Here’s What it Means to be Angry – Dissertation pt. 3

And we’ve reached the midway point, the longest section and the most interesting so far. A lot of milestones!

In the previous parts I discussed:

The Two Models of Disability (part 1)

Martha Nussbaum on Emotions and Flourishing (part 2)

Part three is the beginning of my argument. Can you be angry at an impairment? I discuss and attempt to expand one of my favourite papers The Aptness of Anger by Amia Srinivasan.


Can I be angry?

Recall the definition of disability offered by the social model. Society disables people with impairments. In order to figure out where the social model goes wrong with regards to the justification of emotional responses to disability, I will assume it is true. From this, I will go on to analyse two things – can you have a rational emotional response to an impairment? If you can, does it mean you should? I will test two emotions – anger and sadness.

First, what does it mean for a model of disability to ‘allow’ an emotional response to something? It is definitely possible to be angry at a disability because you can express any emotion you want at any time. I can be angry at a pillow for simply being blue if I want to. However, establishing this is trivial. When discussing whether you can be angry at an impairment, it is really a discussion of whether it is appropriate to do so. Does it make sense, given the situation, to be angry? If not, the social model is simply disallowing an emotion that is inappropriate any way. If that were correct, I do not believe the social model of disability would be making a mistake.

I will now focus on anger and its expression towards other people in regular contexts which might make it easier to appreciate in the context of disability. When I say ‘I am angry that you ruined my shoes’ I am expressing a few things (Srinivasan, 2015, p.8). First, I have stated what I am angry about – you ruined my shoes. Second, this fact is also the reason for my anger and most importantly, I feel that is what also justifies my anger. Perhaps it is best understood in terms of unfairly setting back my interests (having good shoes). This can be contrasted with merely explaining my anger but not being justified in being angry or being irrationally angry. If an Olympic sprinter loses a race, they might be angry at the fact they lost but their anger, arguably, is not appropriate because their interests were not set back unfairly.

Let us unpack the justification of anger. Amia Srinivasan (2015) argues that genuine anger involves a normative violation against the way things ought to have been or more specifically, when a moral violation has occurred or will occur (p.10). This is different from what might be construed as disappointment – a violation against the way things you wish would have been. A much weaker violation. When we say ‘this should have been a different way’ and do so genuinely (by not conflating wishes with demands) we are making a powerful statement. There is a version of the world you are rightfully entitled to and because that version has not been realised, you have been harmed. And thus, your anger is genuine.

Before I continue, I am pausing briefly to highlight how well the social model of disability fits in here. Having the basic assumption that people deserve to be treated fairly and justly, the proper treatment of the disabled is a right they are entitled to. In order to participate in life as fully as non-impaired individuals, society needs to be arranged in a much better way to remove the oppression that is disability. The examples mentioned earlier show quite powerfully the discrimination disabled people have faced in the past up to the present day and here, their anger is justified. Proper participation in society is a right which is has been denied. Their anger is directed towards a clear object – the arrangement of society – and it has a great significance towards their own life projects.

Returning to the topic, while helpful, the current definition of anger presents a problem for my argument. This concept of anger generally tends to be agent focused. An injustice is generally thought of being committed by someone (or people) against another person (or persons). If this is true, then one could plausibly argue that it does not make any sense to be angry that one is impaired because that does not involve another person. If someone caused it, I would be angry at the person rather than the impairment itself. Not being impaired not how one ought to have been. Rather, it is how one wishes they would have been. I am simply conflating anger with disappointment.

I will admit that this objection has some valuable force but I maintain that Srinivasan’s definition of genuine anger is helpful because it gives us the chance to explore non-moral violations or non-agent centred moral violations.

Let us begin from the perspective of harms where there is no agent that is morally responsible. It is important we do this because being angry at a harm and being angry at the person who caused it are different things. Is it possible to get angry in a genuine way? Yes. These will tend to be anger at facts of the world. For example, can you get angry at the fact a flash monsoon has destroyed your home? Plausibly, yes. However, this anger’s object would be at the fact that it has ruined your home and unfairness stems from the fact that it was undeserved. The object (or proposition)[1] is the fact that it has harmed you (quite significantly). Perhaps then, following from Amia’s idea of moral violations, we are entitled to say “this monsoon should not have happened because it was unfair”[2] and it has significantly reduced well-being and upended your personal projects (i.e. having shelter). Before I make much needed clarifications for my argument, take the following example:

Can you be angry at the fact you are in poverty? There are a few possible statements I would be making when I say ‘I am angry I am in poverty’.

