PPE Discussion at PEA Soup: Maxime Lepoutre’s “Rage inside the machine: Defending the place of anger in democratic speech” with a Critical Précis by Krisanna Scheiter

Chad van Schoelandt and I welcome you to the discussion of Maxime Lepoutre’s “Rage inside the machine: Defending the place of anger in democratic speech.” To kick off the discussion, we have a précis from Krisanna Scheiter and reply from Lepoutre. Please join us in the discussion!

Scheiter’s review of Lepoutre:

The role of public outrage as a catalyst for social change has been in the spotlight recently with the rise and mobilization of Black Lives Matter, the historic 2017 Women’s March, and Greta Thunberg’s seething rebuke of world leaders’ inaction on climate change. In his paper, “Rage inside the machine: Defending the place of anger in democratic speech,” Maxime Lepoutre argues that publicly expressed anger, such as that on display in the examples above, plays an important epistemic role in democratic society, especially when some people within society do not understand or even recognize the injustices suffered by those who are enraged (p. 400). Lepoutre claims that angry discourse can be contagious, causing those listening to become angry as well. He argues that when an audience, listening to angry discourse, becomes angry themselves, they are more likely to take on the perspective of the speaker, which in turn may lead them to empathize with the speaker and even draw their attention to injustices they may have otherwise overlooked.

Lepoutre’s goal in the paper is twofold. First, he aims to push back against those who do not think anger is morally good, whether expressed publicly or kept quietly to oneself (e.g. Martha Nussbaum and Glen Pettigrove; see Lepoutre, pp. 416). Second, he wants to show that there is an indispensable value to publicly expressing anger that cannot be achieved, or at least cannot be achieved easily, through non-angry discourse. Lepoutre does not argue directly against those who think anger has little value. Instead he claims that the benefits of righteous anger outweigh the costs. I think Lepoutre is right that anger has a place in public discourse. And I agree that public outrage can help listeners empathize with the speaker and better understand the injustices the speaker is communicating. I am not sure, however, that Lepoutre has shown that the good of anger outweighs the bad. I will argue that the gains we get from anger, on his account, seem to be very small. What is more, I am not sure he has identified the correct mechanism for how public outrage produces empathy and understanding. I will suggest another way in which public discourse can produce the epistemic benefits of anger Lepoutre identifies and show that on this account the gains of public discourse may turn out to be quite significant.

Lepoutre uses recent developments in the philosophy and psychology of emotion to show that emotions can change our perspective and alter our beliefs and attitudes (p. 402). He points to Fredrick Douglass, who claims that through anger he was able to grasp the deeper moral wrongs of slavery, which go beyond the oppression and abuse of enslaved people, and straight to the degradation inherent in “depending on an arbitrary master” (p. 412). Emotions, then, can be important epistemic tools regardless of whether we express them or not because they help us grasp certain truths that we may have otherwise failed to understand.
Because Lepoutre thinks anger has these epistemic advantages, he claims that there will be occasions when we ought to arouse anger in others so they too can reap the epistemic benefits of anger. Lepoutre claims that merely relating the injustice of a situation to one’s audience will not always be enough to arouse their anger. And so, he argues, it is important for the speaker to express their rage publicly in order to pass it on to their audience. He supports his view with evidence from contemporary psychology that shows emotions can be contagious (p. 408). When we see someone sobbing and experiencing emotional distress we may also feel sad, not because we pity the person in distress, but because we are involuntarily taking on their emotional state. Lepoutre explains that “[h]uman beings tend to mimic the expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements of others, in a way that leads them to experience the emotions of others. This process is typically automatic, involuntary, and largely unconscious” (p. 408). Thus, when we listen to someone publicly expressing their outrage we may automatically and unconsciously “catch” their anger.

Lepoutre takes these two claims about emotions, namely, that emotions are valuable epistemic tools and that emotions can be passed from one person to the next, to form a hypothesis about the moral value of anger. He claims that when we get angry about a particular situation our anger alters our perspective so that we are able to empathize with the speaker and grasp the injustice of the situation in a way that we could not without anger. Our moral concepts, he claims, are sometimes unable to capture the injustices we come to understand through anger (p. 410). And so, the easiest way to communicate these injustices to others is for them to also become angry.

