Masculinity and the Case of Justified Anger

I speak with a lot of men about the loss of their masculinity in a feminized culture. I speak with them about wildness without recklessness, powerfulness without aggression, considerate manliness without brutishness, and, most notably, about toughness.

One of my male friends correctly believes that William James’s “The Moral Equivalent of War” spells out well our predicament: how to exercise the masculine virtues (such as bravery, trustworthiness, honor, and vitality) in the context of brotherhood or fraternity at a time when war has become de-legitimized as “a theater” in which to manifest such virtues. In our time, men have mostly failed: they have (i) diminished their powers of acting, (ii) succumbed to the search for pleasure, or (iii) poured themselves into brutish activities such as cage fighting or acts of aggression.

Masculinity mete for our time is too large of a topic to discuss in its entirety today, but one issue I would like to bring to the fore is that of justified anger. For quite a while, I believed that anger was never justified. My midwestern upbringing made me think that conflict was to be avoided at all costs, and I found backing for this belief in Stoical philosophy (see Seneca’s De Ira). I was wrong, and Aristotle is right. As Richard Kraut puts it,

It should be evident that Aristotle’s treatment of virtues as mean states endorses the idea that we should sometimes have strong feelings—when such feelings are called for by our situation. Sometimes only a small degree of anger is appropriate; but at other times, circumstances call for great anger. The right amount is not some quantity between zero and the highest possible level, but rather the amount, whatever it happens to be, that is proportionate to the seriousness of the situation. Of course, Aristotle is committed to saying that anger should never reach the point at which it undermines reason; and this means that our passion should always fall short of the extreme point at which we would lose control. But it is possible to be very angry without going to this extreme, and Aristotle does not intend to deny this.

I note, time and again, that men have come to believe that anger is always unjustified on the grounds that (a) it is uncontrollable and (b) it will necessarily harm someone else. But (a) just isn’t true: anger, to the appropriate degree provided it accords with right perception and reason, is in fact controllable; we can learn to control it. And (b) isn’t necessarily true: anger can be a way of helping someone or of standing up for some cause or some third party in the face of blatant injustice. In fact, justified anger can enable us to achieve what reason on its own cannot. More than this, anger is a sign of our proper pride in ourselves. We show that we won’t be trampled on or walked over any longer. We have a true, living, palpable presence.

One of my acquaintances once spoke of “owning the center line.” You own the center line when you walk into a room in a way that, without saying a word, sets the terms for what can happen there. In The Art of War, we learn that the greatest strategists are those who have such a presence that the other party would not think to fight them. I want to say that our capacity for being appropriately, justifiably angry reveals to those present that we are capable of owning the center line, that we have a commanding, though not unkind, presence.

Justified anger is a manifestation of toughness and right conviction. Men need to look at themselves and to push this insight through their lives.