The Price of Rage

There is a rising tide of anger in America. But those who have earned their fury are often the ones who are punished for it.

Demonstrators take the steps of the Supreme Court.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jose Luis Magana/AFP/Getty Images.

Once, while in a city I didn’t know, I was kidnapped. I didn’t know it at first. We’d agreed he would give me a ride to the airport and were chatting, though his replies to questions were getting slower and stranger as we drove. Eventually we would arrive not at the airport but at an abandoned monument down a long, muddy, dead-end road. I asked him what he was doing. Rather than answer, he leaned over me to unbuckle my seat belt.

I had been talking myself out of the fact that this was happening, extending him every possible benefit of the doubt. We are all human beings, after all. I needed to get to the airport. I needed for this not to be true. I devised diagnostic tools in the moment: a litmus test that would determine that yes, this was what I thought it was, and I was not being crazy, or paranoid, or uncharitable to someone doing me a kindness. (Behind the adrenaline, there are civilized, finicky questions: How monstrous would you have to be to suspect a kind person taking you to the airport of kidnapping you?)

You learn to improvise multiple readings of people on the fly and sustain them until they resolve. Once, some time later, when I was alone and slow from altitude sickness, I spied an unknown man climbing nimbly and with purpose toward where I was standing, trying to catch my breath. All I had with me was a Swiss army knife, and the only part that worked were the scissors. I watched him climbing toward me at three times my maximum speed and realized that to be effective, I had to imagine every part of what would happen next. I imagined the configuration of the scissors, now open in my pocket. How, if I needed to, would I get that complex shape through the fabric near his groin without it becoming tangled or caught—how much force and at what angle would I need to stab? I observed the movement of his pants, trying to gauge the weave. How to account for hand sweat. As it happens, my preparations were excessive: He was a nuisance but not a predator. I kept having to accept flowers I didn’t want. That was all.

But at the time the kidnapping happened, I didn’t have processes in place. In the car, I created my test. He met it. I got away. Hitchhiked, made it finally to a train station, then an airport. I found myself looking at random things—security lines, water fountains—with a focus that bordered on hatred. Got to the new city, where I was now late for an important appointment. Hired a taxi. The driver drove me around in circles, refused to answer my questions, seemed amused by the meter’s mounting charges. Something snapped: I got out and started walking in a random direction and a blind fury.

That’s when I saw, in the distance, a man in a business suit, eyeing me. He was, I realized, preparing to shoot out his elbow at the last minute as he passed me to feel my breast. This remains, to this day, one of the stupider forms of harassment I’ve encountered, but it had happened to me dozens of times. These men thought their elbows were sly, and in one sense they were: No one could see what they’d done to me. And though I can’t imagine the experience was particularly satisfying for them—elbows aren’t known for their erotic sensitivity—pleasure wasn’t the point. The game was to molest someone in plain sight, to provoke her with plausible deniability.

As I walked toward that businessman at a breakneck pace, I warned him with my eyes not to try it. He ignored me. His elbow flew out. Made contact. And I—a small, nonconfrontational, distinctly unmuscled person—grabbed him by his collar and threw him bodily into a kiosk to my right. Didn’t look at him. Didn’t stop. Kept walking.

In the distance, I heard an older woman say: “How civilized.” A version of me—the one that’s priggishly polite, soft-spoken, and shocked by rude emotion—registered her sarcasm perfectly. It was palpable. It could have been me. Look at this nut case. Attacking a decent man on the street for no reason.

I am by nature an explainer, a justifier, a let-me-tell-you-what-happened-so-you-can-understand sort of person. Those impulses withered, as did a lifelong investment in social niceties. I didn’t look back once. I absolutely did not care—not even for the owner of that stand, who didn’t deserve what I’d done to his stall.

I told that story a few times after it happened, but in time, I stopped. There was a triumphalist tint to the way I’d told it that I didn’t exactly dislike—I can still enjoy that I was once, in my otherwise mild-mannered life, capable of throwing an adult man—but the story came out as funny or pat or even deceptively complete. (I feel badly about the vendor now, with hindsight.)

You might’ve noticed things I didn’t tell you just now about what happened. Though I’m sympathetic to a reader’s desire to know the details, I’m not going to provide them. I also didn’t tell you how exactly I escaped. There are a few reasons for that, but the main one is humiliation. I don’t want sympathy. I want it to not have happened. The attack was meant to overpower me, make me unequal and subordinate and afraid. That I even had to escape means it partly worked. It was not my fault, but it damaged my dignity. My anger—insofar as I understand it—was a response to that humiliation.

