Can anger be used for good?

Can anger be used for good? Typically, I begin a story like this with a brief update on recent climate disasters such as heatwaves, floods, or areas drying up. But I’ll skip that for now. We get it. And I’m not particularly inclined to dwell on it. Like many, I’m overwhelmed by various emotions when I hear yet another story about the climate catastrophe. Guilt over our own contribution, sorrow for what we see disappearing around us, fear for the future… But the most intense emotion of all is undoubtedly anger. Anger because the problem just isn’t being truly addressed, and even the less destructive target of a 2-degree Celsius warming before the end of the century, as per the Paris Agreement, won’t be achieved.

And that anger undoubtedly applies to many more people. But anger is a tricky emotion. Traditionally distrusted as destructive and dark, the emotion over which we have the least control. Hence, for governments, anger is the most threatening. In essence, the policy around protests and demonstrations is mostly anger management. The greatest fear for any government is the enraged citizen.

Anger is dark, irrational, and personal. But is anger always so dangerous? The first line of the most famous epic in Western civilization—the Greek military campaign against Troy—starts with the word anger. The anger of Achilles, to be precise, who, after the death of his beloved comrade Patroclus, sees red and jeopardizes the entire military mission due to feelings of revenge.

But at the same time, it is precisely anger that gave the Greeks the power to break free from submissiveness and indifferent narrow-mindedness. In ancient Greece, anger was always associated with that part of ourselves that longs for recognition, justice, and self-worth. It is a force that, once ignited, can compel individuals to stand up against oppression, fight for their rights, and strive for a better world. Anger, called thymos by the Greeks, can indeed have a clear public function. Political change never starts with argumentation alone—a concept that we sometimes find difficult to understand in our rational, liberal society.

Research in the field of psychology has shown that anger, when channeled constructively, can be a powerful catalyst for change. Various studies show that individuals who effectively harnessed their anger were more likely to address injustices and instigate positive social change. Much more than hope, to give an example. This intriguing finding challenges the conventional wisdom that anger is inherently negative.

Consider the stories of historical figures who harnessed their anger to bring about positive change. Mahatma Gandhi’s anger at the injustices of colonial rule in India ignited a nonviolent revolution, leading to India’s independence. Rosa Parks, tired of racial segregation, refused to give up her seat on a bus, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott and igniting the Civil Rights Movement. These individuals channeled their anger into actions that reshaped society.

But the question is how to turn a personal emotion into a public struggle for justice. Especially since demonstrations also evoke anger as a reaction—see the hatred that climate protests generate, and especially the highway blockades. It is then an art to not succumb to provocations and hatred despite your own anger—something that in today’s media society would immediately be taken as evidence of loss of control and danger.

In the words of Aristotle, ‘Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy.’ According to him, such an emotion must be tempered with reason, guided by what he calls virtues: justice and fairness.

The force of thymos can be harnessed for good. When we recognize the constructive potential of our anger and use it as a catalyst for positive change, we tap into the heroic spirit within us. Anger can lead us towards a brighter future, where injustice is confronted and transformed. But like any powerful force, anger has its limits. It must be wielded with care and wisdom, for it is in its balance that we find true strength and progress.

Leon Heuts, head of Studium Generale TU Delft