The Role of Anger in Transforming Power Structures

I’ve had several interesting discussions with different people over the last few weeks about the role of anger in social change movements – such as the campaign to set Penn State on a path to a fossil-free energy system and  campus size.

I think there’s a difference between anger in personal relationships and anger in power relationships. In personal relationships, anger is corrosive: improperly expressed, it pushes away loved ones with whom the angry person has an intimate history.

But I think the situation is different in the political context, in which the different parties have significantly different amounts and types of power and no intimate connection at all. In those contexts, efforts to delegitimize anger serve mostly as a back-door endorsement of the current power allocations. Anger is a form of violence – emotional violence, rather than physical violence.

Analysis by Michael Peters, in TruthOut, regarding the Occupy movement.

To [critics of the philosophy of nonviolence such as Fanon, Trotsky, Orwell and Malcolm X], the ideal of nonviolence is false because it presupposes both compassion and a sense of justice on behalf of one’s adversary, even in circumstances where the adversary has nothing to lose. These thinkers believe not only that political anger has a positive role to play, but that the link to political violence is not only acceptable but required, and that militant activism is strategically superior to nonviolence.

There is a very large power differential between Penn State trustees and administrators on one side, and State College area community members who are simultaneously economically dependent on the university and physically and economically threatened by its energy and ecological decisions on the other side.

In the pipeline and West Campus Steam Plant process, abuse of power by the university was met with outraged resistance by the community. In the aftermath of the April 1 Borough Council meeting where matters came to a head, Penn State energy policy-makers have, instead of reaching out to the community and opening the process to wider participation, closed the process further.

The best example I’m aware of is the October 4 decision – made by an unknown individual and executed by Ian Salada – to rescind the September 12 invitation to members of the public to review the Energy Strategic Master Plan.

Those individual choices by members of the relatively powerful population to close off rather than open up the decision-making process – have escalated the conflict and further radicalized members of the relatively powerless population.

Complicating the analysis is the painful, small-town fact that, in many cases, the same people are decision-makers on one side of College Avenue, where they work, and friends and neighbors with angry community members on the other, where they live. In other words, the personal context and the political context overlap here, extensively.

Curious about reader thoughts.

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