I used to tell the story as I did because human dignity is important and my anger helped restore mine. It did so via an intemperate outburst at an unrelated party. In the story, that didn’t matter; its currency was “badassery,” a vapid principle many of us worship with our ids. We like stories where people get mad and teach others a lesson. But there are so many caveats: For instance, we really only celebrate anger when the angry person gets away with it. Men get away with it a lot. White men get away with it the most. (If Twitter is to be believed, every Brett Kavanaugh–supporting male has been in a dozen bar fights.) As a culture, we tend to admire outbursts of temper as long as they don’t get disciplined. That’s key. When they do get disciplined—most frequently when women or people of color show anger—the culture says they had it coming. What did they expect?

Sometimes it’s worth articulating what people expect. That businessman expected nothing to happen to him after he assaulted me—and certainly not what did. Kavanaugh expected he would get away with his ugly eruption of temper, and he was right. White nationalists like the Proud Boys expect to roam the streets attacking people in front of police without consequences. And if I’d been in my nicely socialized, ordinary frame of mind, I would have expected social opprobrium and legal consequences for my anger.

It was the purest luck that none arrived. I was on a crowded street. There were no police nearby. I was walking fast enough that no one stopped me. If I had been stopped, no eyewitness would have defended me. I could have been censured or punished. So a part of the reason I’m telling my story is that I got away with something. I got away with acting on an anger no one would have given me the right to have.

Recent events have provoked a similar feeling, but in a sizable portion of the American population. The tricky thing about anger is that once it’s fully activated, it will not disperse. There are varietals of anger, of course—entitled people have eruptions of ill-temper all the time—but those spoiled outbursts have nothing on the power of anger provoked by humiliation. That kind—the kind blossoming right now in response to systemic injustice and needless cruelty—is a slow, slow burn. It does not go away. It does not dissipate. And I grieve its rising tide in this country more than I celebrate it, because it testifies to the harm that has made it bloom.

Here’s my other concern: Anger might be dangerous to those in power, but it can be even more dangerous to people who aren’t socially licensed to express it, and who pay a high price when they do.

Donald Trump is an anger troll. Rage is the one thing he capably nurtures and grows. He stoked anger in people horrified by Kavanaugh’s confirmation and is now turning it against them. This is an old tactic: drive people crazy, then call them so. As projects of government go, this one is as familiar as it is contemptible. He wants to make his followers feel threatened. To achieve this, he needs his opponents to seem irrational. So he sets about making them angry.
He insults them, railroads them, calls people protesting for justice liars and profit-seekers even as he openly enriches his friends. He gives them offensive nicknames and mocks their pain for fun, and to get them to lose control. He’s doing this in plain sight—it’s pretty obvious why people are angry—but his goal is to make their reaction look inexplicable, beyond the pale. After leading angry crowds to yell abuse at anyone he points to, he turns around and marvels at how irrational and dangerous his targets are.

As tactics go, this one is dumb and transparent, but it’s worth describing it because it works. It works a lot. Trump is not a genius. But he instinctively understands the dynamic of provoking and then delegitimizing someone else’s pain. As Adam Serwer wrote, he’s energized by the suffering he causes others and—secondarily—by the bond that ritualized cruelty forges with his base, which has been connected by fear of others. From Trump’s perspective, it’s kind of fun that people feel compassion for the families he separated. It’s delightful that women are worried about rights he has expressly said he wanted to take from them. And, after insulting and belittling people he’s supposed to be governing, he enjoys acting surprised that they mind.

It’s a silly and ugly game, but it’s the only true rule of Trumpism: be the sorest winner imaginable. Aspire to nothing but power and status. Hold no principle sacred. Withhold justice and insult those who object. Yes, the effects of this are predictable. It doesn’t take a genius of social engineering to be the “why are you hitting yourself?” guy. All it takes is a willingness to be him.

The total effect of this robs anger of some of its dignity. It’s doubly humiliating to know the bully enjoys watching his target get mad. I remember the precursors to my anger all those years ago: the agonized deliberations I made in that car as I tried to work out whether I was being unfair or uncharitable—perhaps I’d misread or misunderstood. I went through a thousand possible explanations until his actions whittled any misunderstanding down to the plain and ugly truth. That’s what living feels like in a society like this one: There’s a constant search for reasons your fellow citizens act the way they do that don’t reduce to sadism. There’s a certain relief, then, in crafting your own test for what constitutes the point of no return—the red line that, once crossed, confirms to you that the assault on your autonomy and dignity is overt and intentional.

Here’s one possible test. A recent poll asked the multiple-choice question: “If the charge of sexual assault during a party in high school by Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh is true, do you think Brett Kavanaugh …” Fifty-four percent of Republicans filled in that blank with “should be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

I will not forget that.

This is the story of what the party of power has done. Roy Moore received 48.4 percent of the vote in Alabama. Donald Trump is president. Brett Kavanaugh is a Supreme Court justice. The no-longer-tacit approval of abuse and humiliation is the ethos running the country. Those in power would like very much to derail us into defending our right to be angry. They would like for the issue to be that angry people are being uncivil.

I’d come to think of my kidnapping and assault as a good story because it had become a story about my anger, rather than the story of what caused it.

I’d like to avoid repeating that mistake.