The Case for Anger in Activism

– by The Shitty Activist

TOPSHOTS A protestor shouts a slogan inWe’re all familiar with the stereotype of the “angry activist.” Ranting and raving, spewing self-righteous venom at anyone in his or her path. And while that image is obviously an exaggeration, a lot of activists are definitely angry, including myself during my twelve years as an organizer. So here’s my question: Is that really such a bad thing?

Women’s right to vote. Civil rights. Gay marriage. While there were many supporters for these causes in their early years, there were far fewer organizers who actually did the grunt work of collecting the signatures, organizing the marches, writing the pamphlets. Were these leaders pushing change in a difficult political climate gentle, mild-mannered, happy-go-lucky individuals? Some of them probably were. But I bet the majority of them were outspoken, somewhat pushy, type-A personalities, fueled by an emotion many might call outrage, others anger.

Now, where does this anger come from? No doubt, a lot of it is legitimate disgust at, for instance, the treatment of an entire gender, race, or sexual orientation as inferior to another. The injustices alone are often enough to light a fire under activists to do something to make change.

But, it’s also likely that many organizers are also angry for other reasons, be it aspects of their personal lives, disappointment in others or themselves, or just a general irritable – aka sensitive – personality. Does this mean that they are just difficult people with a chip on their shoulder and therefore looking for something – anything – to complain about?

Maybe, but I don’t think so. Because, in my experience, I don’t think injustice itself is enough to motivate most people to do anything. People don’t act on rationality, they act on emotion. They’ve got to feel something before they do something.

Those easygoing souls who weren’t bothered by much of anything probably disapproved of a lunch counter refusing to serve someone because of their skin color. But, my guess is they were less likely to feel that injustice in their gut. They might’ve shaken their heads and shrugged and said, “What can you do?” but then went on to focus on something more positive.

But someone who was, say, more sensitive to stimulus that might’ve led them to a state of anxiety or irritation, would’ve been more apt to feel something powerful inside them when they saw someone refused service at the counter for racially-motivated reasons. Their pathways to anger were more accessible and more prone to be stimulated. Which would’ve made them feel agitated and want to do something to make themselves feel better, which would’ve been to end the injustice.

Wouldn’t this slightly pissy person have been more likely to organize a protest rally than the one who tended to let things slide?

Of course, this natural irritability can go too far, with some highly-reactive people focusing their rage on petty slights, such as their barrista not smiling at them when serving their morning latte. But those who use their easily accessible outrage and funnel it towards worthy causes outside of themselves might be doing society a favor, and I believe have been, in large part, responsible for positive change over the years.

That being said, there are many risks involved with rage being your sole motivator. The first, is that if you project this fury outwardly towards other people, you run the risk of alienating possible allies. Not everyone is able to access his or her inner warrior. If you drip with negativity and antagonism, perhaps many hard-core activists like yourself will identify with you or just accept you for who you, keeping the bigger cause in mind. But those less dedicated to the cause, or those who simply can’t stand being around intense people, might end up drifting away.

Another drawback is that if you stew in anger all the time, you will start to burn out. It’s unpleasant and unhealthy to always be angry, as the stress milks your adrenal glands and the cortisol streams through your blood, and you’ll start to suffer in your mental and physical health. It could impact your personal relationships, and those at work. It doesn’t mean you have to try to repress it, which wouldn’t work, anyway. Acknowledging and accepting your anger is the first step to dealing with it. If you don’t, chances are you’ll give up on activism before too long, anyway.

But let’s look at this from another perspective. When it comes down to it, what if activism from a place of healthy anger is actually about something else entirely? What if it’s really about love?

If you love the freedom to be who you are, if you love the natural world that keeps you alive, anything that endangers those things, you, of course, want to destroy.

Personally, I don’t blame or judge any activists driven by their rage. Think about if someone threatens a loved one, be they a parent, a child, a partner, a friend. What is your reaction to that threat? Acceptance? Tolerance? Circumspection? Hell no! It’s an immediate and extreme desire to destroy this enemy by any means possible. It’s an evolutionary response.

This doesn’t mean that lashing out is always the most effective action. But that’s strategy and tactics, and a whole other discussion. My point is, you can’t blame someone for feeling this anger when someone they love is in danger. In the same way, you can’t hold it against activists who are motivated by outrage in their chosen cause.

As a former angry activist myself, I have only one piece of advice on this topic for activists today: If you fuel your work with anger, make sure you burn it up as cleanly as possible, so your exhaust is mostly water vapor.


  1. says

    Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. ~ Frederick Douglass

  2. says

    Thank you for this. I have been fighting Texas-based Crestwood’s plan to turn the Finger Lakes into the largest Gas storage and transport hub in the North East for the past 5 years. Angry? Hell yes. This is my home, and it is clean and beautiful. Have I lost friends due to my intensity? Yes, sadly. But I do feel that I couldn’t have accomplished all that I have so far without this fire in my belly. This is the first piece that I have read on the subject, and it has given me a lot to think about. Thanks.

  3. says

    Anger needs to be expressed and balanced with reason. But we need to act out of love. Anger can lead to hate. Hate can lead to violence. We need to channel that anger into nonviolent action like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King did. We have to create a tableau or picture of the injustice, that heightens the contradiction of what is wrong in our society. We have to create a form of psychodrama, where we create a “dilemma demonstration.” If the forces that be stop what they are doing and agree to our demands we win. If they arrest us and keep arresting us it calls more attention to the problem and the alternative solution that we are proposing. The two critical elements are maintaining nonviolent discipline and using ongoing nonviolent direct action campaigns. That is what Dr. King and Gandhi did and believed in. India didn’t win its independence and the Civil Rights laws where not passed by just one big demonstration. Only a serious of different types of actions, boycotts, setting up alternative businesses, establishing parallel institutions, strikes, rallies, marches and sit-ins, brought about the changes and victories that we have come to know. We need to take it to the next level and pick up where King and Gandhi left off, creating a global, nonviolent revolution to bring about economic democracy, worker owned and managed businesses funded by credit unions & public banking not Wall Street, environmental sustainability, justice, fairness, education, health and employment for all. For a list of tactics, visit the Global Nonviolent Action Database at

  4. Kieran Dunne says

    Anger is a gift, you just have to learn how to use it. Like any emotion it should never be repressed, just channelled towards a positive end.

  5. Storm Petrol says

    Whatever it is that gets us off our asses to DO SOMETHING!

    “So you say to me, ‘Well what do we do instead? You produce these arguments against trying to save nature by pricing it, by financialisation, by monetisation. What do you do instead?’

    Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is no mystery. It is the same answer that it has always been. The same answer that it always will be. The one thing we just cannot be bothered to get off our bottoms to do, which is the only thing that works. Mobilisation.

    It is the only thing that has worked, the only thing that can work. Everything else is a fudge and a substitute and an excuse for not doing that thing that works. And that applies to attempts to monetise and financialise nature as much as it does to all the other issues we are failing to tackle. Thank you. (George Monbiot)

      • bootsie says

        i need to know that one. people seem to prefer little dogs in outifits to pleas for help in path of pipelines, say, in our yards or lands. people pretend not to see stuff to stay in their safe place. i am getting very sick of this, Shitty. How do we get a good old revolt mounted? I may need to know soon. Please advise. we really need to get peoole to pulls theirs heads out of thier own patooties.

  6. says

    [ Smiles ] Sometimes activists need to get their messages across in an angry manner; because it allows their message to be heard.

    Unfortunately, the kind, diplomatic approach does not make an impact on everyone.

    Great topic!

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