The Beauty of Anger

From Aristotle to Rick Mercer, the rant as a form of verbal jazz.

October 2, 2012

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other...

Whoopi Goldberg and I have something in common: we’ve both played an angry vagina on stage. I was in a university production of The Vagina Monologues. My job was to burst through an entrance at the back of the art gallery and run screaming through the audience before hollering my opening lines: “My vagina’s angry! It is! It’s pissed off! My vagina’s furious and it needs to talk about all this shit—it needs to talk to you!”

The trouble was, as I told my director in rehearsals, acting angryfelt really weird and unnatural. Why couldn’t my vagina just sit down and explain in a calm and rational way that while some might appreciate intimate douches, it personally preferred not to smell like flowers or rain? That while my vagina understood that thong underwear must exist for a reason, it was perplexed as to what that reason might be? Did it have to yell?

In his new book, A Nation Worth Ranting About, comedian and political commentator Rick Mercer asks Canadians to tap into their anger. “I feel about ranting the same way the feeble-minded feel about jogging,” he writes.“They just don’t feel complete unless they get their 10K in before breakfast. I think more Canadians should rant. It would make for a noisier but happier place. I encourage all of you to do so.” Of his tirades against Stephen Harper, Mercer writes, “Sometimes when I rant about him, I am angry; other times, I am just severely annoyed—it’s an important distinction.”

Aristotle didn’t have much to say about Canadian politics or floral douches (although there are a few lost manuscripts between the Nichomachean Ethics and Posterior Analytics—ha ha, “posterior”), but in his treatise on the art of rhetoric he does identify moving one’s audience to anger as a legitimate aim of public discourse. Aristotle believes that real anger is always personal, and he provides a run-down of the kinds of people who make us angry: people who don’t return favours; people who forget our names; people who are indifferent to the pain they bring us (“this is why we get angry with bringers of bad news”); people who laugh at, mock, or jeer us. There is one category of person, however, that Aristotle tells us must beexcluded: our superiors.

His reason for this is not a pragmatic fear of reprisal. Instead, he argues that we don’t in fact feel anger towards people of higher station than ourselves because anger depends upon the possibility of revenge: “no one grows angry with a person on whom there is no prospect of taking revenge, and we feel comparatively little anger, or none at all, with those who are much our superiors in power.” In a society using the updated version of democracy, you would think this notion—that it’s not worth being angry with those in power because they are beyond our control—would have evaporated. But maybe voter apathy is the Aristotelian form of voter anger. Apathy is a sort of defeatism, the belief that exercising agency is pointless. It’s what happens when we stiflethe more demanding—and less socially acceptable—emotion.

Anger is a character flaw in our society, and even those with strong political convictions are discouraged from getting too hot under the collar. The expression of liberal anger—anger from the left wingof the political arena—is complicated by the perception that to be a liberal person is to be better than that. “My friends, love is better than anger,” Jack Layton wrote in his final letter to the nation. “Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.” During last spring’s NDP leadership race, these parting words were held up as a yardstick against which to measure Thomas “Angry Tom” Mulcair’s failings. It wasunseemly, people felt, for the leader of the touchy-feeliest party to have been successfully sued for slander, or to have called another MP by what Maclean’s coyly described as “an extremely vulgar French word.” (The PQ MP, Yves Duhaime, initially accused Mulcair of calling him a “vieille plotte,” which means “vagina,” but Mulcair corrected him, saying that he had in fact called Duhaime a “vieille guidoune”—which means “prostitute.”)

Now that Canadians have accepted an angry person as leader of the left, it may be time to accept the positive role of anger in public life. Both of my parents are psychologists, which meant, when I was growing up, that although they didn’t know how to manage their emotions, they knew where to look for advice. There is a book called The Dance of Anger that my dad was always screaming at me to read. Well, okay—advising me to read after telling me in an accusatory way that I was angry. I heard this as yelling. It turns out the book, which was published in 1985 by Harriet Lerner and went on to become a classic, has some useful things to say. “Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say ‘no’ to the ways in which we are defined by others and ‘yes’ to the dictates of our inner self.” This sounds like a fair recipe for political activism. Saying ‘no’ to politicians who seek to define our country in ways we don’t like is a necessary conversation of citizenship.

Walking around campus one day, after my role in advancing vaginal fury was done, I ran into a guy who had seen the production. “Man,” he said, “That was crazy! Standing and yelling at the audience for like, ten minutes—that takes a lot of energy.” I said thanks, and he added, “It was like Coltrane.” Dissonance and discord have done a lot for jazz. Somehow, the very harshness is what draws us in.

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other journals, and her radio work has aired on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera, Outfront, and The Next Chapter. Her first book, The Id Kid, was published in 2011 by Véhicule Press, and was named as one of The National Post’s Best Poetry Books of the Year.