There are two claims that are central to Lepoutre’s argument. First, he supposes there are certain injustices that are more readily understood when we are angry. Second, words alone are no guarantee that we will arouse anger in others. Both claims must be true in order to justify public outrage. If we could wholly understand the injustice of a given situation without anger, then there would be no need to get angry at all. If anger is needed in order to understand the more fine-grained injustices of a given situation, then we are justified in getting angry, but we are not necessarily justified in publicly expressing our outrage. Public outrage, on this account, is justified only if it is necessary for arousing anger in others. If we could arouse anger in others through non-angry discourse, then there is no need to express our anger in public. Lepoutre, as stated above, does not think that speech alone is always enough to elicit anger, and so, on his account, the speaker is morally justified in expressing her rage when relating injustices that she has suffered because the listener is more likely to become angry and see things from her perspective.

I am skeptical, however, that arousing anger in others is going to be as epistemically beneficial as Lepoutre thinks. To illustrate my worry let us suppose someone is angry about the price of movie popcorn and is publicly expressing her anger to a group of people standing in line at the concession stand. What would it take for those listening to her to “catch” her anger? Would her anger be contagious if she is talking to people who prefer sour patch kids to popcorn? What if those in line do not mind paying the exorbitant price of movie popcorn? What if her audience thinks that movie popcorn is just too insignificant to get upset over? I suspect that merely being in close proximity to someone expressing anger is not enough to arouse anger in others. Emotional contagion, at least with respect to anger, seems possible only if the speaker is talking to a sympathetic audience.

What makes an audience sympathetic? For one, I suspect they must believe that the speaker’s anger is justified, or, as Lepoutre puts it, “fitting”. He claims that anger is fitting “only if its content actually does involve an injustice or moral wrongdoing” and its intensity is “proportionate to the severity of the injustice it is purporting to represent” (p. 401). Lepoutre describes William Lloyd Garrison listening to a speech by Douglass. Garrison testifies that Douglass’ anger was infectious, causing him to also become angry, claiming that he had “never hated slavery so intensely” as he did upon hearing Douglass speak (p.409; Garrison 1845). Garrison recognized Douglass’ anger as fitting, being both about genuine moral wrongdoing and proportionate to the severity of the injustice.

Someone could find the speaker’s anger fitting, however, and still not care about the issue, in which case I doubt they would “catch” the anger of the speaker. Suppose the person who is angry about the price of movie popcorn is angry because they think that it represents some sort of economic injustice. Those listening may find the speaker’s anger fitting, but still they may not care. “That’s life” they may say. “Some people just cannot afford movie popcorn. Oh well.” If they do not care about the speaker or the injustices the speaker is suffering I do not think they will “catch” the speaker’s anger. If Garrison is enraged by Douglass’ speech it is because he already understands that slavery is unjust and he cares about the injustice of it. He cares that there are people suffering because of the institution of slavery. Because he thinks that Douglass’ anger is fitting and because he cares about the injustices of slavery he is able to “catch” Douglass’ anger. Once Garrison himself becomes enraged he may be able to see the fine-grained injustices of the institution of slavery that he did not see before. Although, it is important to note, that there is no guarantee that even a sympathetic audience will come to see the injustices the enraged speaker wishes the audience to see. There is no guarantee, for instance, that the fine-grained injustices Garrison may have come to understand about the institution of slavery, are the same ones that Douglass was trying to convey through his angry speech.

The problem for Lepoutre’s view, as I see it, is that the epistemic value of anger is extremely minimal and unreliable on this account. The epistemic gains of anger, on his view, are accessible only to those who are already disposed to sympathize with the speaker and care about the moral injustices the speaker is suffering. And even then, it is not clear that the enraged listener will come to grasp the same beliefs as the enraged speaker. If the epistemic gains are really as minimal as they seem I do not see how Lepoutre’s defense of anger will hold up against what he calls the “counterproductivity objection,” which has been raised both by Nussbaum and Pettigrove, who argue that anger, at its core, is normatively and epistemically problematic. The counterproductivity objection states that anger is “likely to amplify rather than alleviate existing injustices” (p. 404). Lepoutre does not set out to prove that anger is not counterproductive, as these critics suppose. Rather his response “is to oppose the counterproductivity objection by identifying and conceptualizing a crucial positive consequence of anger” (p. 406). What I am not sure about is whether or not identifying a positive consequence of anger is enough to oppose the counterproductivity objection if the positive consequence Lepoutre identifies turns out to be rather miniscule. (FN1) Let us look at some of the specific objections Lepoutre considers.

