worse.

People often misunderstand and blame the emotion itself instead of the action a person takes. Our society teaches men, as a part of masculinity, for example, that they should act out violently when they experience anger. There is a great video from 2001 called Tough Guise that looks at how the media has played a role in intensifying violent masculinity in the United States. (There is a sequel that I haven’t seen yet called Tough Guise 2.)

This blog post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s article in The Guardian yesterday called “Neil Gaiman: Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly.  He’s angry.’” According to Gaiman, Terry Pratchett is well aware of his anger. And he chooses to channel it into something constructive.

Anger just is.  When we’re angry, we have choices about how to act (or not act.) When we experience certain emotions, we can turn to our tool box of skills to decide how to proceed.  Perhaps, in some moments, the right response is to sit with our anger and not act. But when it comes to social justice, I believe the correct response is to learn more about inequality, to teach others about inequality, and to protest inequality, by whatever skills we possess. A fantastic fiction writer like Terry Pratchett uses his anger and writing skills to expose the problems of his society through fantasy. A social activist like Martin Luther King, Jr. used his anger for speech writing and leading protest to gain equality. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” calls out the people and institutions he found infuriating and disappointing.

Yet, sometimes, our anger can be misleading. Often, privileged individuals feel a sense of anger or indignation when they learn about the point of view of disadvantaged individuals, or when the disadvantaged are fighting for their rights. It’s really important as an actor who cares about equality to ask ourselves, is my anger justified?  Am I angry because of injustice?  Or am I angry because my own privilege is being challenged? Am I angry because I think that someone from the disadvantaged category doesn’t like me, instead of actively listening to the other person?

Of course, this position assumes that equality is an worthy goal as a cultural value. Anger on the behalf of the less powerful can be a great motivator to raise awareness and advocate for equality. The reason why I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is that he actually takes time to explore stratification. I’ve been slowly savoring the series, and I’m about half way through it. His art helps me to reflect on identity and inequality. Both his Guards series and his Witches series cover these important topics.

One of my favorite Discworld characters is Granny Weatherwax, who is angry about injustice. (I even named my car after the character years ago.) She states: “And sin, young man is when we treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.” Although I read this book years ago, I’m still using this quote when chatting with people about materialism and inequality. This is the power of literature. This is the power of the author, in this case Terry Pratchett. Although I have no personal connection to Terry Pratchett, I will miss his insightful commentary and his great wit. (I wrote a blog post on “Maskerade” and identity back in 2013, if you want to read it.)

One of the reasons that I value art of all kinds so much is that it allows us to engage our emotions, even the ones seen as less “valuable” by society. It allows us to experience the world through many different lenses. We need writers like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and so many others to help us feel the emotions that our society might tell us to keep locked away. We need researchers, journalists, and social activists like Naomi Klein, Sarah Jaffe, and Jackson Katz using their anger to push for structural social change.

Yet, the efforts public figures are not enough. We need individuals to challenge their family, friends, students, and others when injustice is occurring.

How will you best use your anger?

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