Sarah Illingworth: Preserving the dignity of anger

For me, anger has always been something to avoid – to avoid feeling and acting out of it myself, and to avoid triggering it in others. But there is a place for anger, and sometimes for rage. I’ll spare you a rehash of the reasons for rage Donald Trump has provided over the course of his campaign and young presidency, and the other recent examples of populism that have been bubbling up around the world, but it’s safe to say anger is an emotion widely felt right now. I don’t think human life should be occupied by a constant battling it out for one’s basic needs, or those of others for that matter. But in reality, survival’s the gig. For some this is a latent, pre-won struggle, that every now and then slaps them in the face. For others it’s, necessarily, raw and very much day-to-day. Be it a tussle over basic resources or deep power, we are always only a few steps from conflict.

More often that not, survival looks like keeping your head down, even – or particularly – when you are treated poorly or discriminated against. Sometimes though, being routinely minimised, and the threat of a total loss of dignity can mean the need to protect your psyche and self-worth overtakes your focus on physical safety or wellbeing. Every person has a right to push back against discrimination, and just straight-up being treated with disrespect. I’m all for peace, but we need to preserve the dignity of anger too. Like other emotions – anxiety, fear, love – anger is a signal. It tells us something is unfair, uncool or just plain wrong. To act out of it all the time is unhelpful; to ignore it altogether is as well. Leaving the things it signals unaddressed can allow bad situations to worsen, sometimes to a breaking point. Wherein things fracture to a state beyond repair.

“Sometimes, the threat of a total loss of dignity can mean the need to protect your psyche and self-worth overtakes your focus on physical safety or wellbeing.”

Oppression isn’t always overt. It’s most insidious (and powerful) in its subtlety – the quiet biases and exclusions that keep one in one’s place. These can be residues of harsher times – crimes of the past now seen by many to be clearly unjust thanks to their pop culture retellings, as well as in the history books. All big violence started in a smaller form. Misguided judgement of others; condescension; renegotiating the rules to keep one group’s interests safe at the expense of others’. For some the consequences of discrimination are profound, and the stakes very high – as for those crossing deadly seas from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe, and the kids being smuggled out of Latin America to the US, to escape drug-related poverty and crime. For others, discrimination is felt but its shape hard to articulate. It just presents as parameters of being a certain kind of human. With a certain set of genitals, limbs and brains – that may or may not work as well as others’ – and a certain tone of skin.

Civil discontent and disenfranchisement aren’t new phenomena, but the heat is high right now. Regular folk are sick of being shat on, and people want to be heard. Forget right and wrong, or even what’s fair. Start with what’s decent. The experience of life is not the same for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be. But everyone who’s thrown into it should be treated with respect, and given a shot at a try. There is also the reality that neglecting the needs of the majority – who have low incomes, and limited access to economic opportunity and social mobility – leads to the kind of unrest that will also affect the wealthy few. I believe that actively resisting people like Donald Trump is important from an ethical standpoint, but not everyone is as concerned with notions of morality, and fair enough. A battle of values won’t get anyone very far, as values are usually long-set and hard to change. Political wars waged over values distract from the real purpose of government anyway.

The way I see it, the public sector exists to manage the resources of a place in such a way that all who live in that place have an equal chance at having a good life, and are fairly treated while they go about it. Government is about the management of people and practicalities so we can all do our thing, and enjoy our time on the planet we’ve found ourselves on. It shouldn’t be about personality and rhetoric and parliamentary spats that make bratty children look polite. The good news is, there are many people who do work in the public sector in a helpful way. Who are politically and socially engaged not for change-the-world brownie points or rule-the-world motives, but because they know it’s something some of us have to do. These people may be visible, and they may be invisible to you. They might work in high profile roles, or quietly behind the scenes at schools, community centres, NGOs, or in local government. They might be practitioners, academics, teachers, nurses, journalists – and they are probably underappreciated and underfunded.

“The public sector exists to manage the resources of a place in such a way that all who live in that place have an equal chance at having a good life, and are fairly treated while they go about it.”

Not everyone’s in a position to do this sort of work, or to take the risks involved with a more obvious kind of activism. Support those that are and do. It can be lonely out on the limb. People have been shamed for far too long for speaking up and speaking out, for being active, for caring. It shouldn’t be a novelty to do this. It should be bizarre and obscene that people who demean others can rise to the very top; that we pour money towards their vapid endeavours, but yawn when things like nurse’s wages and human rights abuses are on the table. Power is a spectrum, and people have it because other people give it to them. The spirit of change is very much crackling right now – and given the clear fractures in our current economic and social structures I think we’re at an important crossroads. This is an opportunity to rethink how the world functions, and to establish new systems that benefit far more people, and other living things, than our existing systems do.

If you’re in a position to use your voice, do it. Little things mean just as much to those who need it as the big. And big change only happens off the back of the incremental. Brick by brick. Chip by chip. Be a strong human with heart, who isn’t afraid to call bullshit. Who takes the time to seek out, and understand perspectives that differ from their own. Who asks, and listens. Don’t just dismiss voices that don’t echo or reinforce your own. Hear people. The beast you’re fighting may not be the one in the White House, but telling it no may be crucial to your community. Social media can be part of this, and it can help spread important thought and blow the lid off things that would otherwise remain in the dark, but its impact is limited. Social shifts happen when we, as the parts to society’s sum, evolve. Change is hard, but right now the world needs it.

Image source.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.