When you study ancient Stoicism, you can’t help but start to see all manner of cultural conversations differently than you did before.
I’m finding this especially true of movies (and I’m not alone—Massimo Pigliucci has felt compelled to write a number of Stoic movie reviews this year), but boy oh boy is it true of Angry Birds, which premiered this weekend in the US.
In many ways it’s your standard film about a charming, imperfect, and all-too-relatable hero. Angry Birds is a delightful story about an awkward denizen of Bird Island who has an anger problem. The film tracks his progress from a dysfunctional member of the avian Utopia who is ordered by a judge to anger management class to the role of a hero: his anger turns out to be the critical tool that the birds need to protect themselves against the eggsistential threat of the big bad pigs!
At the story’s hinge moment, the entire bird community realizes that they are in over their head—and they turn to the outcast students of the anger management class (of all people!) as their teachers. In order to fight for justice, the birds want to be taught anger.
“This is not the time to be calm and detached!” announce the heroes, as a giant red bird with a violent past too horrible to describe points to a chalk board, showing the innocent birds how to be angry. This is the time to be non-calm, this is a time to care. By the end of the story, the birds have absorbed the film’s moral lesson into their mythology: a group of chicks sing a minstrel song about their hero, listing his virtues: “Bravery, humility, an-gaa-ry!”
The film is charming and heart-warming—by now you have seen many cartoons like it. I never knew there were so many ways to make anger look so cute and harmless!
At the same time, however, as a Stoic, I fundamentally disagree with the film’s moral premise: that if we care, if we want to fight for justice, we must be angry.
The Anger Question
Anger is a deep topic which philosophers, psychologists, and activists have been debating for centuries. Clearly, anger is dangerous and can be extremely destructive. But what positive role does anger play in our lives? Should we try to eliminate it entirely? Should we give it free reign? Should we try and keep it moderated, striving for the “golden mean” of Aristotle?
These questions are discussed especially frequently in the Stoic community, since they directly involve the core commitments of Stoic values. The topic came up in the Stoicism group on Facebook just today, in fact, when a user posted this eloquent personal story:
Before my discovery of Stoicism, I used to suffer from anger. I was very thin skinned and everything made me angry. Over time, I’ve minimized anger and its influence over my life. Now, with practice, I hardly am angry or agitated.
But what I want to know is if it’s ever really important to be angry? Some people think anger in the face of injustice is important. It motivates you to act against injustice. People talk about anger as useful for building strength.
But is anger really necessary? Anger can be sufficient to action but is it necessary? Aren’t there other ways of acting without being angry? Can’t you be motivated to do good without having to use anger.
I admit I am biased against anger because it used to rule my life for a short period. But why do I need anger in order to protest against an unjust government, to protect my life, to make a stand? Is it really necessary? Couldn’t anger just blind us as well?
The members, not surprisingly, were split. Some gravitate to the Aristotelean position: moderate anger is useful, but we should neither have too little anger nor too much. In a recent article for Stoicism Today, Professor Gregory Sadler admitted that, after deep and extensive study of the topic, he leans toward the Aristotelean interpretation.
Others embrace the orthodox Stoic dogma that, while the initial impulses toward anger might help draw our attention to injustice, anger proper—the fully developed passion—is always an irrational vice. We can stand up for justice without being angry, they argue—we don’t need anger to spur us on!
Quite the opposite, in fact: we need to practice the principle of charity in order to debate effectively (a point Zeno is known to have emphasized), and anger undermines that charity. My friend Timothy Hucks has just written an excellent post on the importance of arguing empathetically and in good faith—a principle that I think is extremely important, both morally and rhetorically.
Seneca developed many of these arguments against anger quite thoroughly in his essay “De Ira“—a work that many modern Stoics hold close to their heart. The view that anger is entirely unnecessary is characteristically idealistic, and it is derived from theoretical principles that most people don’t accept (namely that virtue is the only good, and “externals” are “indifferent”). But it is the path Stoics choose to follow. Epictetus admits that it is difficult to pursue goals like justice in a vigorous way, while still staying detached from the passions, “but it is not impossible” (Discourses, 2.5).
