We talk a lot at IISC about the power of love as a force for social change. But what about anger? I’ve seen a couple of recent examples where anger—cleanly and clearly expressed—created space for breakthroughs that I don’t think would have happened otherwise. Anger helped people in power to “get it” about something that they had not otherwise “gotten” when the volume and heat were lower.
The first comes from a committee of community members who are advising a public sector planning process about issues of equity. For several meetings, group members had insisted that the staff find resources for interpreter services to support informal community-based meetings for which interpreters had not been budgeted. After several rounds of discussion, attempts to find resources in the budget, and discussions about trying to find additional funding, the answer appeared to be “we just can’t do it.” A volunteer who was learning Spanish offered her services. When this was reported at a meeting, several members expressed frustration that the issue remained unresolved. That was not new. What was new was the degree of anger expressed in response to the insult of offering an unskilled volunteer to do the interpreting. Somehow, by the next time the committee met, the resources were found from some other part of the budget.
The second comes from a recent community example. The theatre program at my son’s high school produced Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical that features an ahistorical treatment of “white slavery” and several offensive, stereotypical Chinese characters. The school administrators had attempted to address some of the concerns by rounding out the otherwise flat characters and conducting dialogues with the cast. They also inserted a program note acknowledging that their efforts might not seem adequate to some. In a community “talk back” session after the play had closed with parents, students, faculty, alumni and other community members, many agreed that the note and other efforts were too little. Many of the initial comments shared the pain caused to students, families and even some rising freshmen. They also spoke to multiple efforts by Asian-American students, faculty, and parents to raise concerns when there was still plenty of time to make a different decision about the show. A turning point in the discussion came when exploring why the play was not simply adapted to remove the stereotypical characters and plot lines.
The response was that the school was not allowed, by contract, to change the script. At this point, one parent voiced clear anger that seemed to be shared by many in the room that the school would act to avoid a lawsuit from the theatre management company but did not act to avoid offending members of the school community—and this in a year when anti-bullying efforts were already in full swing and efforts to prevent student isolation have been heightened in the wake of three suicides in town. Initially, the theatre director explained that he had been thinking “We can handle this” in response to the concerns that had been brought to him one-by-one. As a result of this meeting and the rawness of emotion that was expressed, he came to the conclusion that he had “blown it,” regretted the decision to put up the play, and expressed his sorrow for the pain that had been caused by his decision.