Monday, November 06, 2006

Anger is a Gift

A certain Aristotle quote is trotted out with a bit of frequency, and I have a bit of a problem with it. Here it is on the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors site:
To give money is an easy matter in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter. Hence, it is that such excellence is rare, praiseworthy, and noble.

But this quote often leaves something out. Phil Cubeta at Gift Hub wonders where our "voice[s] of poetry, particularly satire, comedy or carnival" are. I suppose that has its place. I want to know: where are our voices of anger? Who are our Jeremiahs? Who's our Howard Beale? Who is taking us to task? Who among you is angry?

I ask because Aristotle was talking about more than philanthropy in his discussion of his doctrine of the mean, from which this passage is taken. Here's the full passage from the Nicomachean Ethics:
For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so, too, any one can get angry -- that is easy -- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble. (Ross translation, emphasis mine)

In the same breath that Aristotle is talking about giving away money, he's also talking about getting mad. Like giving away money, anybody can do it. It comes naturally, but virtue is found in its cultivation.

Which is particularly significant. We operate in a sector that aims to deal with some of the world's most devastating and debilitating diseases, the most complex and intractable social problems, and the most unjust and cruel conditions, and yet we speak this forcibly inert, consummately professional language of strategy as if these things are so many billiard balls to be bounced off of one another just so. Where is the outrage?

Aristotle declares:
Righteous indignation is a mean between envy and spite, and these states are concerned with the pain and pleasure that are felt at the fortunes of our neighbours; the man who is characterized by righteous indignation is pained at undeserved good fortune, the envious man, going beyond him, is pained at all good fortune, and the spiteful man falls so far short of being pained that he even rejoices.

Shorter version: if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention. If you witness someone suffer undeservedly, that ought to madden. If you see someone profit through malice or fraud, that ought to infuriate. When you see cruelty, when you see pain, when you see injustice, and you know it would sacrifice nothing of moral consequence to end that cruelty, to soothe that pain, or right that wrong, and yet it persists, something has to explode inside you if you've got anything resembling a soul. As Paul Ylvisaker wrote in his essay "The Spirit of Philanthropy and the Soul of Those Who Manage It":
Don't ever lose your sense of outrage. Bill Bondurant [Executive Director, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, 1974-92] can't forget, nor can I after he related it, the wondering comment of an applicant who looked about Bill's comfortable office and lifestyle: "How, Bill, do you keep your sense of outrage?" There has to be in all of us a moral thermostat that flips when we're confronted by suffering, injustice, inequality, or callous behavior.

Professionalism has its place. Humor and whimsy, I suppose, have their places, too, but so do our passions, so does our anger. And yet we continue to speak this suffocatingly reasonable vocabulary of effectiveness and accountability, this stilted professional jargon of leverage and targets and benchmarks. Do you people ever get angry?

Because I could just as easily have lifted Aristotle's words and said the following:
To get angry is an easy matter in any man’s power. But to decide at whom to be angry, and how much and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter. Hence, it is that such outrage is rare, praiseworthy, and noble.

2 comments:

Phil said...

Well done. Yes, indignation, and how to express it, that is the issue of style. Carnival, satire, humor are ways to express indignation without losing one's own balance the process. Jeremiad, invective, and vituperation are good too, if you can keep it up. Horace may have been the greatest of satirists, yet he is best know in literary criticism for espousing moderation, graciousness, and balance. The knife he used he would have described with a bland smile as a "scalpel," meant not to wound but to heal, yet, I note, he never used anesthetic and most of his patients died of mortification.

phil said...

Read this again, now years later, what a marvelous post. Please do blog again. Or, did you tone put you at risk, so that your judgment, or those of your peers and superiors, got the better of your moral sentiments?