Should I be so angry? – Dissertation pt. 4

Another one? I did say it would a six part series. I’ve shown (hopefully) that it can be appropriate to be angry at an impairment (for being disabling) and now move onto asking whether you should be angry.

I enjoyed writing this section. Interesting stuff. In fact, I’d say all of it is interesting but I’m not reliable since I wrote it.

Maybe my next essay will be “Can I be too humble?”.  Anyway, although it’s the longest section, enjoy the rest of the argument :)

The previous posts:

The Two Models of Disability (part 1)

Martha Nussbaum on Emotions and Flourishing (part 2)

Here’s What It Means to be Angry (part 3)


I have established an important premise in my argument. It can be appropriate to be angry at an impairment and its disabling nature. This emphasised with the knowledge that disabling factors cannot always or completely be attributed to the poor design of society. However, because of this, if we accept the social model of disability, it does not regard these emotions as legitimate because impairments cannot cause these problems. One move left to be made is for the social model proponent to argue that you should not be angry because it is counter-productive or useless.

If it is established that you should not be angry at your impairment, then it matters much less whether it is appropriate to be so. The social model theorist could claim to only be concerned with the times you should be angry rather than trying to accommodate for ‘appropriate’ ones. I will now explain the objections to being angry.

“Anger is harmful and offers no new knowledge”

Opposition to anger has a long history going back to ancient philosophers such as Seneca and the tradition has come in more modern forms. Seneca had this to say about anger:

The other emotions have in them some element of peace and calm, while this one is wholly violent and has its being in an onrush of resentment, raging with a most inhuman lust for weapons, blood, and punishment, giving no thought to itself if only it can hurt another, hurling itself upon the very point of dagger, and eager for revenge though it may drag down the avenger along with it (1928, Essay 1-107)

Although our modern conceptions of anger do not need to be encoded with the desire to have revenge, this is still an important idea. Anger is said to harm the person who is angry and “Anger embodies nothing useful” (ibid. Essay 1-129). This is quite damning because it makes anger seem like the most useless of emotions and we definitely should not experience. In the context of a disability, anger would be an emotion which makes the experience of disability worse by intensifying the limitations one experiences.

Glen Pettigrove and Koji Tanaka (2014) helpfully point out some more opposition to anger in the Buddhist tradition. Santideva argues a few interesting points.

  • Anger is pointless (Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life vi. 10)
  • Anger presupposes a confused, unduly partial perspective, which gives exaggerated weight to my perceived interests and insufficient weight to the interests of others (vi. 4-5).

Here, again, the discussion of anger is agent centred but the objection can still hold if we do not consider the insufficient weight to the interests of others. Rather it can be interpreted as not taking enough consideration of:

  • Our own interests (to not feel worse because of our disability).
  • How we think our bodies and lives ought to be.

With this, we should not be angry because we have a misguided perspective on what the actual significance of the effect disability has on our lives. This will be important for the future discussion but I will explain briefly a more modern form of opposition to anger.

Pettigrove and Tanaka (2014), in one of their many points, argue that anger is not particularly epistemically useful. They argue and present evidence for the fact that anger is regularly misleading with respect to its proper object and unrelated objects which may follow (p.281). They present the case that anger often leads people to participate in biased, heuristic-reasoning and become less likely to accept evidence which is contrary to their view (p.280)[1]. Moreover, they cite Randolph Nesse (2005) in saying that anger works on the smoke detector principle – meaning it generates more false alarms than true ones. In place of anger in political contexts, Pettigrove promotes meekness as a virtue (Pettigrove, 2012).

