Powerless Anger, Powerful Anger and Nonviolent Action

At a very basic level, all progressive activism is driven by anger. Destruction is occurring that is insane, unnecessary, unjust and unreasonable and our anger tells us that this is not okay, and that we will not put up with it and pretend we are getting what we need when we are not. And our anger gives us the energy to get up off our arses and commit ourselves to doing what is necessary to change things. So, contrary to popular belief, anger is not a ‘negative emotion’, it is a positive emotion that is a reasonable reaction to events that threaten our physical and/or psychological existence. Without it, we might as well be dead, for without it we have no will to stand up for ourselves and the truth of our existence.

So why does anger have such a bad rap?

For every true feeling we feel, there is also a ‘false’ version. True fear lets us know when our real physical/psychological self is under threat. False fear tells us that our real self is the threat, and we must suppress awareness of it to survive, pretending to be someone other than who we are, believing things about the world that are not true and not listening to our true feelings communicate with us about reality. Under the guidance of false fear, we may then get angry in defence of the delusions we have about ourselves and the world. These delusions include projections – our minds remember times when we were genuinely afraid, and project these experiences into current situations that are not genuinely threatening. Who has had a parent yell at them, demanding extreme control, around an issue that seems utterly trivial? Who has had someone hit them, or angrily moralise at them in reaction to some behaviour that was not dangerous or, if genuinely dangerous, not deliberate? Who has been told that ‘getting angry (with the person abusing you) will get you nowhere’? And who has, themselves, committed these and similar abuses against others?

Powerful (true) anger is a natural program that both communicates with you about a threat and suggests defensive responses. Sometimes you may express this anger as a warning, making it clear that your boundaries (the physical and energy limitations that allow you to live) have been threatened. Sometimes your natural anger may require you to defend yourself physically, including through physical violence if other attempts at keeping a person, animal or plant at bay are ineffective. Sometimes you may simply walk away from a situation when your anger tells you someone is trying to force or con you into participating in a relationship that is not meeting your needs. Refusal to cooperate with someone else’s destructive insanity is informed by natural anger, and is the basis of powerful nonviolent defence against abuse. Your natural anger will tell you when someone else’s demand for control over you is based on bullshit – when there is no gain in it for you or them, despite what their false fear is telling them.

These examples show that powerful anger can lead to violent or nonviolent defence against abuse. Both are equally moral, in the sense that they are a genuine attempt at self-preservation and demonstrate that the self of the individual has value. So what are the reasons why, as powerfully angry progressive activists, we might choose nonviolent rather than violent defence?

There are circumstances in which I engage in violent defence – there are plants and animals that I kill in the garden in order to maintain a certain level of control over my environment, so that it is conducive to my survival. It is also possible that I would consider killing a person, if they were clearly insane (too terrified to communicate and cooperate with me), threatening my existence, and there were no further negative consequences to me in doing so. So, for example, if I lived on an island with one other person who was unreasonably intending to kill me, my anger might tell me to choose my life over theirs.

However, the problem with natural violent defence is that it is only functional in very limited circumstances, where there is no-one else consciously affected by someone’s injury, imprisonment or death. Human societies are very large and complex, and individuals are subject to both sane and insane fears. In such a context, morally inspired violence stimulates greater levels of fear in many groups of people in a way which makes conflicts spiral out of control, doing far more damage than is worth any real gain, and making conflict resolution virtually impossible.

The wonderful thing about the urge to respond with justified violence to abuse, however, is that, if you allow yourself to feel it in a safe space – that is you listen to and let your body experience your fury and the necessity of killing your opponent to defend yourself, without your opponent being there to react, this will pass through you and leave you capable of standing calmly and fearlessly in your response to them. And this fearlessness is the most powerful ‘weapon’ of all – in tapping the state beyond physical limitations where you are simply aware of your own fundamental existence, it provides a space in which there is the most chance that your opponent will find themselves unwilling to continue with their abusive belief and/or behaviour because they can sense that they have no control over you.