For Nussbaum anger is counterproductive because it is likely to breed mistrust among interpersonal relationships, “increasing anxiety and self-defensiveness of its target” as well as potentially trigger a cycle of violence (Nussbaum 2016, p. 1, 230-233; Lepoutre, p. 404). For Nussbaum, the negative consequences of anger stem from the fact that anger, on her account, is conceptually linked to a desire for payback (Nussbaum 2015, p. 41).(FN2) Nussbaum argues that instead of giving into our desire for payback when we are angry we ought to instead transition to compassion. She calls this “transitional anger.” Instead of thinking about how we can cause the offender to suffer for something that happened in the past, we ought to think about how we can take actions that will prevent future suffering (Nussbaum 2015, p. 54).
In a footnote Lepoutre rejects Nussbaum’s strong claim that anger is conceptually linked to payback (Lepoutre, 421n8). But even if anger is not always concerned with retribution, there is plenty of evidence that the angry person often does desire payback. In fact, Lepoutre goes out of his way to show that his examples of morally appropriate anger could be interpreted as retaliatory in nature. He claims that when Douglass publicly expressed his anger “its conative dimension, or aim, could be retributive,” pointing out that Douglass “once asserted that slaveholders ‘deserve to have [their throats] cut’ (cited in Oakes, 2007: 100)” (Lepoutre, p. 403). Lepoutre’s point is that Douglass’ anger was not transitional, and yet his anger still produced a positive result, namely, deepening his understanding of the injustice of slavery, thus making his anger morally justified.(FN3) But even if we agree that Douglass’ anger is morally justified, Lepoutre has not taken enough steps to show that Douglass is morally justified in publicly expressing his anger in order to transfer his anger to others. If anger is often accompanied by a desire for payback, transferring one’s anger to others could be quite dangerous. I think Lepoutre needs to explain either why he thinks that the desire for payback is not as morally problematic as Nussbaum claims or give us an argument for why the epistemic gains the audience of an angry speaker gets from becoming angry themselves outweigh the negative consequences of anger Nussbaum discusses.

An even bigger hurdle for Lepoutre, I think, is the objection he considers from Pettigrove, who points that there is evidence anger can adversely affect our judgments (Pettigrove, p. 361). Pettigrove cites evidence, for instance, that “angry subjects appear to give more weight to stereotypes than do sad or neutral subjects” (Pettigrove, p. 363). He also points to studies that show anger adversely alters people’s moral judgments. He cites, for instance, a study by Gault and Sabini that found “when angry, people were more supportive of punitive measures for persons they judged responsible for inflicting undeserved harm than of welfare-enhancing measures for persons who had suffered undeserved harm” (Pettigrove, p. 364).(FN4) While not every case of anger will involve poor judgment, if the adverse effects of anger happens enough there may be good reason to avoid anger altogether, especially if the epistemic value of public outrage Lepoutre has identified does turn out to be trivial. This is an important point because Lepoutre’s response to Pettigrove is to insist that the epistemic value of anger will, in fact, out-weigh the adverse effects of anger. He claims that “if the injustices highlighted by fitting anger are highly important, and if they were persistently overlooked or obscured by prevailing perspectives, our coming to fixate on them may be the lesser of two epistemic evils.” (Lepoutre, p. 417). Again, my worry is that the epistemic benefit of public outrage is going to affect such a small group of people, and only those who are already predisposed to adopt the perspective of the angry speaker, that it will be hard to maintain that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Despite the worries outlined above, I do agree with Lepoutre that publicly expressing anger is epistemically valuable, just not in the way he thinks. I am not convinced that the audience must take on the anger of the speaker in order to take on her perspective and empathize with her. Rather, I think that the audience gains a deeper understanding of the injustices of a given situation when they hear an angry speech because publicly expressing anger relays to the audience that there is a specific way in which the speaker thinks she, and those she represents, ought to be treated. Publicly expressing anger communicates to the audience that the expectations of the speaker have not been met. Could the speaker say calmly and without emotion that she deserves to be treated better? Perhaps, but without anger the message is lacking.

