How to be angry

Sorry, Suey Park, but your fifteen minutes of fame have almost expired. Not only did you fail to #CancelColbert, he got promoted. Besides, when has creating Twitter hashtags become an effective agent for social change? Anyone can create hashtags (#masteringtabletopics). Real social change happens when people step away from their laptops or put away their smartphones and do something constructive.

I do sympathize with you, Suey. I was angry in my early twenties when I was poor, scared, and unsure of what to do with my life. I got active in politics and joined in protests. As I got older, I became better about determining what really should make me angry and what I should do about it. I’ve learned that before you get angry, you have to ask yourself a few questions.

Why does it anger you?

In my angry days in the early 1980s, I felt I had legitimate reasons to be. I was worried that government policies would prevent me from finishing my college education and taking care of my sick mom. I feared that I would get drafted to fight in Central America or incinerated in a nuclear war. I was angry because I was scared about my future. (When I stopped being scared about my future, I stopped being angry.)

People get angry for lots of reasons. Some fear change. Some feel they didn’t get what they wanted (even if they didn’t deserve it). Some people’s anger comes from prejudice. (Judging from your comments about white male liberals, Suey, it seems that you have more of a prejudice problem than they do.)

How do you know whether your reason for being angry is legitimate or not? Look at the next question…

Does it really affect you and how?

So, you didn’t like Stephen Colbert’s joke. You may find it irritating and insulting, the same way I get annoyed by the Mort Goldman character on Family Guy. But how does it affect you? Does it prevent you from getting your degree? Does it keep you from getting a job? Will it cause discriminatory laws to be passed against Asians? You may feel the disrespect affects you, but how does the disrespect prevent you from doing what you want to do?

When you look closely at whether something affects you, you may find that it actually benefits you. That comedian may be making a point that supports your views. That government program you hate may improve your quality of life. Letting go of prejudices opens you to new friendships and enables more people to support you.

When you look closely at an issue and understand it, you’ll realize that you don’t need to be angry after all. If you’re still angry, you need to go to the next step…

What change do you want to see happen?

Suppose you managed to get Stephen Colbert off the air. Then what? Do you want satire to be a federal offense? Make it illegal for white people to speak critically about anything Asian, including kimchi and Samsung?

These are the things you need to think about when you decide to be angry. When we’re angry about a situation, we want that situation to change. That’s when you have to ask yourself, what does that change look like? What would satisfy you so you are no longer angry?

Those questions may force you to reexamine whether your anger is legitimate. Some people get angry for the sake of getting angry. They may like the attention it gives them. They use their sense of victimhood and martyrdom to manipulate people into giving them what they want. Some use anger to promote their book, website, or TV show. They may claim they are fighting for some group or cause, but they’re really fighting for themselves.

If you still see your anger is legitimate, and you have a clear and consistent vision of what is wrong and how it can be changed, you need to ask the next question…

What can you do about it?

Here’s where anger has value — when you can turn it into positive change. In doing so, you can make things better for society as a whole — as well as yourself. If you can find solutions to problems, if you can encourage others to help, you’ll be looked up to as a leader and an agent for change. You may gain others’ scorn, especially if you challenge their traditions and prejudices. If you show how the change you want benefits everyone, you will eventually win their respect.

There are a few things you must understand about change:

  • Not everything can be changed. You can’t change the past. You can’t destroy or overhaul institutions that have existed for centuries. You can’t pretend certain groups of people will go away or can be converted into the type of people you want. You can’t change people who refuse to change. You either need to accept the situation or find a way to work around it.
  • Some changes happen slowly. Social attitudes take a long time to change, but they do. When I was growing up in the 1960s, the idea that gays could marry, an African American could be elected president, and Asian roles could be filled by Asian actors (instead of whites doing squinting, buck-toothed caricatures) seemed unthinkable. Look at how far we’ve come. To bring about those changes, it took steady, determined, and patient effort.
  • Sometimes, the person who needs to change is you. Are you doing something that contributes to the problem? Do you alienate people who could help you solve it? Do you benefit from the problem in some way? Does the suffering give you some sense of moral superiority? Does it give you someone or something to blame so you don’t have to put in any effort to improve your own situation?

In the end, you’ll see that anger is not the appropriate response to the outrages of life. It takes careful study of the situation and your feelings towards it. It requires you to visualize the change you want to make and come up with an action plan. It may require you to be patient and work with or accept the things that can’t be changed — especially the things about yourself.

It is an approach that has worked well for men and women of all nationalities and all ages under different circumstances. It led Malala Yousafzai to fight for women’s education in Afghanistan and Margaret Cho to use humor to speak out for the rights of women, Asians, and the LGBT community.

To be angry, you have to learn how to convert that anger into a force for change. When you do that, you will find that you have more power than you think you do. When you learn to use that power, you will find you have less reason to be angry and more reason to be hopeful.