After Orlando: The Uses of Anger

My previous post in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre urged an angry response that calls bigots to account, a response like the eulogy given by Dave Dennis in 1964 at the funeral of murdered civil rights worker James Chaney. Some comments on the post raised the issue of when anger is justified and what good it can do. Rather than respond in the comments section, this seems to me to be a big enough issue to deserve a second post.

When is it right to be angry? Some things should make us angry. We should be outraged at the outrageous and refuse to suffer the insufferable in silence. Like fire, anger is very useful when controlled and destructive when it is not.  In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle has some very interesting and helpful things to say about anger. Anybody can get angry; that is easy, says Aristotle. What is hard is to learn is to learn self-control, the virtue the Greeks called sōphrosynē, so that we get angry at the right time and place, for the right reason, to the right degree, and towards the right person. For Aristotle, learning virtue is learning to exert rational control over our emotions, and that is not easy and not everyone can do it.

Homophobia is deadly. It kills people. We have known that for many years, and the Orlando massacre only adds exclamation points. This last week was the twenty fifth anniversary of the murder of Paul Broussard, a gay man who was attacked by ten young thugs after leaving a nightclub in the heavily gay Montrose area here in Houston. They chased him into an alley where he was stabbed to death. This incident was particularly notable for me since I taught one of his attackers in my university’s prison program (The inmate, who was 17 at the time of the incident, was an excellent student, and, so far as I could tell, a truly changed man.). Yet such incidents have happened many, many times all over the world. ISIS recently threw gay people off the roofs of buildings.

So, we should be angry at the purveyors of murderous hate. But doesn’t anger preclude dialogue, and isn’t dialogue what we need? No. Dialogue assumes that you are dealing with a rational agent who is willing to listen and change if convinced by reason. Homicidal hatred is not amenable to cure by dialogue. We have to chase it from its hiding places and into the bright, hot light of public shame. We must refuse to hear its unctuous excuses and call it by its rightful name. For instance, we have to make it crystal clear that state legislators who sponsor bogus “religious freedom” bills are merely trying to make the world safe for haters. Demagogues like Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick must be called out using “potty politics” to excuse bias against transgender people. You do not dialogue with Patrick and his ilk. You call them what they are and hold them accountable for the violence and suffering they help cause.