This counter-productivity critique is arguably more potent with respect to disability than related discussions about anger towards other agents or political systems. When discussing other people and public policy, we have a greater ability to control the object (people, public policy, etc.) and direct it to productive change. If I am angry that a building does not accommodate for people with mobility concerns, then I can demand that the building managers make appropriate changes where they can. As I mentioned earlier, the social model snuggly fits into the notion of agent-centred anger. In contrast to disability and impairment, it is more difficult to see how anger might lead to productive change. It may force to me to demand a cure but that involves making claims against others. What this says is that anger might be so counter-productive because it is futile. It is directed towards an almost inert object and that fact alone might exaggerate the anger even further.

There are more different forms of oppositions to anger but they usually take a politicised form which Srinivasan (2015) discusses in great detail. However, I wish to focus only on the idea that one should not be angry because it is counter-productive, does not contain useful information and it harms you.

I will tackle the first two arguments together. In response to these criticisms of anger, I argue that the experience of anger can be very epistemically productive. It gives us knowledge which might have been hidden to us before. In the context of agent-centred anger, one might become angry at an injustice which you did not realise was a problem.

In the context of disability, I will aim to demonstrate the epistemic productivity of anger by showing its productivity parallels well with realising injustice in political situations. In the 1950s and 60s,  Malcom X was seen as a very angry figure who was too radical not only in his aims but approaches to achieving them, especially when contrasted with his calmer contemporary, Martin Luther King Jr. His anger came from the historical and continued racial injustice committed by White Americans against Black Americans spanning hundreds of years. With this, we can see that the experience of an injustice or unfairness can cause anger. As a result, the experience of anger led to the knowledge they are experiencing injustice.

The knowledge granted by emotions in the previous example can be had with impairments. If someone suffers from chronic pain, they might come to realise that the reason why they are angry with their progression is because pain is very limiting. Then the anger is epistemically productive because it grants the knowledge that pain is disabling (rather than just not trying hard enough for example). Our bodies and knowledge of impairments are intimately tied to one another even though we can get things wrong about our own bodies. Being limited by your body, can be a very obvious experience for we are always experiencing what it feels like to use our bodies. We can have simple knowledge of it (i.e. ‘I cannot hear’ or ‘I am in continuous pain’) but that alone does not always signify a limitation because some do not view impairments as necessarily limiting[2]. When an impairment becomes disabling, then it might trigger anger and cause us to say “this impairment is harming me and places a significant limit on me”.

Therefore, anger contains useful information about impairments and the fact they can be disabling when we realise that it limits us from achieving significant life projects. A few points need to be emphasised. First, the notion of unfairness is important and must be remembered otherwise there is the risk of saying anything which prevents you from getting what you want can be appropriately responded to with anger. Secondly, the idea of significant life projects will be clarified. This notion is connected to the concept of Eudaimonia and personal flourishing. Meaning if personal flourishing is significantly limited by the impairment, this is usually regarded as disabling. Moreover, this might reflect things that nearly all humans desire for themselves (such as not being in pain or being able to recognise faces). Generally, this limitation will be long-term and have a near continuous presence in their everyday lives. Of course, people can dramatically change their goals and no longer view their impairment as a limit but as a reason for their flourishing. This is consistent with my argument.

I want to emphasise the focus on non-agent-centred anger versus agent-centred anger. Problems such as structural racism and sexism have a root cause in other people causing oppression by placing limits on others and causing harms. In this sense, society is disabling. However, with impairments being disabling, while society can be the cause of disability, it is not sufficient. An impairment can cause disability by placing limits on the person and causing harm without involving other people.

This is an important move for a few reasons. First, it means that disabilities which have no clear social remedies (this does not include curing the impairment) can be understood through the emotional experience of it. Perhaps another claim which follows is that emotions can contain valuable epistemic information. Disabilities such as chronic pain and fatigue often prevent people from achieving significant life projects, even if those projects are to not be in consistent pain or simply live a life without this general reduction in well-being.

A brief counter to whether one should or should not be angry might take the following form:

If one is learning how to walk, and they become angry because they find it very difficult, it might be responded that they should not be harsh on themselves.