  • I am angry that I am in poverty and starving because it is harming me
  • I am angry that I have been put into poverty by other people.[3]
  • I am angry that I am in poverty and the people who can change it are not.

It is reasonable to think that all three statements can be true independent of or in conjunction with one another. Statements 2) and 3) are agent centred. They are directed towards the way the world ought to have been and making a claim against other people to change it. Moreover, changing it does not then alleviate the anger towards the fact that it happened (Srinivasan, 2015, p.12). We can see parallels with this and disability. Disabled people are permitted to make claims 2) and 3) about their own disabilities and perhaps they even should do so. However, statement 1) seems more contentious if we view such harms through the lens of the social model of disability. We cannot be angry at impairment for harming us and being a disabling factor in itself because it cannot do so – only society can. Yet, we can see that it is possible to be angry at a non-agent-centred harm for causing life to go worse in some way.[4] Especially when it is as significant as being limited by your own body or mental capacities. It does not matter whether the harm can be alleviated in this case because the justification for the anger is not based in the fact it has not been alleviated by another person. It can be justified simply because the harm is existing.

This argument becomes particularly potent when we consider impairments – which are seen as disabling because they limit our life projects – that cannot eliminated by societal change. Under the social model of disability, anger towards these impairments, even though they can be very disabling, cannot be classed as such because it was not caused by society. This shows quite explicitly the problem with ignoring impairment because it must class appropriate emotional responses towards them as inappropriate.

However, is my argument only applicable to disabilities which do not seem to be alleviated by social change? As mentioned above, it is has a case to be more powerful but it is not limited to this context. People with disabilities may not have goals which are achievable by simply changing society’s arrangement. Often, the goals of the social model of disability are surrounded on making sure every individual can participate in society as other non-impaired individual does.

However, we can see why this may not be satisfactory. If an avid runner loses the use of their legs after an earthquake, one might think that being able to get around society in a wheelchair properly is enough. Yet, we definitely can still attempt to appreciate the anger expressed by her if she simply wants to run and cannot. From Nussbaum’s framework of emotions explained earlier, they are often linked to Eudaimonia or personal flourishing and if running was helping her live a flourishing life, then the unfairness in losing that ability factors into why she might be angry.  Of course, her life aims and relationship with the impairment might change over time meaning she is no longer angry at the impairment but directs her attention externally. Disability involves a very active relationship with the person and their body in part because we cannot separate the two. However we define disability, it must allow for these reactions to be appreciated as appropriate and the social model does not do so.

A point to be emphasised is this: the fact that our claim of unfairness cannot be claimed against another person does not diminish the existence of unfairness. Being unable to say that someone else must fix the unfairness does not prevent the appropriateness of the anger but makes it a practical problem of experiencing anger with something you cannot change. The objection that this anger does not make sense because it cannot be attributed to another person is better suited for whether you should be angry rather than whether it is appropriate to be.

This is open to an objection I wish to address briefly but will go into more detail in the next section. It means there can be genuine anger at many things. If a small gust of wind ruins your umbrella just as you walk out of the door, it looks like you can be angry at that fact even if it ends up being quite inconsequential. I am inclined to agree that it is possible genuine anger might exists in these situations. This is mainly a problem for whether we should be angry at a reasonably small thing versus something which can be disabling.


[1] It’s difficult to assess anger at a ‘proposition’. The anger expressed is towards the object in the world which leads to the proposition ‘a flash monsoon ruined my home’.

[2] This brute bad luck is also seen as unfairness in discussions of Luck Egalitarianism. See Dworkin (1981) for one of many examples.

[3] This is along the lines of Thomas Pogge’s (2008) argument that affluent countries are the cause of global poverty.

[4] Unless we want to admit genuine anger for life going better than expected.


A few questions:

Do you agree with Amia’s definition of anger? 

Do you think anger at an impairment makes sense? 

Let me know what you think. As always, thanks for reading!

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3 thoughts on “Here’s What it Means to be Angry – Dissertation pt. 3

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