In recent years, a shallow kind of Stoicism has come into vogue. It quotes Marcus Aurelius: “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed.” Then they’ll tell you that “if you have the right state of mind, you’ll be able to brush away slights that otherwise would have made you angry!”
The problem with this mentality (other than the fact that it’s a massive oversimplification of Stoicism) is that sometimes anger is the appropriate response to a situation.
The two most shocking recent political victories, Brexit and Trump’s election, have both been products of anger. Here in the UK, we should be angry. Approximately 22 per cent of people in this country live in poverty, including one in three children. If every third child living in poverty in the sixth richest country in the world doesn’t make you angry, that isn’t a virtue; that’s a vice. In the Brexit campaign, David Cameron spoke of things like not wanting to take unnecessary risks, not wanting to shake things up, whereas Nigel Farage spoke of taking the fight to the enemy. Unsurprisingly, the side that harnessed anger carried the day.
Which brings us to the unexpected ascension of Donald Trump to the White House. Has there ever been a political figure who has expressed more self-righteous indignation than the current President of the United States? From the moment that Donald Trump announced his run for presidency to the current day, he has endlessly expressed anger. Anger at immigrants, anger at America’s allies, anger at the media, anger at the current world order, anger at the “witch hunt”, anger at the “deep state”, whatever that is.
Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election, told voters to “Love Trumps Hate”, and while she did carry the popular vote, she was unable to win key rust belt states, like Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, where quality of life has declined, and people are angry. It’s not surprising then, that in the Democratic primary, the candidate who’s polling has surged is Elizabeth Warren, who’s central message is “fight”, and not Cory Booker, who’s central message is “love”. Warren, even before her election to the Senate, has always been someone who fought against the big banks, and, like Trump, has expressed anger at the corruption in politics, whereas Booker has wanted us to practice ‘radical love’, which sounds more like an orgy invitation than a political platform. In Quinnipiac’s latest poll Warren was at 27 per cent and Booker was at 0.
This recognition of the importance of anger leads us to understand why Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN had such a profound effect: because it was pure, authentic anger. She does not revel in her role, instead saying it is wrong. She tells the leaders of the world that they can no longer go on “business as usual”, tells them they are failing us and that we, young people, will never forgive them if they fail to act. Instead of espousing a doctrine of hope for the future, she tells the leaders of the world that they have stolen her dreams.
The speech’s refrain asks the world leaders “how dare you?”. When I heard her, it reminded me of David Hogg, the gun-control activist and survivor of the 2018 Parkland Shooting where 17 people were killed. When Trump tweeted about the shooting, he did so complaining about the Russia investigation and mocking the Democrats, to which Hogg also asked, with anger, “how dare you?”. This refrain of how dare you is an unadulterated expression of anger at those who are failing us when they are meant to be leading.
The most striking thing about the whole speech to me was that every time the crowd cheered or applauded it felt wrong . The speech was meant to boil your blood, and was an expression of anger at the inaction of world leaders, not of hope for what the future holds. It demands action, not praise. The speech is exceptional because it captures how we should feel about the state of the climate and directs that action, rather than trying to transform anger into hope or love, because sometimes anger is appropriate.