Consider Greta Thunberg, who addressed the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City September 23, 2019. She gave a moving, impassioned, angry speech. But imagine if she had said the same words in a calm and even tone. Suppose she said, without emotion, “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is the money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?”(FN5) Her words would not be as stirring and powerful without the underlying anger she expresses. If she really believes that people are dying because world leaders failed to act on climate change, then she should be outraged. A calm and even tone lacks the authority and authenticity of angry discourse. If you think your house is on fire, it would be strange to say calmly to the firefighter standing there with her hose, but refusing to put out the fire, “I am really angry that you are not helping me save my house when you could do so if you wanted to. You must not care about my future.” Such a calm tone is at odds with the message and as such is easily ignored.

Not only does public outrage elicit the attention and sympathy of those who are already prone to sympathize with the speaker, but it also invites ridicule and criticism from those who do not sympathize with the speaker, which can be epistemically valuable to those listening to both the angry speaker and her detractors. In Politics of Reality, Marilyn Frye claims that how people react to our anger tells us a lot about how they see us and our role in society (Frye, pp. 84-94). She explains that “Anger is always righteous. To be angry you have to have some sense of the rightness or propriety of your position and your interest in whatever has been hindered, interfered with or harmed, and anger implies a claim to such rightness or propriety” (p. 86). When others reject the speaker’s anger, either ridiculing or dismissing her, they are suggesting that she does not have a right to be angry, either because she is mistaken about what actually happened or because she is mistaken about what she has a right to be angry about.
Consider Thunberg again. After her speech at the UN many people ridiculed her, even going so far as to suggest that she is mentally unstable. In the Independent Camilla Nelson describes the vitriol Thunberg experienced after her speech. “In Australia, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt has called Thunberg ‘freakishly influential … with many mental disorders’. Sky News commentator Chris Kenny described her as a ‘hysterical teenager’ who needs to be cared for. Overseas, male commentators have used similar pejorative terms – describing her as a ‘mentally-ill Swedish child’, unstable and a ‘millenarian weirdo’. One claimed Thunberg needed a ‘spanking’; another likened her activism to ‘medieval witchcraft.’”(FN6) And even the President of the United States, after Thunberg was dubbed Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, stated that Thunberg must “work on her Anger Management problem.”(FN7) Rather than engage with Thunberg or disagree with the substance of her arguments, her critics attacked her mental well-being. But why? Even if they deny climate change, it is not as if her beliefs are unjustified, since the majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is manmade and making the planet uninhabitable.(FN8) They cannot think she is mentally unstable because she is enraged that world leaders are doing so little to slow down climate change. Again, if you believe your house is on fire and someone has the ability to put the fire out, it makes perfect sense to become enraged when they refuse to do so.

So why do they claim she is mentally unstable rather than engage with the substance of her views? Frye claims that “[a]nger implies a claim to domain—a claim that one is a being whose purposes and activities require and create a web of objects, spaces, attitudes and interests that is worthy of respect, and that the topic of this anger is a matter rightly within that web” (p. 87). I suspect Thunberg’s detractors think that a young girl has no right to become angry about global matters. They think she is out of her domain. Frye claims that when people get angry about things that are perceived outside their domain they are often considered to be crazy or imbalanced (p. 89). Nelson, in a similar vein, writes “[i]t is not a rhetorical accident that critics of Thunberg, nearly 17, almost always call her a “child”. This infantilisation is invariably accompanied by accusations of emotionality, hysteria, mental disturbance, and an inability to think for herself – stereotypically feminine labels which are traditionally used to silence women’s public speech, and undermine their authority” (Independent, October 7, 2019). So, Thunberg’s detractors are attempting to shut her down by describing her fears as the result of mental imbalance rather than addressing her concerns head on, thus sending the message that she does not have a right to be angry in this context.

