|The Role of Anger in the Consciousness Development of Peace Activists:
Where Physiology and History Intersect
The moral dimension is central to the most sophisticated recent analysis of human anger. I am referring here to the work of James Averill, as summarized in his book, Anger and Aggression: An Essay on Emotion (1984). This work is based on a series of ingenious questionnaire studies which describe day-to-day episodes of anger and annoyance. In over half of the cases of anger re- ported, the subjects said that their anger was provoked by actions which were voluntary and unjustified by the other person. In an additional 31% of the cases, the instigating action was considered to be a potentially avoidable accident or event which was the result of negligence, carelessness, or lack of foresight. In other words, most episodes of day-to-day anger are perceived to be responses to injustice. One is reminded here of the common childhood exclamation of anger, 'that's not fair!'
Of course, not all human anger consists of moral outrage. The preceding cases account for a little more than 80% of the cases, leaving somewhat less than 20% that are different. Averill finds that some episodes of anger are more simple responses to frustration or pain-a kind of anger that corresponds more directly to kinds of aggression that are common in lower mammals. What must be emphasized, however, is that these more primitive episodes are in the minority, and most anger has a moral aspect to it.
A related finding of Averill, and one that flies in the face of popular opinion, is that anger is usually seen to be constructive, not only by the angry person, but by the target as well. Most often, it was concluded that a person realized their own faults and strengthened their relation with the other person.
There is an important difference between the findings of Averill and those I am reporting here: whereas his subjects spoke only about anger at individuals, the peace activists report that their anger is directed at institutions and social systems and their elected or assumed representatives. Whereas Averill's subjects catalog angry episodes related to individual injustice, our peace activists become angry with more general social injustice. Here is where we can begin to see how physiology and history intersect.
In a dialectical view of history, the role of the individual actor may be seen in terms of his response to historical contradictions. In this case we may speak of the contradiction of war and peace. The contemporary peace activist is raised in an educational, religious political system that claims to oppose war. Having acquired and adopted these values, the peace activist reacts with anger when he or she perceives the nation and its leaders are engaging in practices that threaten to provoke or maintain a policy of war. The individual activist, in his moral reactions, reflects the historical contradiction. Evidence suggests that it is precisely those members of a society who have most strongly acquired the moral values of the society who become the most angry and active to resolve the contradictions. And further, we may suppose that the more the society tries to suppress his activity, the more the activist is confirmed in his outrage against the society's injustice. Repression may, at least in some cases, feed the flames of discontent.
In the historical context, anger may be characterized as the personal fuel in the social motor that resolves the institutional contradictions that arise in the course of history. Perhaps the best known illustration of this in our own cultural history is the anger of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets. The prophets, like the peace activists of our own day, point to moral standards which they learned from the society and condemn the practices of the society in the light of those standards.
There are two different directions this paper could take at this point. One direction, which I will not follow, would ask the question of how contradictions arise during the course of history and in what way are they resolved through social movements. Such a study would help us understand the historical significance of anger.
The other direction, that I will follow here, asks where and how in the course of biological and cultural evolution can we look for the origins of this moral outrage of prophet and peace activist? Being a follower of Darwin, I assume that there is a biological substrate of anger against social injustice, that this substrate arose in the course of evolution long before the dawn of human civilization, and that it served other, though perhaps related, purposes when it evolved.