We have a new website! Check out the latest version of our toolkit at beautifultrouble.org/toolbox

“Drivel, bilge, waste!”

Rush Limbaugh

Anger works best when you have the moral high ground

Contributed by

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Gloria Steinem
In Sum

Anger is potent. Use it wisely. If you have the moral higher ground, it is compelling and people will join you. If you don’t, you’ll look like a cranky wingnut.

Anger is a double-edged sword. Or perhaps it’s more like a water hose: it’s full of force, it’s hard to control, and it’s important where you aim it.

There is a crucial distinction to be made between moral indignation and self-righteousness. Moral indignation channels anger into resolve, courage and powerful assertions of dignity. Think: the civil rights movement. Self-righteousness, on the other hand, is predictable and easily dismissed. Think: masked 16-year-olds holding a banner that says “SMASH CAPITALISM AND EAT THE RICH.”

Have you seen the scene of the “Malcolm X” movie where an army of outraged people gather and stand in perfect formation, with perfect posture, outside a prison to demand the release of their friend? It was so badass! They were all wearing suits, they stood as one, and their discipline clearly communicated: we’re mad as hell, we’re right, you’re wrong, and you’re going to give us what we want.

Integrity gives deep meaning and moral force to anger. We should never come off as mad-for-the-sake-of-being-mad, but rather as reluctantly, genuinely angry in the face of outrageous circumstances. Rather than reacting, we respond. Rather than lashing out, we stand our ground.

Of course, suppressing legitimate anger can be as debilitating as hair-trigger reactions. Parts of the Left have been held back because we are afraid to express or channel popular outrage. Unable to tap into large-scale disaffection, we remain marginal. By contrast, many youth movements self-marginalize precisely because their anger doesn’t resonate. Find the sweet spot between the two.

Joshua Kahn Russell is an organizer and strategist serving movements for social justice and ecological balance. He is an action coordinator, facilitator & trainer with the Ruckus Society, and has trained thousands of activists. Joshua has written numerous movement strategy essays, chapters for several books, and a few organizing manuals, most recently Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis, with Hilary Moore (PM Press 2011). He has helped win campaigns against banks, oil companies, logging corporations, and coal barons; worked with a wide variety of groups in a breadth of arenas, from local resiliency projects, to national coalitions, to the United Nations Climate Negotiations.

Hey there! Did you know that you can jump into our experimental visualization interface right from this point? Give it a try and send us your feedback!