Rage Inside the Machine: Defending the Place of Anger in Democratic Speech

15 May 2018

According to an influential objection, which Martha Nussbaum has powerfully restated, expressing anger in democratic public discourse is counterproductive from the standpoint of justice. To resist this challenge, this paper articulates a crucial yet underappreciated sense in which angry discourse is epistemically productive. Drawing on recent developments in the philosophy of emotion, which emphasize the distinctive phenomenology of emotion, I argue that conveying anger to one’s listeners is epistemically valuable in two respects: first, it can direct listeners’ attention to elusive morally relevant features of the situation; second, it enables them to register injustices that their existing evaluative categories are not yet suited to capturing. Thus, when employed skillfully, angry speech promotes a greater understanding of existing injustices. This epistemic role is indispensable in highly divided societies, where the injustices endured by some groups are often invisible to, or misunderstood by, other groups. Finally, I defuse the most forceful objections to this defense—that anger is likely to be manipulated, that it is epistemically misleading, and that my defense presupposes unrealistic levels of trust—partly by showing that they overlook the systemic character of democratic discourse.