Frye claims that “in each of our lives, others’ concepts of us are revealed by the limits of the intelligibility of our anger. Anger can be an instrument of cartography. By determining where, with whom, about what and in what circumstances one can get angry and get uptake one can map others’ concepts of who and what one is” (pp. 93-94). Simply by reflecting on Thunberg’s anger and, more importantly, the negative reaction to her anger, which we, the public, would never have witnessed had she maintained a neutral tone at the UN, we have learned something about the world. We have learned a new fact about many climate deniers, namely, that there is a bit of misogyny mixed in with their climate denial.(FN9)

Public outrage is powerful. We may ignore calm and neutral voices, but it is much harder to ignore angry ones. For decades, people have ignored the many scientific voices telling us that climate change is real and manmade and needs to be addressed. But when Greta Thunberg, through clenched teeth, scolded world leaders for not acting on climate change she got the attention of the world. What is more, witnessing Thunberg being attacked by her detractors have forced many people to think about the issue in a new way, to take on the perspective of this young woman standing up to world leaders, to emphasize with her cause, and to see the fine-grained injustices involved in climate denial.

I very much enjoyed thinking about Lepoutre’s paper and while I am skeptical about some of the claims he makes I think that he is correct about the positive role angry discourse can play in a democratic society. Given that anger can have both positive and negative effects it is worth investigating whether or not the good of anger may outweigh the bad and I look forward to future discussions his paper is sure to inspire.

Footnotes:
(1)Lepoutre himself claims that he cannot offer a “knockout argument against the counterproductivity objection,” but instead states he “will develop conceptual resources in light of which we can better resist this objection” (p. 400). My critique is that I am not sure he has provided us with those resources.
(2)Nussbaum claims that even if the angry person does not wish to get revenge herself she, at the very least, wishes for things to go badly for the offender in a way that is conceived as payback (2015, p. 46).
(3)And in case anyone insists that Douglass’ anger sounds too close to Nussbaum’s transitional anger, Lepoutre turns to Malcolm X’s 1964 “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, which Lepoutre claims “explicitly threatens violence (‘the bullet’) which might well be retributive” (p. 413).
(4)Barbara Gault and John Sabini, “The Roles of Empathy, Anger, and Gender in Predicting Attitudes toward Punitive, Reparative, and Preventative Public Policies,” Cognition and Emotion 14 (2000): 495–520.
(5)Thunberg, Greta (2019, September 23) Transcript: Greta Thunberg’s Speech at The U.N. Climate Action Summit. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit
(6)Nelson, C. and Vertigan, M. (2019, October 7). Why are powerful men so scared of Greta Thunberg? Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/women/greta-thunberg-climate-change-crisis-strike-austism-misogyny-protest-speech-a9127971.html
(7)realDonaldTrump (2019, December 12) So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill! [Tweet] https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1205100602025545730?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Etweet
(8)NASA. Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming. Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Retrieved from https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/#*
(9)For more on the link between climate denial, masculine identity, and misogyny see, for example, Jonas Anshelm & Martin Hultman (2014) A green fatwā? Climate change as a threat to the masculinity of industrial modernity. NORMA, 9:2, 84-96 and Gelin, M. (2019, August 28). The Misogyny of Climate Deniers The New Republic. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/154879/misogyny-climate-deniers

Bibliography
Frye M (1983) The Politics of Reality. Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.
Garrison WL (1845) Preface. In: Garrison WL (ed) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, pp. iii–xii.
Lepoutre, M. (2018) Rage inside the machine: Defending the place of anger in democratic speech. Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. 17/4: 398-426.
Pettigrove G (2012) Meekness and “moral” anger. Ethics 122: 341–370.
Nussbaum M (2015) Transitional anger. Journal of the American Philosophical Association 1: 41–56.
Nussbaum M (2016) Anger and Forgiveness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reply By Lepoutre:
Thanks very much to PEA Soup for organizing this discussion, and of course to Krisanna Scheiter for sharing this really excellent and probing commentary.

Scheiter raises three main worries with my argument, which I’d like to consider in turn.

(1) The first worry, and the one I’d like to spend the most time on, holds that the epistemic value of publicly expressing anger that I put forward might be very small. As Scheiter rightly notes, my account involves two steps: the first step claims that expressing anger can be a way of getting listeners to experience that anger (by emotional contagion); and the second step claims (for reasons that I’ll return to below) that the felt experience of anger yields valuable and distinctive epistemic access to injustice. Scheiter’s main worry concerns the first step: only those who already believe that there is an injustice going on, and care about that injustice, are likely to ‘catch’ the speaker’s anger regarding that injustice. So, a dilemma emerges:
(1) if the listener doesn’t already agree that injustice is taking place, then they won’t catch the speaker’s anger;
(2) if, on the other hand, they do believe that injustice is taking place, and care about it, then there is little more that catching the speaker’s anger could teach them.
In this light, the epistemic benefits of expressing anger seem trivial at best.

