The Politics of Emotional Dismissal

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, before the Senat
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It happened when Hillary Clinton gave her Benghazi testimony at the congressional hearing in January. It happened earlier this month when Dianne Feinstein spoke at the senate gun debate. The "it" that I am referring to is a concept borrowed from philosopher Sue Campbell, which I term the "politics of dismissal." When a man gets angry, (i.e. Mitt Romney at the first debate and Obama at the second debate), that anger is translated as toughness, leadership, getting serious about the issues. However, when a woman gets angry, her anger is dismissed as passion, hysterics, or irrationality. So when I saw the headline of a newspaper that read "No Wonder Bill's Afraid: Hillary Explodes with Rage at Benghazi Hearing" or when I watched Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) respond to Senator Feinstein (D-Calif.) as saying "no one doubts your sincerity or passion," I got angry.

Let me preface: This is not a man-bashing reflection. What I am arguing is that anger has its proper place in the political sphere and because of this; some should not have privileged access to anger while another person's anger is dismissed.

I do not hold the view that anger or emotions in general are irrational. I believe that they are very much connected to the political life and rationality. Anger has an appropriate and productive moral dimension and should be reclaimed no matter who possesses it. I call this anger, "proper." Proper anger is distinct from blind and destructive anger because it is not immoral. "Proper" implies that it is selfless, consistent with a high moral value system, promotes the preservation of one's self and community, and is non-violent. This proper moral anger is appropriate upon witnessing unethical behavior and is appropriate upon witnessing an injustice. Proper anger is useful because it recognizes injustices, inspires deliberation and eventually can serve as a catalyst for justice. So when one dismisses another's proper anger by perceiving that person or group as crazy, or by suggesting it is merely them being passionate, I believe it is a political tool to silence voices and to halt the democratic project we profess so much to believe in.

If you think this phenomenon of dismissal is new, think again. In classical antiquity, anger was an appropriate response to insults. If a man was disrespected through a violation of himself or his property (this property also included women and children), men were expected to be angry and defend their honor. Anger empowered and highly motivated men to resist and push back the disrespect. If they were not angry, their masculinity was questioned, for anger was a masculine emotion that came as a result of one's recognition of self-respect and an urge to reclaim honor.

On the other hand, anger was off-limits to women. In Emotions in History, Ute Frevert argues that women were viewed as having nothing to be angry about. They had no honor to defend because they were the property of a man. Therefore, they had no right to be angry. Secondly, if a woman became angry, their anger was viewed as short-lived, irrational and therefore, dangerous. Women were perceived as weak creatures that lacked moral and social power. Anger was an emotion reserved for the powerful and therefore only the powerful had a right to be angry. Men's status as respecting citizens gave them this right while women did not have the right to be angry because they were not individuals said to have self-respect, and therefore could not demand to be respected as autonomous individuals who could (what Naomi Scheman refers to as), "name their own emotions."

Although this account of anger will disappear in the early modern period, it gives us a closer look into how lack of recognition of anger and other emotional expressions for certain people (women, children, minorities, etc.) has been connected to the perceived lower status and subsequent lack of respect others may have for them.

When we deny or dismiss the anger of others by playing into stereotypes like the "angry black man," we deny the individual's expression of self-respect or respect for others, as well as their right to be respected and defend that respect. To dismiss one's anger as an outlaw emotion for the overly sensitive or as uncontrolled can be a political strategy that communicates to the angry that their lives are of no concern to others and that their anger is not to be taken seriously. This dismissal also communicates that we ought to condemn the angry for their expression of anger instead of looking at correcting the cause of the anger.

In this non-utopian society we live in, people have a reason and a right to be properly angry. Demonizing and dismissing the proper anger of certain groups is not only a refusal to pay respect to our interlocutors with whom we may disagree, but it is also an act that silences them and does not give attention to their voices and their concerns. Until we rid ourselves of this type of politics, the ideal of a democracy for and by the people, will be just a myth expressed through calm rhetoric but never obtained through the power of anger.

  • Sue Campbell. "Being Dismissed: The Politics of Emotional Expression" Hypatia Vol9, No 3. pp. 46-65.
  • Ute Frevert. Emotions in History: Lost and Found. 2011.pp.87-148.
  • Naomi Scheman. "Anger and the Politics of Naming" in Women and language in Literature and Society. 1980.