The Dangers of Righteous Anger

I had an interesting conversation with a friend this weekend. It was about a recent controversy she and I had gotten caught up in. The controversy involved a certain anti-harassment policy at a certain convention. We both recognized the need for an anti-harassment policy. However, there was one part of this policy we found dangerous: once accused under this policy, you could not know who was accusing you.

On paper, that looks good. After all, it creates anonymity that protects victims, and it is true that victims of harassment and sexual assault are not given the protections they deserve.

The problem was, there are a lot of people who would misuse this part of the policy. I know this because I have faced such people. In one instance, another friend of mine had been beaten by her ex-boyfriend. He responded by harassing her any way he could, including going around the renaissance community doing everything he could to defame her. He also was trying to stage photos of her supposedly threatening him (he got drunk and bragged this to a mutual friend who told us). Under this policy, this man would have probably lodged a complaint, and my friend would have been victimized again.

The friend I was talking to this weekend had the same concerns. She was a survivor of sexual violence herself, but this policy did not make her feel safer. She had her stalkers. She knew people who would take advantage of this policy to ruin her.

But when she voiced her opinion, she was attacked. People did not just disagree with her, they called her a “rape enabler.” She received death threats. When she tried to point out the problems with the policy by saying that she should just pro-actively make a list of people she knew would likely accuse her so she could provide it proactively for her defense, she was told it was a good idea.

So a rape survivor was sent death threats for opposing a policy that would force her to be proactively responsible for protecting herself against false accusations.


Back in 1998, I was part of a group that trying to add a men’s education component to my school’s “Take Back the Night.” This idea was proposed by the Take Back the Night committee, and the all-female committee invited us to carry it out. After this there was talk of forming a “Men Against Rape” group to carry on and continue to focus on education men on rape prevention.

A week before the event, we were called into a meeting. Apparently, a more radical group did not like the idea of men participating. They accused us of wanting to destroy Take Back the Night. They told us we, as men, would inherently want to dominate and control everything. Then we were told that if we did not discontinue the men’s education portion, they would take control and shut down Take Back the Night to protect it.

We had to back down for the good of the event. And the experience was so painful, the group disbanded and did not follow through with men’s group. In fact, a “Men Against Rape” group would not form for another 10 years.

So that angry, radical group literally set back the sexual assault awareness movement back 10 years at my school.


Anger is a very precarious emotion. It serves a very important role in letting you know there is something wrong. It motivates you and spurs you to action to solve a problem. Anger can be a powerful motivator for a lot of good social change.

The problem is, anger is also seductive. As a society, we are taught to accept so much pain and wrong doing for the sake of status quo, that the opportunity to be angry can be a cathartic release. When dealing with others, sometimes our desires come into conflict with the feelings of others, the needs of the situation, or just what we know is appropriate, and finding an opportunity to release these frustrations can be just as satisfying as if we had the desires themselves satisfied. Many find that losing control gives them what they want, as people will suddenly placate the angry. But once a person begins to give into anger, they become quicker and quicker to anger. Thinking through issues and problem solving becomes less a priority, and anger becomes the go to response.  A very powerful biological mechanism kicks in and the anger trigger becomes a hair trigger. When this anger takes control, we then have two choices: we can accept the guilt that comes with losing control, or we can rewrite the narrative to justify this anger. This latter action gives us our righteous anger.

There are many dangers involved with this righteous anger. The most obvious comes when anger turns to physical violence. However, the more insidious danger comes in that anger can create the illusion of a solution, as people will either placate  the angry or just leave their company. And the worst comes when the anger is not placated, either because the demands are inappropriate or because both participants are prone to anger, because a cycle of escalation builds, and with it the harm done to all involved.

Anger may motivate you to solve a problem, but never is a solution to the problem. In fact, when allowed to take over and turn to righteous anger, it can make the problems worse.

In the examples above, the anger was rooted in the recognition of the very real problems of sexual assault and harassment. And frankly, there is a very good reason to be angry at these issues. But the people gave into their anger, and instead of solving their problems, they perpetuated them.

