The Uses of Anger
The footage is just fifteen seconds long and features a young woman in nothing but underwear. Her top is on the floor in front of her, right where she must have dumped it in sheer frustration. The woman is standing in the middle of a banking hall, screaming at the top of her voice. But there is nothing incoherent about her rage. Instead, it’s very eloquent. Since she can’t access the money in her account with the bank, she wants the bank to close the account and hand over her money. Her kids have not been able to go to school, and her family is generally under the cosh. It’s not clear who exactly she’s screaming at, but there’s no mistaking the ardor behind the message. She’s reached the end of her tether.
February was a month of ugliness and desperation in Nigeria as the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) proceeded to implement a currency redesign policy that both the apex bank and the Federal Government promised would stanch illicit financial flows, bring down inflation, nudge Nigerians toward cashless transactions, and reduce corruption. While majority of Nigerians could agree on the nobility of the policy’s goals, its implementation on the eve of a general election was difficult to justify, and just as many experts feared, the policy and the uncertainty surrounding its implementation threw the country into a tailspin. The failure of the Central Bank to push enough of the new banknotes into circulation, a monthslong nationwide fuel shortage, unending power outages, and a general feeling of insecurity, all combined to set the Nigerian public’s teeth on edge. In several cities, groups of young people blocked major highways and set banks on fire even as others took out their anger on banks’ empty automated teller machines (ATMs).
The lone female protester in the banking hall seems to have been on the more polite end of proceedings.
Anger does not have a good reputation, and its portrayal in the relevant scholarship is, by and large, disapproving. In polite society, good citizens debate, and they do so softly and respectfully, always mindful not to step on each other’s toes. They may stare each other down occasionally, but only to get close enough in order to land a well-honed argument. British parliamentary debate, with its unique admixture of personal laceration and poetry, is rightly upheld as an exemplar of this dueling by argumentation.
If calmness, reason, and rationality are the seemingly ineluctable elements of a deliberative democracy of social equals, anger, conjuring all the wrong associations, is the opposite, always one step away from full-blown violence and as such to be avoided at all costs. Good citizens debate. Bad citizens yell. In recent times, the image of a townhall crammed with citizens screaming and literally going for their political opponents’ jugular has become iconic of what is widely, if sometimes justly, bemoaned as an alarming turn in American political culture.
This anger-is-bad-reason-is-good opposition seems inadequate for several reasons. One is the presumption that anger and reason are mutually exclusive, a myth that has been successfully challenged by recent philosophical and sociological studies on the intelligence of emotions. Second, it is presumed that conventional means of channeling grievances are always available to the average citizen; and third, that the institutions within which such respectful altercation is supposed to take place are open to all regardless of status, education, professional background, or crucially in many cases, gender.
Typically left unexamined is the question of how ordinary people are supposed to act when the door is regularly and dismissively shut in their faces, or when, as with the Central Bank of Nigeria’s obtuse currency redesign policy, it is easily demonstrated that policymakers have not taken the welfare of the people into account. What should ordinary citizens do when cruelty seems to be the object of public policy?
While answers to this question might vary depending on the immediate circumstances, what cannot be denied is that anger is often the last recourse of ordinary people, the only means through which they can express their humanity. Seen in this light, anger, far from being the antithesis of reason, is the articulation of it. For the frustrated young protesters who occupied major highways this past February, rage was commanded, some might say justified, by a system that always repudiates reason, a system that, a majority of Nigerians agree, makes no sense more often than not.
For the woman in the fifteen-second footage, anger was a way of sending a message to power, whether that be the people behind the misguided cash-swap policy, or the financial institution that would not hand over money she had voluntarily surrendered to them. People in her social class know one truth: sometimes you just have to yell in order to be heard or seen. Not only is yelling justified from this standpoint, not letting rip can be costly: permanent “cancelation” and invisibility, an instance of what sociologist Orlando Patterson once described as “social death.”
Anger, then, is often a didactic pointer to the failure of social policy, of the fact that policymakers failed to do due diligence before practically laying down the law and refusing to budge. The needless suffering inflicted on the Nigerian public might have been easily avoided had the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) discussed the Naira redesign policy with stakeholders, including the very people who were going to be directly affected by its implementation. In its unseemly and arrogant haste, the bank flouted a basic principle of public policy, which is to consider the effect of a policy on society’s most vulnerable, and it is disconcerting that despite that fiasco, Central Bank Governor Godwin Emefiele has managed to keep his job.
Rather than the epitome of incivility, anger can be a guide into ordinary people’s basic frustrations, and instead of reflexively condemning it, it would seem that policymakers are best served by focusing on the persistence of conditions that induce anger.
After all people don’t enter a bank, remove their clothes, and start screaming for just no reason.