Anger, Social Change and a Major “Aha”

Gandhi and MLKLast week, an incident involving Rush Limbaugh, Robert Egger, a YouTube video and a small hew and cry led to my blog question asking, “Where, if at all, is the place for anger in social change?”

The responses were so rich – I encourage you to read them in their entirety here.

Several things became clear in that discussion:

  1. The belief that anger comes from fear, from pain, from both. The experience that “suppressing anger can be debilitating,” as Martin indicated in his comment.
  2. The belief that we have the capacity to move beyond that fear and pain, acting in ways that do not give in to the anger.
  3. The desire for a different / more effective way of being with each other. Jeff Mowatt talked about it as a “mandate for acting with compassion.” Kesha talked about “a shifting concern for one’s community over one’s self.” Marcia White talked about our ability to make “choices that create growth and happiness.” Others responded similarly – the wish and the determination that a different way of being become the norm.

Individuals Go Where Systems Lead Them
As I discuss in the opening chapters of The Pollyanna Principles, our assumptions and expectations of “reality” are rooted in thousands of years of culture that tell us that “living joyfully together” is impossible. (You can read those chapters for free online here.)

Our history tells us that we will likely find reasons to do battle – by words or by swords – and that true “peace” (i.e. not just the absence of war) is a pipe dream. Across generations, we then hand down those assumptions about how people can be counted on to act.

  • Assumptions about what we admire and celebrate – the warrior, the savior, the hero, the individual beating the odds
  • Assumptions about winners and losers, about weakness and strength
  • Assumptions about scarcity vs. abundance, about possibility vs. inevitability

All those assumptions, and the expectations that arise from those assumptions – including and especially those related to anger, frustration, fear, pain – are rooted in stories we have told for millennia.

From those assumptions and expectations, we also hand down ways for dealing with the inevitable conflict we assume will come our way.  While we are encouraged to hope for the best (all the dreams you noted in #3 above), our conflict-driven culture gives us systems and tools and approaches for responding when (not if) the worst happens.

As a result, our everyday responses – as individuals, as communities, as nations – are rooted in those thousand-year-old assumptions. How we respond when an Al Qaida attacks. How we respond when a BP floods the gulf with oil.

And yes, how we respond when a blowhard-for-hire calls us lazy idiots.

Social Change?
I confess that my own questions about the place for anger in social change are rooted in all those cultural assumptions as well.  And yet I also know that deep in my questions was my own mind trying to wrap itself around the why’s and how’s.

I know in my bones that every action we take is creating the future. I know in my bones that we can aim our work at proactively creating the world we want vs. living and working in response to what we don’t like about the world.

And yet my experience of the world, as seen through the lens of my culture, simultaneously tells me that social change and anger go hand in hand.

And that’s when it hit me. Re-reading the discussion and then re-reading my own question, I realized that social change is indeed about anger, because social change is about reacting to what we don’t like about the world.  Just look at the words themselves:

Social Change.
Changing the World.

What is change if not reaction – change FROM something?  The words to which we aspire and bring our best work – changing the world – they are a statement of reaction to what we can no longer tolerate.  Social change is a reaction to pain and frustration, to inequity, injustice.  No wonder we see anger as a force for such change!

Talk about an “aha!”

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with infinite choices and infinite possibilities to create the future we want. Our work doesn’t have to be solely about reacting to circumstances – poverty, war, social ills. We can aim at the world we want, the culture we want. We can work to create a world that is humane and joyful and healthy and vibrant.

It is possible, simply because it is not impossible.

As you watch the video below, consider that maybe that’s the answer (I am thinking as I’m typing – always dangerous, the keyboard equivalent of thinking aloud…). Maybe social change IS about anger, frustration, rebellion against the status quo.

And maybe the thing that is more powerful is the thing that moves beyond that anger – work and words that are not about what we are changing FROM but – as the video notes – what we are moving TOWARDS.

Social Aspiration
Social Dreaming
Social Vision
Social Possibility

And wow does that ever raise more questions to explore!

If you are viewing this in your email or a reader that doesn’t show video, this link will take you to the website where you can watch the video. Link to site here.

