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Retaliatory Anger Definition Essay

There’s no emotion we ought to think harder and more clearly about than anger. Anger greets most of us every day – in our personal relationships, in the workplace, on the highway, on airline trips – and, often, in our political lives as well. Anger is both poisonous and popular. Even when people acknowledge its destructive tendencies, they still so often cling to it, seeing it as a strong emotion, connected to self-respect and manliness (or, for women, to the vindication of equality). If you react to insults and wrongs without anger you’ll be seen as spineless and downtrodden. When people wrong you, says conventional wisdom, you should use justified rage to put them in their place, exact a penalty. We could call this football politics, but we’d have to acknowledge right away that athletes, whatever their rhetoric, have to be disciplined people who know how to transcend anger in pursuit of a team goal.

If we think closely about anger, we can begin to see why it is a stupid way to run one’s life. A good place to begin is Aristotle’s definition: not perfect, but useful, and a starting point for a long Western tradition of reflection. Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback. So: significant damage, pertaining to one’s own values or circle of cares, and wrongfulness. All this seems both true and uncontroversial. More controversial, perhaps, is his idea (in which, however, all Western philosophers who write about anger concur) that the angry person wants some type of payback, and that this is a conceptual part of what anger is. In other words, if you don’t want some type of payback, your emotion is something else (grief, perhaps), but not really anger.

Is this really right? I think so. We should understand that the wish for payback can be a very subtle wish: the angry person doesn’t need to wish to take revenge herself. She may simply want the law to do so; or even some type of divine justice. Or, she may more subtly simply want the wrongdoer’s life to go badly in future, hoping, for example, that the second marriage of her betraying spouse turns out really badly. I think if we understand the wish in this broad way, Aristotle is right: anger does contain a sort of strike-back tendency. Contemporary psychologists who study anger empirically agree with Aristotle in seeing this double movement in it, from pain to hope.

The central puzzle is this: the payback idea does not make sense. Whatever the wrongful act was – a murder, a rape, a betrayal – inflicting pain on the wrongdoer does not help restore the thing that was lost. We think about payback all the time, and it is a deeply human tendency to think that proportionality between punishment and offence somehow makes good the offence. Only it doesn’t. Let’s say my friend has been raped. I urgently want the offender to be arrested, convicted, and punished. But really, what good will that do? Looking to the future, I might want many things: to restore my friend’s life, to prevent and deter future rapes. But harsh treatment of this particular wrongdoer might or might not achieve the latter goal. It’s an empirical matter. And usually people do not treat it as an empirical matter: they are in the grip of an idea of cosmic fitness that makes them think that blood for blood, pain for pain is the right way to go. The payback idea is deeply human, but fatally flawed as a way of making sense of the world.

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There is one, and I think only one, situation in which the payback idea does make sense. That is when I see the wrong as entirely and only what Aristotle calls a ‘down-ranking’: a personal humiliation, seen as entirely about relative status. If the problem is not the injustice itself, but the way it has affected my ranking in the social hierarchy, then I really can achieve something by humiliating the wrongdoer: by putting him relatively lower, I put myself relatively higher, and if status is all I care about, I don’t need to worry that the real wellbeing problems created by the wrongful act have not been solved.

A wronged person who is really angry, seeking to strike back, soon arrives, I claim, at a fork in the road. Three paths lie before her. Path one: she goes down the path of status-focus, seeing the event as all about her and her rank. In this case her payback project makes sense, but her normative focus is self-centred and objectionably narrow. Path two: she focuses on the original offence (rape, murder, etc), and seeks payback, imagining that the offender’s suffering would actually make things better. In this case, her normative focus is on the right things, but her thinking doesn’t make sense. Path three: if she is rational, after exploring and rejecting these two roads, she will notice that a third path is open to her, which is the best of all: she can turn to the future and focus on doing whatever would make sense, in the situation, and be really helpful. This may well include the punishment of the wrongdoer, but in a spirit that is deterrent rather than retaliatory.

most people begin with everyday anger: they really do want the offender to suffer

So, to put my radical claim succinctly: when anger makes sense (because focused on status), its retaliatory tendency is normatively problematic, because a single-minded focus on status impedes the pursuit of intrinsic goods. When it is normatively reasonable (because focused on the important human goods that have been damaged), its retaliatory tendency doesn’t make sense, and it is problematic for that reason. Let’s call this change of focus the Transition. We need the Transition badly in our personal and our political lives, dominated as they all too frequently are by payback and status-focus.

