While anger is a complex emotion that has both cognitive and visceral properties, philosophers have long argued that there are morally right and morally wrong ways for us to express our anger. As Agnes Callard outlines, most philosophers view anger as a moral response to injustice while a smaller camp, stemming from the Stoic tradition, consider the emotion a wellspring for spite. Martha Nussbaum, for example, worries that anger often leads to narcissism and vindictiveness—behavior bent on “payback.” Malpractice and divorce litigation are among her favorite examples of such moral conceits: a retributive attitude that revives neither life nor love. 

Though Nussbaum says a lot about anger in private life, she seems primarily interested in its place in politics, especially in contexts of persecution. In Anger and Forgiveness (2016), she concedes that anger can be a valuable political emotion: when the oppressed get angry, it signals that they recognize the wrong done to them. Anger can also motivate protests of such wrongs. Still, in response to retaliatory rage, Nussbaum argues for transitional anger, a mental pivot away from seeking payback to “more productive forward-looking thoughts, asking what can actually be done to increase either personal or social welfare.”

We seem to ask a lot more of the oppressed than we do of oppressors.

Nussbaum thus focuses on how anger shapes social action rather than on angry feelings. She concentrates, for example, on conditions that were ripe for retaliatory anger—colonization, Jim Crow, and apartheid—but in which an oppressive regime fell to a politics that transcended anger and resentment. For Nussbaum, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela paved a revolutionary path when they expressed and mobilized anger the morally right way. But, as Callard warns, this is part of a larger attempt to isolate anger’s admirable qualities from its “darker side.” Callard says we should face the fact that the morally correct response to oppression may require us to act immorally. I agree.

Still, I fear that both Nussbaum and Callard offer quite narrow views of the moral life of the oppressed. Nussbaum holds up noble saints while Callard naturalizes violence when she points to René Girard. I agree with Callard when she says victims can be morally compromised by the anger they feel in response to their oppression or by their acquiescence to such conditions. But I part ways with her when she says enduring oppression leaves victims morally damaged. It is difficult for me to imagine the black men and women who faced down Bull Connor and his henchmen at the Edmund Pettus Bridge as morally diminished; it is also difficult for me to imagine the black men and women who did not march that day as ethically broken. But it is not difficult for me to imagine racist and moderate whites that sustained that world as morally shattered souls. We seem to ask a lot more of the oppressed than we do of oppressors.

An implicit but foundational assumption is that people owe it to their self-respect to get angry in the face of oppression and to express their anger to others. That is to say failing to protest injustice vitiates self-respect. Nussbaum, to her credit, questions this view. Callard, on the other hand, insists of anger that “if we quash it with too heavy a hand, we lose self-respect and, more generally, our moral footing.” In the realm of politics, appearances are what really matter. Normative judgments about a person’s self-respect are almost always based on how he or she appears before us.

For many, silence in the face of injustice reveals a morally damaged character. This assumption prevails in discussions of protest against racial injustice. Thomas Hill, Jr., and Bernard Boxill, for example, argue that self-respect requires protesting the wrong done to you and communicating to the public your resistance to the moral injury you suffer. A favorite example of Hill’s is the servile slave. His deference and fawning conveys to others that he accepts the idea that blacks are inferior, that he thinks they are owed less than whites, and makes visible his damaged self-respect. For Boxill, it therefore follows that protest is a prima facie duty; expressing anger at your subjugation affirms your dignity, even when it does not reform society or aggravates your condition. These judgments assume the servile slave is not a prudent calculator, that his compliance discloses his true feelings. Tommie Shelby amends this view when he says self-respect requires resistance, but it does not oblige a subjugated person to protest—that is, to make public her anger. Concealing her resistance can preserve her self-respect.

Douglass’s fury at slavery inspired his revolt, which proved morally restorative but politically ineffectual. It did not change his status as a slave.

To better understand the difficulty in accurately judging the visible behavior of those living under oppression, let us consider two scenes from Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). The first passage is rather famous. Those who view self-respect as requiring protest frequently point to Douglass’s fight with the slave-breaker Covey. The “battle with Mr. Covey,” wrote Douglass, “was the turning point in my ‘life as a slave’ It recalled to life my crushed self-respect, and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be a free man. A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity.” Douglass’s fury at slavery inspired his revolt, which proved morally restorative but politically ineffectual. His moral resurrection did not change his status as a slave. He remained the property of another.

Later in the narrative, Douglass said his master, Hugh Auld, permitted him to work as a caulker in the shipyards so long as he gave all of his earnings to Auld. Though pivotal to Douglass’s emancipation, this second scene attracts far less commentary. “I could see no reason,” Douglass railed, “why I should, at the end of each week, pour the reward of my honest toil into the purse of any man. The thought itself vexed me.” His master’s robbery was akin to Covey’s brutality. But if he openly resisted, his master would sell him into the Deep South, thus making escape impossible. Escaping slavery required that he remain on Maryland’s eastern shore so he could work and siphon some of his wages. So, Douglass submitted to his master’s wishes.

But the taking of his earnings “kept the nature and character of slavery constantly” before him, assuring that his deceit never slipped into self-deception. That is to say, Douglass donned a mask of compliance to conceal his seditious intentions:

It is a blessed thing that the tyrant may not always know the thoughts and purposes of his victim. Master Hugh little knew what my plans were My object, therefore, in working steadily, was to remove suspicion, and in this I succeeded admirably. He probably thought I was never better satisfied with my condition, than at the very time I was planning my escape.

Imagine, for a moment, you witnessed the first scene without knowing Douglass’s inner thoughts or motives. You would likely conclude that he revolted because he abhorred the injustice of slavery, and though he remained a slave he salvaged his self-respect. Now imagine witnessing the second scene without Douglass’s account of his motives. All you see is a slave laboring and, without a trace of anger or resentment, handing over his wages to his master. You would probably conclude that Douglass is Hill’s servile slave, someone whose acquiescence to oppression vitiates his self-respect.

The point is that those who are most oppressed have the most compelling reasons to be angry. They also have the most compelling reasons to never express their anger publicly. In the Jim Crow South, a slip of the tongue or a misplaced glance could get you killed. Often it was cunning, not confrontation, that made possible effective resistance. We should therefore avoid making strong normative judgments about people who seem to succumb to their domination. We have no way of knowing whether the lack of anger an undocumented immigrant expresses when cooking our food, cleaning our home, and sustaining our entire economy is sincere or a strategic response to her exploitation and oppression. The absence of resentment and rage in her words and deeds says nothing about her self-respect.

In the Jim Crow South, often it was cunning, not confrontation, that made possible effective resistance. 

Despite Nussbaum’s reservations, it is rational for an undocumented worker to be angry and vengeful at a society that exploits her labor while denying her basic rights and protections. But the risk of further persecution might submerge her outrage beneath compliant smiles. She likely reasons that our uncertainty about her sense of self-respect is not worth her doing something that lands her and her children in cages. Maybe we should strive harder to think with the oppressed rather than to think for them. Doing so will require us to offer more than impossible models of political morality or veiled nihilism.