5 Responses to Anger, Social Change and a Major “Aha”

  1. Great piece! Very inspiring – got a big lump in my throat…it’s human nature (and dog nature) to want to love unless we fear that the show of love will be threatening… You hit it spot on (in my humble opinion)…! Great!

  2. Hildy, I wish I could respond to your post in a way that is half as eloquent as you have written it. Right now, I am just smiling broadly and shouting “yes! yes! yes!”

    “And maybe the thing that is more powerful is the thing that moves beyond that anger – work and words that are not about what we are changing FROM but – as the video notes – what we are moving TOWARDS.”

    I strive to live those words of yours every day, and believe that if we are EVER to live in the communities we desire in our heart of hearts, we will ONLY get there through intentionality, through defining what we want, and then creating the ways to “live it into reality”. What we need more than “being the change we want to see” (arising from what we don’t like), is to practice “being the community we want to live in” (rooted in our highest aspirations for ourselves and everyone else). And we need to do this for ourselves, and for the seven generations that will come after us.

    Anger is easy. Giving in to our feelings of frustration and judgement, complaining and holding on to grudges – I meet clients every day who think that’s the only pathway available, without recognizing that it’s only a short cut to nowhere.

    Staying focused on social aspirations usually brings with it accusations of being simplistic (Pollyanna) or unrealistic, in a culture that’s become cynically invested in means over ends, process over outcome. I find that it takes guts and a single-minded determination to consistently orient ourselves towards the future we want. It can even take a willingness to feel humiliated by the words of the cynics, but to keep going anyway.

    Once again, you’ve named it clearly: we need to choose hope, to create opportunities to retain our focus on the world we desire. For me, it’s not a “maybe” thing – it’s yes. You are right on.

  3. Due to some technical problems with the blog (sigh), Jeff’s initial post didn’t show up. I am posting his thoughts here, on his behalf:

    “What I wanted to show you were a couple of extracts from a 1973 BBC series ‘The Ascent of Man’

    Jacob Bronowksi describes the human aspiration which led to the discovery of nuclear fission and the efforts made by the man who first conceived the idea to prevent other men deploying it as a weapon.

    He relates the Principle of Certainty in science to a political counter conception of Monstrous Certainty.arising at the same time in the 20th century.”

  4. First, I want to thank Jeff for sharing the immensely powerful videos at the link above. Please watch them. There is much there. Wow.

    Second, Julie, thank you. It will be great to see you when I’m in LA next month, and to catch up with all this and more!

    And Gayle, oh Gayle – I am smiling as I read your words. I had this thought recently: Yes, we Pollyannas are said to be naive and unrealistic. What if the actual naivety is in thinking that our only possible future is merely a continuation of life as we have already experienced it? (I confess that at the time that thought occurred to me, I took a brief dip into a name-calling fantasy that ended with my laughing out loud at the image of grown adults telling each other, “Oh yeah? You think I’M naive? Well I’m rubber and you’re glue…”)

    Another thought, though, that has been immensely powerful for me these days. And that is that the world we want – a peaceful, humane place to live – it is already here. In great reaches of the earth, and for at least a few billion of us, the vast majority of our days and weeks are spent surrounded by kindness, peace, love, understanding, health, joy.

    The unhappy parts – people acting badly to each other – that is actually not the norm for our days, but the exception. Of our 24 hours, perhaps 1 hour is spent with people acting badly. Of our weeks, perhaps that hour happens twice a week, or if we have a wretched “evil” boss, maybe even daily. But doing the math, that’s still an overwhelming part of the day when people are kind, decent, generous – or at the very least benign.

    The power of recognizing that that life for many of us – and I mean MANY of us – is already the “change” we think we want to see – well, like I said, that has been a powerful force for my own exploration lately. It is powerful to acknowledge that reality, to live that reality, to share that reality and to embrace that that IS reality.

    It’s not a fully formed thought, just as the thoughts in the post to which this comment is attached are not fully formed. But they are part of what is emerging from this quasi-sabbatical.

    So thanks, all, for giving me more to ponder, and for jumping in here with such great stuff!