This is an important dilemma. Yet I think both horns are problematic. For one thing, I’d like to push back against the claim that only those who already agree that there is an injustice can ‘catch’ the speaker’s anger. Here, I want to emphasize that the phenomenon of emotional contagion is, to a significant extent, a physiological process that occurs automatically and unconsciously. That is, people automatically and unconsciously mimic the expressions, vocalizations, and postures of others, which then leads them to adopt similar emotions. This unconscious quality is important. Because emotional contagion occurs largely unconsciously, at a physiological level, it can induce emotions in people who don’t yet have the beliefs that would justify having that emotion. This is a familiar observation: the person who walks into a room full of sad-looking people might come to feel depressed even before they learn why those people are sad—and a fortiori, even before they can have a sense of whether their sadness is fitting. This, I think, is a strength of my account. By focusing on unconscious processes of emotional contagion, which operate at a physiological level, it helps explain how we might make people who don’t already think something is unjust more disposed to see it as such.

Now, it’s true that this unconscious quality of contagion comes with dangers. It means, as Scheiter also remarks, that the anger ‘caught’ by listeners could in principle latch on to a different object than that targeted by the speaker’s anger. My suggestion is that skilled orators can avert this danger by offering a narrative that not only arouses anger in listeners, but also ensures that it latches on to the right object. To illustrate what I mean by this, consider Douglass’s angry denunciation of slavery. That denunciation can achieve two things: first, Douglass’s anger can contagiously arouse anger in his audience; second, the content of the denunciation he expresses can help focus that anger on a particular object (slavery).

My first reply to Scheiter’s worry, then, is that expressing anger can arouse anger in those who don’t already agree that an injustice is taking place (and so, it can benefit them epistemically). But I also want to challenge the second horn of the dilemma. Even when listeners already agree that there is an injustice (as Garrison surely did when listening to Douglass), catching the speaker’s anger can still increase their understanding of injustice in meaningful ways. Even those who already believe that x is unjust may not fully understand the nature of its injustice. And understanding injustice—being able to explain why a phenomenon is unjust, and how its injustice operates—matters greatly. The more we understand injustice, the better we are at communicating about it and finding solutions to it.

Now, I believe that catching anger helps to overcome two barriers to understanding injustice, both of which are symptomatic of deeply non-ideal societies. The first barrier is ideological. Unjust societies tend to involve ideologies that draw people’s attention away from the true causes or grounds of unjust phenomena (Mills 2007). For example, the ideology of the American Dream, by suggesting that success is in everyone’s reach, turns people’s attention away from the structural causes of poverty, and towards the alleged personal failings of the poor. The second barrier is hermeneutical. In conditions marked by systemic injustice, people often lack the conceptual resources needed to fully understand the injustices endured by oppressed groups (Fricker 2007).

My core contention in the paper is that, because of the distinctive phenomenology of anger, catching anger can help us break through these two barriers. First, anger, like other emotions, is a source of salience: it focuses people’s attention on properties of the social context in virtue of which that context may be unjust. In other words, the salience function of anger means that angry people are ‘on the lookout’ for sources or grounds of injustice. This contributes to counteracting ideological barriers that would otherwise divert our attention from, and thus impair our understanding of, the sources of injustice. Second, anger, like other emotions, has nonconceptual content. So, experiencing anger can help people grasp injustices when they didn’t previously have the conceptual resources needed to do so. This second property thereby helps to overcome hermeneutical barriers to understanding injustice. Given these significant epistemic benefits, it is no surprise that Garrison—though he already believed slavery to be deeply unjust, and cared about this injustice—nevertheless reported that the anger aroused in him by Douglass’s angry narrative rendered his perception of slavery’s injustice “far more clear than ever”.

An important upshot of this second response, which I didn’t emphasize enough in the paper, is that expressing anger at injustice is especially valuable in contexts involving not only grave injustices, but also ideological and hermeneutical obstacles that prevent people from sufficiently understanding these injustices. I take it that this is one of the reasons why, in Scheiter’s popcorn example, expressing anger doesn’t seem particularly valuable.

