Words: Lily Crooke (She/Her)
We have an unquestionable right to be angry about the current political climate. Collective anger has inspired some of the most effective campaigns, protests and riots throughout history. It is a highly effective way to cause political change, as well as a cathartic outlet for frustration that can otherwise have nowhere to go. Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to escape the constant flow of information from the news, from social media, and from conversations with friends and family. So what happens when this anger becomes overwhelming? Does anger continue to serve its purpose when we are brushing our teeth or lying in bed at night?
If it is safe to do so, protesting and vocalising anger, although obviously not the sole purpose of protest, is one of the best ways to relieve anxiety about political issues. I can distinctly remember skipping school and heading to one of the Fridays for Future marches as a young teenager. It was one of the only times I have felt vaguely in control of the climate crisis. Not that I was lulled into a false sense of my own influence, but seeing so many other young people come together to protest made me feel hopeful. For one of the first times in my life, I felt that there was something we could do to change the fate of the planet.
Throughout history, rioting has proven to be one of the most effective forms of protest. Public demonstrations of collective outrage have had a massive impact on repressive and discriminatory political systems. Rioting has also historically led to shifts in general attitudes and changes within activist circles, such as the increase in LGBTQ+ newspapers, activist groups and parades after the Stonewall riots. However, collective expressions of anger can also be extremely destructive. When Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, they demonstrated how collective anger could easily accumulate and get out of hand. I would argue that they didn’t storm because they believed that the result of the election could actually be reversed, but instead used the riot as an outlet for blind aggression and to assert their power. Protests and riots are undeniably powerful tools to convey outrage and disapproval at political issues, but inversely, they can also turn angry individuals into fractious and uncontrollable mobs.
The demonstration of collective anger is not the only way to bring about political change. Throughout history, there are also thousands of examples of effective non-violent protests. Although, these were often driven by necessity, like the peaceful protests of the civil rights movement. In this case, the media, and American segregationists, were keen to label the civil rights movement as being grounded in violent terrorism. But the shocking images of their peaceful protests being responded to with displays of police and state violence forced people to reckon with the reality of racism within America.
Although there can be arguments made for the effectiveness of both violent and non-violent protests, recently, it seems less common to see groups of people joining together to protest in any form, even though political situations are deteriorating. To generalise massively, there is widespread apathy. I do not think that this is because our generation has no interest in politics. Contrary to the narrative perpetuated by the media, apathy does not stem from a lack of interest but instead from the feeling that things are inevitable. The problem is how real these issues are for us, yet people feel helpless, so detached from decision-making that they can’t see the point in allowing themselves to feel passionate or angry. It is becoming increasingly common to see young people developing a casually fatalistic worldview, not contending with the anger that they deserve to feel and instead accepting things as they are. Why spend energy feeling outraged over political issues that you feel you have no control over?
It is obviously untrue to say that no one is protesting. But I do think that recently we’ve begun to see small and often exclusive activist groups organising and taking part in demonstrations. Whilst outside of these circles, widespread apathy becomes increasingly prevalent. To encourage a more diverse range of people to get involved, activism needs to be as open and accessible as possible. Activist spaces need to adapt the way they function internally to focus on discussion and honesty, becoming a place where people can be open about their anxieties and can question things without fear of judgement. Perhaps we need to learn to let go of anger within these new widened activist spaces to allow for more constructive conversations with people who hold opposing beliefs to our own.
As one of the most misunderstood and often stigmatised emotions, anger does not have a simple relationship with activism. But where there is anger, there must also be a place for optimism. Our outrage is completely wasted when we don’t believe that we have any power to change the status quo. It simply leads to despair rather than fuelling constructive political action. Not just an idealistic means of self-comfort, hope allows our anger to be channelled into organising protests, rallies, strikes, sit-ins, petitioning and writing to officials. It’s important to remember that the pit in your stomach can be debilitating, but it can also be a source of motivation.