It takes time to achieve a state where you can listen to your own feelings, and allow yourself to exist, rather than feeling powerless and believing your existence is dependent on someone else giving you permission.

So, while progressive activism is based on powerful anger underneath, it is also often confused by the activist’s fear of really letting themselves feel this anger. This fear of listening to their own feelings leads to many powerless expressions of anger. Some of these, such as the ‘rant and chant’, demand that the opponent ‘listen’ to the activists and take responsibility for fixing things. Given that the opponent is incapable of listening to their own true feelings and fixing their own self-conflict, and that is why they’re behaving abusively, it is pretty unreasonable to believe they will suddenly become capable of listening if you chant at them. If a politician has lied by pretending that they represent you and care about you, but actually has no capacity or courage to do so, it is more powerful to feel your anger about their lie and change your expectation of them (know that they are of no use to you and look elsewhere for solutions to your problem) rather than trying to force them to care.

Another example of powerless anger is where activists behave in ways that publicly insult, belittle or attempt to humiliate the opponent. These behaviours manifest in order for the activists to hide from their own feelings of worthlessness, on the erroneous basis that ‘if I can make them feel like shit, I will feel less like shit myself’. This is a false bolstering of ‘morale’ which entrenches antagonism between you and your opponent and their supporters, making the conflict more intractable.

Another example is those actions that have the feel of ‘ha, ha, you can’t control me!’ and ‘I’m going to win and you’re going to lose!’. While you are still afraid, you can be controlled and you can lose, and it is powerful to accept the fear and pain of this reality, rather than pretend to yourself and your opponents that they are the only ones with a weakness. Your true strength does not rely on anyone else’s weakness. If you are trying to convince someone else of their own weakness, this means that you are hiding from your fear that they are more powerful than you are – and sooner or later this fear will come and undermine your capacity to resist. Better to acknowledge it from the start.

The above are the more subtle forms of powerless anger. Overtly physically violent behaviour (against people or property) and verbally aggressive behaviour are the most obvious forms of powerless anger in protest actions. These wind up the violence of the conflict and seriously undermine the capacity of activists to gain support for their cause, and opponents will sometimes deliberately send in agents provocateur to behave this way, because it is to their advantage to have you appear undisciplined and aggressive. It is therefore very important that measures are taken to discourage these types of behaviour within your activist group, and to clearly distance the activist group from others who may behave in this way.

If you have an urge to act in a way that is powerlessly angry (and you have an interest in performing more fearless and powerful nonviolent actions) admit to the urge, and once again, act it out in places where your opponents are not there to react. Let yourself feel it. If you can, let yourself feel the truer feelings of fear or anger underneath. Does it make you really angry when people don’t listen to you? Let yourself acknowledge that they aren’t listening and feel this anger, rather than trying to force them to listen to you so you don’t have to feel the anger. If you listen to your own feelings first, there is the greatest chance of you communicating them honestly and powerfully to others. If you are holding someone else responsible for listening to you (when they are clearly too scared to listen to their own or your true feelings), you will be waiting a long time for something positive to happen.

The purpose of nonviolent discipline, which asks activists to commit to a set of principles and behaviours during a nonviolent action or campaign, is to help support the possibilities of fearless action. In practice, activists are more or less able to adhere to these principles and behaviours depending on their state of consciousness of their own feelings. This is a reality that can be helpfully addressed – we can help each other by non-judgementally pointing out when our behaviours are less than powerful, and listening to our own and each other’s feelings about these behaviours as best we can. Sometimes it may be necessary to ask a person not to be part of an action or campaign if their levels of fear are so extreme that they are not able to comprehend the purpose of, or behave in ways that fit with, the code of nonviolent discipline.

Being clear about whether or not a person’s perceptual/behavioural difficulties are something you can work with is an important part of defending your campaign against being undermined and made ineffective. The totally powerful, ideal activist does not exist and ‘letting go control’ is necessary to allow us to work together. But there are times when you need to stand up clearly for what will be effective and not be afraid to dissociate yourself from those who are incapable of coming with you.

Anita McKone
7 March 2017

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