Anger and Social Justice
It seems, then, that a Stoic encounter with Angry Birds is one of criticism. “No, birds, you’ve got it wrong. Let me show you how to fight with true honor, and with love—it starts by letting go of your unhealthy passions.”
But, after thinking about it, that’s not how I think a Stoic should respond to the film.
I think the biggest risk that we take by shedding anger is not that we will forget to stick up for ourselves, but that we might forget to stick up for others! Any Stoic response to anger needs to be on guard against this potential malfunction of philosophy.
The anger question takes on a whole new flavor when we factor in political concerns. The history of politics is just chalked full of well-meaning people who are more interested in telling oppressed persons, activists, and social critics to calm down and behave better than they are in understanding and dismantling real injustice. It’s a real sore spot for a lot of people.
“Odds are if you belong to a marginalised group,” writes feminist activist Katherine Cross, “you are saddled with a stigma against being angry. Women, people of colour, people with disabilities, trans people, the poor and labouring classes, all face various and specific stigmas for being ‘too loud’ or ‘too angry.’ There are paradigmatic stereotypes in the particular, as well, ‘Angry Black Wo/Man,’ ‘Angry Tranny,’ ‘Feisty Latina,’ ‘Dragon Lady,’ ‘class warrior,’ and so on, with which we are all painfully familiar in one way or another.”
In yet another context, atheist blogger Greta Christina complains eloquently about the tendency of critics of atheism to offer advice that is “always, always, always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.” In the context of such struggles, even Aristotle’s moderate discussion of anger can feel oppressive and privileged.
This observation echoes much earlier admonitions from Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on how well-meaning “white moderates” are a “stumbling block” to justice, because of their devotion to “order” and opposition to disruptive activism. We can find similar concerns as far back as the Old Testament:
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.
—Jeremiah 8:11, NIV.
All this real-world background leads me to be cautious: who am I to criticize the birds for being angry? Their community is facing down a horrifyingly serious existential threat—while I sit in my plush theater recliner and exercise my privilege and safety by musing to myself about “externals” and “Stoic values.”
I do not believe that anger is a virtuous response to conflict. I believe that all our efforts for justice must serve a “homeostatic” goal, as the modern Stoic philosopher Lawrence Becker puts it, and that we should have reconciliation and love in our hearts at all times—never vengeance.
But these lessons—these core values—are something that a Stoic should usually carry in her heart and practice quietly. When someone is angry, our chief concern should always be to understand the injustice that they are upset about, and to strive to benefit the human family in what way we can.
As Michelle Alexander puts it in her famous book The New Jim Crow, when we encounter anger from people who have been treated unjustly by the system, “we may be tempted to control it, or douse it with buckets of doubt, dismay, and disbelief. But we should do no such thing. Instead, when a young man who was born in the ghetto and who knows little of life beyond the walls of his prison cell and the invisible cage that has become his life, turns to us in bewilderment and rage, we should do nothing more than look him in the eye and tell him the truth” (p. 260–1).
Anger itself may be a vice. But many common human feelings are vices, according to Stoic teachings. We are perfectly accustomed to taking unpopular positions on subtle moral questions—and traditionally, we make an explicit point of not going around and loudly moralizing about everything we disagree with. “One doesn’t ‘preach’ Stoicism,” writes modern Stoic Massimo Pigliucci, “one shows others by example, complemented — when appropriate, and with due caution — by occasional theoretical explanations of principles.”
Listening to people’s anger and taking it seriously is certainly a virtue. So while my knee-jerk impulse may be to criticize Angry Birds as yet another manifestation of the moral delusions that collectively contribute to human suffering—it is just as or more important, I think, for me to take it as a reminder that I must listen to people carefully and compassionately, even if I don’t personally approve of their tone.
Much of the time, the result will be that I end up standing right next to them, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder against injustice.