Politics ... is about conflict as much as consensus. Anger can be a motivating force for organization and resistance; the fear of collective wrath, in both democratic and authoritarian societies, can also motivate those in power to change their ways. The question of whether, on the whole, anger has been politically productive or counterproductive in the long struggle against oppression is an empirical question, and one that cannot be settled from the philosopher’s armchair. Certainly it cannot be settled by a handful of historical cases that are all too easily treated as liberal fairy tales about the power of civility.
Nussbaum is also unimpressed by the thought that anger can be psychically important for the victims of injustice. Strikingly, she doesn’t discuss the many feminist and black thinkers who have argued for the emancipatory features of anger, most notably Audre Lorde, who described women’s anger as “a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.” Nor does she mention Frederick Douglass, who wrote of the moment when he finally resisted the violent attack of a slave breaker that it “rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.”
It is not quite that Nussbaum overlooks the possibilities suggested by these thinkers; she concedes that getting angry can sometimes help restore a victim’s sense of self-worth, and can sometimes signal to the victim and others that an injustice has occurred. But she doesn’t register the full weight and shape of anger’s psychic importance. It is not merely that anger can make one feel better or prompt one to see the badness in one’s situation. Rather, anger is sometimes and for some people the only way of recovering a lost sense of agency. And sometimes, and for some people, it can be the only way of registering the full injustice of the world.