However, while it may have good intentions, it can be misguided. They might respond by saying they are not angry at themselves because they are at no fault. They are angry that their impairment is preventing them from walking.

It might also be argued “do not be angry at things you cannot control.” If we cannot control the state of our disability, then we should not be angry at all. I ask that you recall the condition of significance and Eudaimonia in the discussion of emotions earlier. I could be angry because it is something I cannot control and feel I ought to be able to. For example, I myself cannot directly control whether systematic racism continues to exist or not and the fact it does exist, makes me angry. On the other hand, I cannot control whether the buses are on time (or show up at all) but the promptness of buses is much less significant to my life projects than experiencing racism is. Here it can be seen that the significance of the event can help us understand whether one should or should not be angry. If the event ends up being insignificant on a bigger picture, then there may be no need. On the other hand, if it remains significant to your life, then it is easier to deflect the criticism that you should not be angry.

Secondly, given the information that anger does contain, it prevents the social model theorist from attempting to explain away the emotional experience towards their body by explaining everything in terms of societal oppression. If a person is blind and is angry they cannot see anymore, it would be irresponsible to dismiss it by attempting to explain it solely in terms of what society has not done for them. It is true that society could do much more to help them navigate the world properly. It is not true that their projects are to simply being able to navigate the world nor should that be their only project or desire. They can be much more complex and personal. A blind person may want to see their child and their body prevents that from happening.

The third objection – anger is harmful – stands up better in face of criticism. It is plausible to believe that anger does make the experience of disability worse. Largely because it brings a negative section of your life to centre stage and makes you engage with it intensely. When one is angry, it is rarely a passive engagement between you and the object and thus can decrease well-being quite substantially. If something harms you, you wish not to be harmed then you ought not to be angry. Yet, I do not think this is enough to establish that one should not be angry. This is strengthened by the above points on the epistemic productivity of anger and leads to a different argument – does it matter if one should not be angry?

There is something to be said about whether someone ‘should’ be angry at an impairment or anything at all. Here, the separation between the ‘can’ and the ‘should’ becomes important. Anger (and other emotions) do not need to be justified solely in terms of their productivity or in terms of how they influence your well-being. If one is angry at a moral violation then that explains and justifies their anger. Remarking they should not be angry does not address the reason for their anger but says their reaction to it is mistaken. This is a problematic response because ignoring the reason for the anger is a perfect way to undermine personal testimony. This is undermined without reference to their reasons for being angry but the thought that one should not be angry for the reasons discussed above. It is enough that it is apt even if we have a case of apt counter-productive anger (Srinivasan, 2015, p.20).

So far I have argued that the criticisms of whether we should be angry fail. One last qualification needs to be made. I am not arguing that there is an obligation to be angry at an impairment even if it would be appropriate to be. Rather, if a person is angry, it not easily dismissed as counter-productive or being too harmful to be useful. With this, the social model of disability excludes anger as an appropriate emotional response to impairment which is an important mistake.

[1] Interestingly enough, they also argue (as Seneca does) that anger characteristically contains the desire to lash out at whatever has wronged you. This is a mistaken addition for a two main reasons. 1) Modern conceptions of anger do not need to contain that condition and you especially would not be justified in doing so simply because you are also justified in being angry. See Myles Burnyeat’s rejection of this (2002) and 2) given the earlier establishment that you can be angry at an impairment, there is no person to be angry at in this case.

[2] It is worthwhile to note the idea that impairment can also be socially determined. If this is true, then people might not find impairments limiting because society has not caused whatever biological factor in question to be a limitation. See Shakespeare (2006).


If you’ve made it this far, thanks. I hope you enjoyed the argument.

Do you think anger is useful? 

For long time readers of the blog (and people with the memories of the-opposite-of-a-goldfish) you might recall me writing this about anger. Do you think I’ve contradicted myself?

Thanks for reading!





2 thoughts on “Should I be so angry? – Dissertation pt. 4

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