The Corner

Culture

On Culture War and the Moral Limits of Anger

A fire burns amid protesters in Berkeley, Calif., February 1, 2017. (Screengrab via ABC News/YouTube)

The assumption that anger confers moral force suffuses the contemporary culture war. Elements of both the “alt-right” and the “woke” Left profess a belief in the moral legitimization of wrath. Partisans spend a considerable amount of effort adjudicating who is allowed to feel a given amount of grievance for what, but more energy could be spent exploring the moral limits of rage in the first place.

In a recent New York Times column, the novelist Jennifer Weiner makes a case for anger. Weiner’s essay — subtitled “I want to burn the frat house of America to the ground” — situates this need for outrage in the greater context of the relationship between men and women.

Weiner reflects on stories our culture tells about men, women, and anger:

Do men know how to be sorry? Do they have any notion of how to fix what they’ve broken, or what it would take to repair the damage they’ve wrought? And could women seek revenge? Do we even know how?

When my husband was a teenager, his favorite classic novel was “The Count of Monte Cristo,” where a wrongly imprisoned hero spends hundreds of pages hunting down his tormentors and making them pay. When I was the same age, I loved “Little Women,” where, in a pivotal scene, the adventurous, tomboyish sister, the one with literary ambitions, cuts off her hair and sells it to help provide for her family. Jo gets praised for this act of self-sacrifice. She gets scolded — by her future husband, no less — for writing popular fiction for money. By the end of the book, she’s married, her literary ambitions temporarily shelved in exchange for the life of a wife and a surrogate mother to a household of boys.

There are famous novels, canonical plays, entire genres of movies centered around men seeking revenge (the “Iliad,” “Hamlet,” every western ever). There aren’t many stories about men righting their wrongs; even fewer about women making men sorry.

However, while it’s true that there are numerous works about men seeking revenge, there are also plenty of works about “women making men sorry.” In Eurpides’s tragedy Medea, the titular character murders her children in order to get revenge on her husband, Jason, for marrying another woman (Medea kills her, too). Jilted by her fiancé on the day of their wedding, Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations sets out to “make men sorry”: She raises a young orphan named Estella to inflict heartache on men, just as a man inflicted heartache on Miss Havisham.

We can also find stories about men seeking to right past wrongs. Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice overcomes his snobbishness and seeks to make recompense for the injuries done to others by his pride. Both Pierre and Prince Andrei in War and Peace try to make up for some of their past personal failings.

More to the point, though, it’s worth noting that many of these works about vengeance are also about revenge’s limits. Edmond Dantes, the hero of The Count of Monte Cristo, might set out on elaborate schemes of revenge, but the end of the novel shows him encounter the real moral and practical limits of revenge. It can’t bring back his lost years, and the suffering he inflicts in pursuing revenge might have its own moral burden. Dantes ends the novel pleading for forgiveness. Miss Havisham’s ruined mansion becomes a museum to her anger; she paces cobwebbed rooms in a tattered wedding dress, and every day is the day of her betrayal.

On both a personal and a political level, indulgence in anger can be both corrosive and paralyzing. Wrath can blind us to the dignity of other human beings, and a politics of vengeance based on collective guilt can all too often become an incentive for new injustices. At the end of Great Expectations, the adult Estella makes a leap of moral insight beyond the facile psychology of revenge. She turns to her childhood friend Pip, who long had been infatuated with her: “suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be.” The greater virtue is in understanding and reconciliation.

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