Sometimes a person may have an emotion that embodies the Transition already. Its entire content is: ‘How outrageous! This should not happen again.’ We may call this emotion Transition-Anger, and that emotion does not have the problems of garden-variety anger. But most people begin with everyday anger: they really do want the offender to suffer. So the Transition requires moral, and often political, effort. It requires forward-looking rationality, and a spirit of generosity and cooperation.

The struggle against anger often requires lonely self-examination. Whether the anger in question is personal, or work-related, or political, it requires exacting effort against one’s own habits and prevalent cultural forces. Many great leaders have understood this struggle, but none more deeply than Nelson Mandela. He often said that he knew anger well, and that he had to struggle against the demand for payback in his own personality. He reported that during his 27 years of imprisonment he had to practise a disciplined type of meditation to keep his personality moving forward and avoiding the anger trap. It now seems clear that the prisoners on Robben Island had smuggled in a copy of Meditations by the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, to give them a model of patient effort against the corrosions of anger.

But Mandela was determined to win the struggle. He wanted a successful nation, even then, and he knew that there could be no successful nation when two groups were held apart by suspicion, resentment, and the desire to make the other side pay for the wrongs they had done. Even though those wrongs were terrible, cooperation was necessary for nationhood. So he did things, in that foul prison, that his fellow prisoners thought perverse. He learned Afrikaans. He studied the culture and thinking of the oppressors. He practised cooperation by forming friendships with his jailers. Generosity and friendliness were not justified by past deeds; but they were necessary for future progress.

Mandela used to tell people a little parable. Imagine that the sun and the wind are contending to see who can get a traveller to take off his blanket. The wind blows hard, aggressively. But the traveller only pulls the blanket tighter around him. Then the sun starts to shine, first gently, and then more intensely. The traveller relaxes his blanket, and eventually he takes it off. So that, he said, is how a leader has to operate: forget about the strike-back mentality, and forge a future of warmth and partnership.  

Mandela was realistic. One would never have found him proposing, as did Gandhi, to convert Hitler by charm. And of course he had been willing to use violence strategically, when non-violence failed. Non-anger does not entail non-violence (although Gandhi thought it did). But he understood nationhood and the spirit that a new nation requires. Still, behind the strategic resort to violence was always a view of people that was Transitional, focused not on payback but on the creation of a shared future in the wake of outrageous and terrible deeds.

Again and again, as the African National Congress (ANC) began to win the struggle, its members wanted payback. Of course they did, since they had suffered egregious wrongs. Mandela would have none of it. When the ANC voted to replace the old Afrikaner national anthem with the anthem of the freedom movement, he persuaded them to adopt, instead, the anthem that is now official, which includes the freedom anthem (using three African languages), a verse of the Afrikaner hymn, and a concluding section in English. When the ANC wanted to decertify the rugby team as a national team, correctly understanding the sport’s long connection to racism, Mandela, famously, went in the other direction, backing the rugby team to a World Cup victory and, through friendship, getting the white players to teach the sport to young black children. To the charge that he was too willing to see the good in people, he responded: ‘Your duty is to work with human beings as human beings, not because you think they are angels.’

Mandela asks only, how shall I produce cooperation and friendship?

And Mandela rejected not only the false lure of payback, but also the poison of status-obsession. He never saw himself as above menial tasks, and he never used status to humiliate. Just before his release, in a halfway house where he was still officially a prisoner, but had one of the warders as his own private cook, he had a fascinating discussion with this warder about a very mundane matter: how the dishes would get done.

I took it upon myself to break the tension and a possible resentment on his part that he has to serve a prisoner by cooking and then washing dishes, and I offered to wash dishes and he refused … He says that this is his work. I said, ‘No, we must share it.’ Although he insisted, and he was genuine, but I forced him, literally forced him, to allow me to do the dishes, and we established a very good relationship … A really nice chap, Warder Swart, a very good friend of mine.