(2) Of course, even if I’m right that expressing anger has important epistemic benefits in non-ideal conditions, Scheiter’s second worry remains: these epistemic benefits might be outweighed by countervailing costs. Expressing anger can sometimes breed mistrust, encourage violent retaliation, and even come with epistemic costs. It is undeniably true that the costs of expressing anger can sometimes outweigh its benefits. For example, it would arguably be wrong (to paraphrase JS Mill’s example) to excite rage against corndealers in an armed crowd assembled outside a corndealer’s house. I don’t mean to deny this. Whether anger is productive or counterproductive, all-things-considered, is bound to depend on context. My main aim in this paper is simply to articulate what I take to be one important epistemic function of expressing anger, which needs to be tallied up alongside other benefits and costs. That function, as explained above, is that expressing anger helps to overcome important ideological and hermeneutical barriers to understanding injustice.

I do, however, also want to point out that the tradeoff between the costs and the benefits of expressing anger may not be as strong as it is sometimes suggested. When assessing the (counter)productivity of expressing anger, we shouldn’t consider expressions of anger in isolation. Rather, we should consider how they fit in to a broader deliberative system, which includes both angry and non-angry speakers. This broader perspective opens up the possibility that angry and non-angry speech might complement one another, and make up for each other’s costs. Take the epistemic costs of angry speech, which Scheiter suggests are especially worrying. I think it’s true (as Pettigrove notes) that angry speech has epistemic costs. By rendering salient potential sources of injustice, for instance, expressions of anger can obscure other considerations, such as reasons to love or forgive others. But my suggestion is that non-angry narratives can highlight these other considerations. While Malcolm X’s anger may help to expose racial injustice, King’s narrative of love may instead highlight the possibility for interracial love and forgiveness. My sense is that the best deliberative system doesn’t choose between these two sources of information, but instead makes space for both and pools their complementary insights. I think (though I won’t get into this here) that we can tell a similar ‘systemic’ story for some of the other costs of angry speech. The main point is this: even if angry speech on its own might come with certain costs, the division of labor between angry and non-angry speech within the deliberative system can help to alleviate these costs.

(3) Lastly, I want to say a few words, briefly, about the alternative account of publicly expressed anger’s epistemic value that Scheiter outlines. As I understand it, Scheiter actually identifies two epistemic benefits of angry speech. First, expressing anger reveals the speaker’s “authenticity”: it shows us that the speaker is sincere in claiming that, by their lights, a significant wrong is being committed. Second, when expressions of apt anger are derided or ridiculed, this in itself is often an indication of patterns of injustice.

The epistemic mechanism I outline isn’t intended to exhaust the ways in which expressions of anger can be epistemically valuable. As a result, I very much welcome these alternative suggestions. And I particularly like Scheiter’s Frye-inspired thought that even when angry speech fails to receive uptake, that in itself can play a useful epistemic purpose.

Having said that, I do have some small concerns regarding these two epistemic roles.
Regarding the first, it seems possible to signal that one authentically feels that something is wrong without expressing intense anger. For example, publicly and urgently acting, perhaps at great risk to oneself, to right this wrong (as King did), could signal this as well. So, this epistemic role might not be sufficiently specific to anger to justify expressing anger rather than something else.

As for the second epistemic function—that the negative reaction to anger itself reveals injustice—I worry that it encounters a problem similar to the one Scheiter raises against my account. Specifically, the negative reaction to Thunberg’s anger at climate injustice reveals gendered injustice predominantly to those who already think that Thunberg’s anger is fitting. By contrast, people who disagree that Thunberg’s anger is fitting presumably think that the negative reaction is justified—and therefore, not revealing of gendered injustice. Yet this latter group of listeners may be the ones who most need to be alerted to this gendered injustice, either because they’re involved in perpetrating it here, or because it keeps them from accepting crucial testimony about the importance of tackling climate change.

So, while these two epistemic functions undoubtedly have some value, I still think we need go beyond them to clarify what is distinctive and important about the epistemic value of publicly expressed anger. And, to reiterate what I said above, I believe emphasizing 1) the way in which expressing anger can unconsciously arouse anger in others, together with 2) the distinctive phenomenology of anger, is a promising way to do so.