The alternative to anger is understanding. You can’t solve a problem unless you understand it. When it comes to human behavior, solving problems usually involves understanding the behavior. When you give into your anger with child discipline, for instance, you rarely get well adjusted, well behaved children. More likely the child becomes a neurotic mess or dismisses authority altogether. Ask a behavioral specialist, and they will tell you to understand the motivations and needs expressed as the first step to real behavioral change.  Children, as it turns out, are not inherently “bad,” “lazy,” “problems,” etc., but often just need help expressing needs or finding resources. When you understand why they are having problems, you can help them to form strategies to circumvent the problems. When you hear of the people who truly touch the lives of problem children, you don’t hear that the change came because the mentor constantly screamed at them, you hear it came because the mentor took the time to understand them. When it comes to social change, this alternative of understanding instead of anger is what worked. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Freedom Riders, Rosa Parks, etc. did not use inflaming rhetoric to meet their goals. They did not arm themselves and they did not dissect the different types of evil white people to be railed against. They knew this was not a useful course of action. After all, when you go in attacking a reasonable person, the natural reaction is to become defensive, so what kind of reaction to you expect from the unreasonable? Base your discussion on building understanding, however, and people will focus on understanding you and the necessary social change you are trying to make.

My past two posts handled some very heated topics, and I took the controversial stance of trying to seek understanding instead of blanket condemnation. In truth my best writing has always been about seeking compassion and understanding over violence, so this should have not been anything surprising or new. The first talked about the need to understand why “Nice Guys” burn out and end up acting like jerks, and the other discussed the need to look at how role strain leads to the misogyny we see today. I wrote these because of the need to understand these problems in order to solve the problem. The interesting thing has been the responses I have gotten. I have gotten a lot of anger, and even lost at least one friend, because I am trying to build an understanding of the problem, instead of outright condemning it. On the other side, there was a response from men who finally felt supported in their choices to not become jerks, or felt recognized in the stresses that lead them to be prone to suicide.

I don’t write what I do to ignore problems. These are serious problems that need real solutions. I also never blamed women for these issues, and I never condoned bad behavior. I write what I do to try to solve the problems effectively, and I do get good results. By pointing out the path to burn out illustrated by a guy who chose to be a jerk, the result was there were a couple of guys who felt supported and less likely to burn out and act like jerks. I kind of thought that was the goal, getting the supportive “nice guys” to stay supportive and not act like jerks. When I wrote about the effect of role strain and how it lead to both homicide and suicide, I had men who  had been on the more suicidal end of that spectrum feel supported and note the need to challenge the rigid gender roles that placed them on that path. Is that not an important step to solving the problem?

The anger surrounding these topics is both understandable and important as a motivator. This is also a very important time to speak, as a horrific tragedy has opened a window for discussion, but we need that discussion to be productive or we will find an opportunity squandered when the window has closed. But right now, too much of the conversation is controlled by the anger, and not enough by understanding. The conversation is too prone to angry name calling and stereotyping (and yes, the misogynists did start that, because the oppressors always do). But what is the result you will get with that? Anger will be answered with anger, and any legitimate point you make will be answered with dismissal. You get to yell, but you also get ignored because you are yelling. It may seem like you are getting attention, as a back and forth of anger creates the illusion that someone is paying attention to you, but the result is rarely a changed heart and more often frustration and polarization. And as you do this, very vulnerable but valuable allies get pushed aside, and often pushed towards burn out and self destruction. Learn to understand, however, and your allies will become empowered, and you will be understood in turn. When you lead with anger, you engage only your enemies, when you understand, you engage everyone else. That is how social change has always happened.

A lecturer once challenged my internship class with  “you can be ‘right,’ or you can be effective, but not both.” You can angrily attack and threaten the sexual assault survivor because she opposed a harassment policy, or you can understand how the policy puts her at risk to be victimized again and fix the flaws. You can attack the men’s group for being men, or you can work with them to make sure their men’s education component is informed enough to make the needed changes to a campus’ culture. In the end, you can lash out with righteous anger at a problem, or you can understand and solve it.

But you can’t do both.

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