It would have been so easy to see the situation as one of status-inversion: the once-dominating Afrikaner is doing dishes for the once-despised ANC leader. It would also have been so easy to see it in terms of payback: the warder is getting a humiliation he deserves because of his complicity in oppression. Significantly, Mandela doesn’t go down either of these doomed paths, even briefly. He asks only, how shall I produce cooperation and friendship?

Mandela’s project was political; but it has implications for many parts of our lives: for friendship, marriage, child-rearing, being a good colleague, driving a car. And of course it also has implications for the way we think about what political success involves and what a successful nation is like. Whenever we are faced with pressing moral or political decisions, we should clear our heads, and spend some time conducting what Mandela (citing Marcus Aurelius) referred to as ‘Conversations with Myself’. When we do, I predict, the arguments proposed by anger will be clearly seen to be pathetic and weak, while the voice of generosity and forward-looking reason will be strong as well as beautiful.

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Values & BeliefsEthicsPolitical PhilosophyAll topics →

Martha C Nussbaum

is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. Her latest book, based on her John Locke Lectures at Oxford University, is Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (2016).


Phil Barker

September 2003

What Is Anger?

Everyone has been angry and knows what anger is. Anger can vary widely (from mild irritation to intense fury) and can be sparked by a variety of things (specific people, events, memories, or personal problems). Anger is a natural and potentially productive emotion. However, anger can get out of control and become destructive and problematic.[1]

So why do we get angry? People get angry when their expectations are not met -- whether those expectations are about the future, about themselves, or about others. When our expectations are unmet, we revert to illusions of control, "unrealistically expecting all people to behave and all situations to turn out as we think they should."[2] Anger over these unmet expectations often leads us to blame others and shift aggression towards them.

Gary Ginter, a psychologist who specializes in anger management explains that there are several sources of anger: physiological, cognitive, and behavioral.[3] Physiological anger is natural anger. In certain threatening situations, for instance when we are attacked physically, our bodies respond by making us physically angry. Cognitive sources of anger are based on how we perceive things. These perceptions may be accurate...a situation may, indeed, be threatening, or they may not be. Sometimes we will perceive a threat, even though the external situation is not actually as dangerous as we think it is. In other words, there may be no real reason for anger, but our personal biases and emotions take over, leading to aggression. Finally, behavioral sources of anger come from the environment we create for ourselves. Chronically angry people create an atmosphere in which others are aggressive in return, creating a cycle of anger.

Expressing Anger

Additional insights into anger are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Anger is a natural response to certain threats. As a result, aggression is sometimes the appropriate response to anger, as it allows us to defend ourselves. Therefore, a certain amount of anger is necessary. In addition, anger can be useful in expressing how we feel to others. However, we cannot get angry with everyone and everything we encounter. As a result, we must learn to express our anger appropriately.[4]

There are three main approaches to expressing anger -- expression, suppression, and calming. Expression involves conveying your feelings in an assertive, but not aggressive, manner. This is the best way to handle your anger. However, you must make sure that you are respectful of others and are not being overly demanding or pushy, as this will likely only produce aggression in return.

Anger can also be repressed and redirected. Essentially, you want to stop thinking about the source of your anger and focus on something else that can be approached constructively. However, you must be careful when repressing angry feelings. Repressing anger with no constructive outlet can be dangerous and damaging, both physically and mentally. On the other hand, the old idea that you should simply "vent" or "let it all out" is discouraged by conflict experts, who claim that doing so is actually counterproductive, "an exercise in rehearsing the very attributions that arouse anger in the first place."[5]

Finally, one can respond to anger by focusing on calming down -- controlling your external and internal responses (heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) to anger. Take deep breaths and relax. Several of these techniques are covered later in this article.

Social Rage[6]

The same issues that can arouse anger in individuals can also arouse anger in large groups. This concept of social rage, or social anger, is an important one for understanding conflict. Social rage is similar to personal rage, but it is generated by social issues and expressed by social groups. Examples of social rage are abundant: anger at immigrants over unemployment, hate crimes, homophobia, etc. Many of the factors at play in personal rage are also important in social rage, including humiliation and a sense of violation of expectations.

When Is Anger Good?

Anger can serve very positive functions when expressed properly. Studies continue to show that anger can have beneficial effects on individuals' health, their relationships and their work. Socially, very positive changes can come from anger -- for instance, the civil rights movement of the 1960s or the women's suffrage movement in the early 20th century. On an individual level, scientists have shown angry episodes actually strengthen personal relationships more than half of the time.