4 Replies to “PPE Discussion at PEA Soup: Maxime Lepoutre’s “Rage inside the machine: Defending the place of anger in democratic speech” with a Critical Précis by Krisanna Scheiter

  1. Thanks for the discussion, Maxime and Krisanna. I just had a small question for Maxime about whether the emotional contagion research you’ve come across concerns anger in particular or just emotions generally. If I remember correctly, old-school emotional contagion philosophers like Hume and Smith supposed that our sympathetic response to anger was more likely to be fear (sympathy for whoever the person is angry at) than anger. Does more recent research on emotional contagion suggest otherwise?

  2. That’s a great question, thanks! It’s true that most of the evidence I’ve seen doesn’t focus on anger specifically. Still, there is *some* recent evidence of emotional contagion that does look specifically at anger. Siegmann et al. (‘The Angry Voice) find that when speakers raise their voices and accelerate their speech (in the way that typically characterizes anger) “this is likely to raise the listener’s blood pressure and feelings of anger” (p. 641). There’s also some related evidence on facial mimicry relating to anger. Blairy, Herrera, and Hess (1999: 35) and Hess and Blairy (2000: 138) find that when we’re exposed to angry facial expressions, we tend involuntarily to mimic them. And this matters because they tentatively suggest that this mimicry, in turn, contributes to inducing anger in us.

    Having said that, this evidence *is* tentative, and I agree that there’s also something intuitive about the notion that expressions of anger can also induce fear. In fact, in her famous paper on ‘The Uses of Anger,’ Lorde explicitly suggests that there’s a connection between anger and fear: “my anger and *your attendant fears*, perhaps, are spotlights that can be used for your growth” (p. 278).

    So I think the bottom line is that there is some evidence of emotional contagion in the case of anger, but there’s also something intuitive about the thought that anger can arouse other emotions such as fear. What would be helpful going forward is to find out more precisely under what conditions anger arouses fear, and under what conditions it arouses anger. One hypothesis here is that anger might be more successful at arousing anger, rather than fear, when its target is the injustice itself, rather than the perpetrator of that injustice.

  3. Great discussion, thank you so much! Reading about emotional contagion, I had a similar thought as Matt. I suppose that anger generates one of the three common stress reactions, fight, freeze or flight. The expression of anger conveys a sense of threat to which people react differently depending on their emotional make-up — the one who feels most vulnerable are more likely to freeze or flee. Emotional contagion only works amongst “fighters” of the same tribe . By this, I mean that there must be a prior sense of togetherness for contagion to be effective — the threat is external to us and we are fighting the same battle.

  4. Hi Elise, that’s a great point. It’s a genuine concern, and here are two thoughts about how we could start to alleviate it.

    (1) The first is to take a broader perspective on public discourse. Public discourse doesn’t involve just one utterance, in one arena, at one time. Rather, we have lots of different arenas of political speech, with different but overlapping constituencies, that persist over time. That matters, because it means you can have mediated ‘chains’ of angry speech. In one arena, A shares her angry perspective with B, who is–to use your fantastic expression–a fighter in the same tribe. But things don’t stop there. In turn, B can share that angry perspective with C, who is socially closer to B than to A, such that emotional contagion can occur between B and C. C can then relay the angry perspective to D, who is still further away from A, socially speaking. And so on.

    This picture doesn’t have to be so abstract. I think we see this kind of ‘chain’ happening all the time. In the paper, I give the example of Elizabeth Warren relaying the anger of Black Lives Matter to more mainstream political constituencies. It’s conceivable that some people (because of their social identity or political leanings) might be more likely to come to share the anger when they hear it from Warren than when they hear it from a Black Lives Matter activist.

    (2) The other point is that the epistemic value of anger I outline still matters even if you’re only arousing anger in members of your own social group. When Malcolm X spoke to other oppressed black Americans in urban areas, his expressions of anger could, by arousing anger in them, help them more vividly perceive those injustices, and register new aspects of how those injustices operate (for example: Malcolm X’s anger, I suggest in the paper, highlighted how racial injustice is systemic–built in to central American political and economic institutions). It seems to me that there’s something really important about those ‘in-group’ cases of emotional contagion as well. They can help groups collectively articulate the injustices they’re subjected to, and develop new conceptual resources to better denounce and fight those injustices.

Comments are closed.