Righteous Anger, Not Unchecked Wrath, Serves the Common Good

COMMENTARY: In and of itself, anger is neither a rational justification nor an excuse for good or bad behavior.

A seminarian holds a crucifix in Detroit during a protest Sunday in memory of George Floyd.
A seminarian holds a crucifix in Detroit during a protest Sunday in memory of George Floyd. (photo: Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images)

Harvey Mansfield, a longtime Harvard professor and one of the most astute commentators on public matters, once remarked, “You can tell who has power in a society by who is allowed to get angry.”

That was an unusual insight in “normal” times; it looks almost like a truism now, as the United States — and the Catholic Church — emerge from the nightmare of yet another instance of police misconduct against a black man and the subsequent protests, looting and riots.

Power, contrary to what many would like to think these days, will and must exist in any society. The question is rather when power is being used for good ends and when it is not. There hasn’t been a great deal of clarity about this subject in recent weeks, when anger has rent the small store of public reason that has managed to survive in modern America.

You can get angry about almost anything, and most of us, no doubt, have during the lockdown. But that’s no surprise given a world living through what feels like 1918 (Spanish Flu), 1929 (the stock market crash/Great Depression) and 1968 (the cultural revolution) all in a single year — which is not even half over. And it’s no surprise that such frustration has spilled over into public spaces, as well.

Anger is a strange and complicated emotion. It’s at times the right reaction (righteous anger) to unjust circumstances, at others the wrong reaction (wild or free-floating rage). But in and of itself, anger is neither a rational justification nor an excuse for good or bad behavior.

This has long been understood in the perennial philosophy and Christian theology. Aristotle got it right 2,500 years ago, and many have since repeated it: Anyone can get angry — that is easy ... but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Almost everyone can accept this — in the abstract. But it’s when we come down to cases that the role of anger becomes, itself, a bone of contention. Because judging rightly between proper and improper anger requires us to possess certain virtues — temperance, restraint, justice, impartiality, prudence and more. And you typically don’t develop virtues on the spur of the moment, especially when the moment is marked by violent emotion.

Anyone can see that the killing of George Floyd — repeat violent criminal offender though he was — was wrong. And anger and protest about that death can be reasonable, given the circumstances (suffocating an essentially harmless person being arrested) and the long history of abuse of black people, including recent incidents by corrupt or incompetent police.

But the reaction did not stay within reasonable limits.

We’ve even heard assertions such as, “Racism is the reason for the rioting.” This holds about as much water as saying, “The devil made me do it.”

If we’re going to allow injustice in one area to permit us to authorize injustice in another — and what else is the destruction and theft of property, attacks on storeowners and random passersby and the assaults on police and other agents of order? — we have authorized anyone who feels wronged to commit wrong himself. That’s not civilization. That’s famously what Thomas Hobbes called “the war of all against all,” an inhuman condition in which members of the same species prey on one another as does no other animal on earth.

Our culture has lost many of its roots in Christianity, so cultural leaders mostly look at things through the postmodern lenses of “race, class and gender.” But the classical categories cast a different light on matters.

In the Minneapolis case, for example, it’s stunning that it has been simply assumed that racism lay behind the murder. Most murders happen between people who know one another, who get personally angry at one another. It has been widely reported — but not given much attention — that George Floyd and Officer Derek Chauvin had worked as security guards at the same nightclub.

Race comes into it, of course, as does all-too-familiar police brutality. But is it impossible to believe that there was also personal anger? It will be interesting to see when the case comes to trial whether such elements emerge.

Meanwhile, there’s the wider issue of the anger and the rioting that has been unleashed over the incident.  

The saying in the Gospels seems made for times like this: “Take care that your light not become darkness” (Luke 11:35). That phrase is often applied to Christians who, out of zeal, forget the duty of love of neighbor and actually make the Good News harder to hear because of anger, self-righteousness, etc.

Even within the Catholic Church today, we’ve seen a polarization that has led to regrettable displays of uncharity between different groups. Social media have made demonization of believers with whom one disagrees routine.

We see something similar in the secular world, when people in conservative media excuse wrongdoing by police because they support law and order or liberal news outlets forbid terms like “looting” and “rioting” out of fear of perpetuating “racist stereotypes.”

Righteous anger cannot remain righteous when it, at the outset, refuses to remain strictly faithful to the truth. Even as a practical matter, lying for justice doesn’t work and will only provoke further turmoil and violent backlash.

How many Americans who would otherwise have been deeply sympathetic to injustice by any side will now — when many in the media and politics labor to minimize or even explain away lawlessness — be swallowed up by anger themselves over threats to the very foundations of civic order?  

There’s an exchange in A Man for All Seasons that is often quoted but worth remembering again at a moment like this. St. Thomas More is arguing with his son-in-law — “son Roper” — about abandoning strict justice to cut out deep evil. More himself is as opposed to the evil as Roper, but he knows something Roper does not:

Roper: “So now you’d give the devil benefit of law?”
More:  “Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?”  
Roper: “I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”
More: “Oh? And, when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and, if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? I’d give the devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.” 

It’s not easy to be angry in the right way, nor is it a simple matter to stay faithful to truth and impartiality — and the institutions we’ve developed to preserve and apply them — in the midst of great gusts of emotion. But that’s the burden we must take up precisely for all our sakes.

Robert Royal, Ph.D., is the founder and president

of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington

and editor in chief of The Catholic Thing website.