Social scientists agree that anger can be beneficial when it is expressed constructively. One way to ensure this is through the use of feedback loops. Constructive anger expression involves both parties, not just the angry person. Ideally, the angry person expresses his or her anger and the target has a chance to respond. Oftentimes, simple expression helps to ease the situation, particularly if the anger is justified. Remember that this is not simply an opportunity for someone to "vent." It must be approached with the attitude of solving a problem.

Dealing with Anger/Anger Management

As discussed, anger is not necessarily bad. Anger becomes problematic when it is expressed in improper or damaging ways. However, there are many things that can be done to help promote the constructive use of angry feelings.

What Individuals Can Do:

The first step in dealing with anger is to become aware of it. Learn how anger affects you, how you deal with it, and what triggers it in you. There are many ways to handle anger once you learn to recognize it and catch it early on. The American Psychological Association suggests the following:[7]

Relaxation -- As simple as it sounds, basic relaxation exercises can be powerful tools in overcoming one's anger. Among these simple techniques are deep breathing; slowly repeating a relaxing phrase, such as "relax" or "take it easy"; using peaceful imagery to imagine a relaxing situation; and relaxing exercise, like yoga or tai-chi.

Cognitive Restructuring -- Cognitive restructuring is basically changing the way you think about things. This involves thinking more positively about a situation; avoiding terms like "always" and "never," which can be used to justify your anger; using logic on yourself to prevent irrational behavior; and learning to change your approach -- requesting rather than demanding, for example.

Problem Solving -- Not all anger is inappropriate. When there is a very real root to your anger, approaching the situation from the perspective of a problem solver can help to diffuse your strong feelings. Make a plan for how you can fix the situation and approach it with good intentions.

Better Communication -- Angry people tend to jump to conclusions and overreact. By slowing down and thinking about what you say, this problem can be avoided. Also, make sure you understand what other people are saying before responding to them. Listen to the reasons for others' anger and try not to be overly critical. Listening is as important to communication as speaking is.

Using Humor -- By refusing to take yourself too seriously, you can defuse your anger. Try using humorous imagery to lighten your mood or to make fun of yourself. However, you should avoid using sarcastic and harsh humor, which is simply another expression of anger. You should also avoid simply "laughing off" your problems, which ignores the issue at hand. Instead use humor to approach the problem more constructively.

Change Your Environment -- Oftentimes our environment contributes to our anger by causing irritation and fury. Make a point to take a break. Schedule personal time. When stress becomes too intense, simply get away for 15 minutes to regroup and refresh.

What Officials Can Do:

As with fear, political leaders can use anger as a tool to gain political support. Leaders can either aggravate or alleviate anger in large groups of people. As a result, leaders must recognize the consequences of their actions and aim to use tools to lessen anger and be very leery of playing off of the anger of their constituents for political gain (see fear essay).

What Third Parties Can Do:

Mediators and third parties can also play a role in alleviating anger. The most important way in which third parties can assist those dealing with anger is through education. Counselors can teach individuals how to locate the source of their anger, and then overcome it. However, it is important that these counselors understand the sources of anger themselves.

Third parties can also help individuals (and particularly children) cope with angry feelings by creating a safe environment, by modeling appropriate behavior, and by encouraging others to talk about their anger in a constructive manner. Mediators working with adults can use empathic listening with each party separately to try to help them deal with their anger and rephrase or reframe their issues and concerns in a constructive way when they are together with the other party. In addition, all of the steps discussed above ("what individuals can do") can be encouraged and facilitated by third parties.

[1] Controlling Anger -- Before It Controls You (http://www.apa.org/pubinfo/anger.html)

[2] Anatomy of Anger, by Oliver Ross (http://www.mediate.com/articles/oliverR.cfm)

[3] Controlling Anger -- Before It Controls You.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Allred, Keith G. Anger and Retaliation in Conflict: The Role of Attribution

[6] Berry, Bonnie. Social Rage: Emotional and Cultural Conflict (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999), 8.

[7] Controlling Anger -- Before It Controls You.

Use the following to cite this article:
Barker, Phil. "Anger." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/anger>.

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