Lorde, Lugones, and Change

What follows are notes from a discussion I recently led on Audre Lorde’s The Uses of Anger and Maria Lugones’ World-Traveling and Loving Perception:

Lorde claims anger can be used as a tool. What she seems to mean is that anger can be used as a tool to convey information to others.  Moreover, Lorde maintains that anger can be justified or not. That is, you can be justifiably angry, say, if the target of your anger is appropriately blameworthy, or unjustifiably angry, say, if you’re angry at someone who is not blameworthy or you’re angry for illegitimate reasons. Lorde rightly observes anger as a response to racism is always justified.

Lorde claims anger is distinct from hate. Hate can also be used as a tool to convey information, and hate may be justified in some circumstances, e.g. when one attempts to correct persistent, explicit, racism, and presumably unjustified in others. But note, then conveying information can't be the only feature of anger, since it doesn’t distinguish anger from hate. 

(Q1) What does Lorde think distinguishes anger from hate?

Anger is distinguished from hate based on how it is used and under what conditions it is justified. With respect to how anger and hate are distinguished by what they signal:

  • Anger is used to signal judgment recognition of failure to live up to commonly accepted expectations, e.g. black feminist angry with white feminist's self-serving or ignorant behavior

  • Hate is used to signal recognition of rejection of expectations, e.g. an intransigent and harmful racist who refuses to change

And with respect to how anger and hate are distinguished by conditions under which they're justified:

  • Anger emerges between peers in disagreement, when negotiation and discussion is possible

  • Hate emerges among recalcitrant disputants who are unwilling to negotiate

Anger and hate then have different goals. This should remind you a bit of some differences we discussed recently. Take the view of anger and hate we've uncovered when discussing Lorde and:

(Q2) Use them to characterize the dispute between MLK (in Message to Grassroots) and Malcolm X (in Letter from Birmingham Jail).

It's plausible to think X was under the impression there could be no room for negotiating, since whites were recalcitrant racists, often saying one thing and doing another. This suggests the attitude he seemed to bear - in Lorde's terms - is one of hate. In contrast, MLK found enough common ground to desire negotiation. Recall, he used a moral argument in his letter to support non-violent resistance. This was an appeal to common ground - morality - among disputants. He was nevertheless angry, and justifiably so.

There are standard hallmarks of justifiable attitudes, namely, justifiable attitudes are typically such that, using anger to illustrate:

(1) If you judge action A was a mistake, then you should suspend anger

(2) If you judge the agent in A is not a member of the moral community, then you should suspend anger

These features are often associated with justifiable attitudes because justifiable attitudes presuppose responsibility. For example, if you are justifiably angry with someone, then it seems to follow they're an appropriate target for your anger, i.e. they've some responsibility that's been violated. The idea is supposed to be captured in (1) and (2). Suppose Sam spoils a TV show for me by telling someone nearby, not knowing I could hear. I might be angry, but if I recognize Sam made a mistake, then I shouldn't hold on to that anger. It wouldn't be justified. This accords with (1). On the other hand, if my cat spills my water (assuming cats aren't entities which bear responsibility) then I'm not justified in being angry with my cat. This isn't to say my feelings aren't valid. Rather, it's just to say I can't hold my cat responsible, since she's not a member of the moral community. This accords with (2).

I say this to point to a perhaps puzzling feature of Lorde's characterization of anger. Recall, Lorde writes:

"Anger is the appropriate attitude to racist attitudes, as is fury when the actions arising from those attitudes does not change."

Lorde's speech is largely directed at white academic feminists who plausibly are peers worth negotiating with who have similar interests in refraining from harming each other. Lorde claims anger is justified. But justified anger must align with (1), it seems. But plausibly white academic feminists listening to Lorde made mistakes in their hurtful comments that led to Lorde's experiences of anger. It’s not like they were intentionally being ignorant or racist. But then it seems if anger is justified, then these cases aren't going to count as justified anger.

(Q3) What do you think Lorde would say in response?

I came up with two options, which are surely not exhaustive:

  • One might say Lorde isn't rejecting (1), but instead reject the premise that white academic peers are simply making mistakes. This is a response on epistemic grounds, that white academics should correct their beliefs. They have plenty of evidence indicating they should be more open and less reactive, and less afraid of black women and their concerns. You might say this if you want to preserve Lorde understanding anger as a reactive attitude, while satisfying (1). In this case, reactive attitudes such as anger presuppose responsibility.

  • On the other hand, you might reject (1) and claim even if white academics are simply making mistakes, they’re blameworthy on moral grounds, because people are being harmed and mistreated, and anger is a useful attitude in these contexts to effect change. Put this way, anger wouldn't get its justification by satisfying (1) and (2), but rather it would be justified by its effects, namely, by correcting or preventing moral failings. We might then say that targets of reactive attitudes need not be responsible for their actions to be appropriate targets. A white academic who genuinely makes a mistake that results in the appearance of a racist attitude is nevertheless the appropriate target of anger.

I think given how underspecified the case I gave was, either option might be available. But I'm inclined to think the latter is the better interpretation. First, Lorde doesn't qualify when anger is appropriate to racist attitudes; it's always appropriate. Second, I think it's plausible white academics in the audience agreed anger was appropriate when responding to racism. The problem was they didn't see what they were doing as racist.

This brings us back to what anger is used to convey. Lorde seems - like Truth, Douglass, Walker, and others - to observe inconsistency in implicit and explicit beliefs. Rather than employ irony, interrogatives, etc., Lorde points to a signal white academics can use to recognize the inconsistency they exhibit. The idea seems to be, when you see an angry black woman, don't be afraid.

(Q4) Rather than fear, what do you think Lorde is suggesting white academics do instead?

Note, it can't just be 'think more about what you said'. It has to be something deeper. I say this because, if you recall, Lorde has no use for guilt. Guilt arises when you do something that's judged wrong. Guilt is easy to alleviate. You just apologize or pay penance, etc. It's easy because guilt isn't about you; it's about your actions. I think Lorde is suggesting white academics do more than feel bad. They need to re-evaluate their own values. To get a handle on what she might have in mind, consider:

(Q5) What's the difference between guilt and shame?

Guilt concerns actions; shame concerns you. When you're guilty, you can pay for it, brush it off, but it's not about you. When you recognize shame, you recognize you're broken. That's not about what you do; it may be correlated though. It's much more personal. Also, it's much harder to alleviate. You can pay a fine to get over guilt. To get over shame, you either have to change as a person, or ignore it altogether.

For Lorde, that likely justifies using anger to reveal to white academics that they've exhibited racist attitudes. White women didn't realize they were being racist because shame hides. Even when presented with the anger of black women, it's easier to interpret that as something wrong with black women, so that it's unjustified, rather than as justified anger indicting them because they're racist. This is why, I think, white academic women are "more afraid of the anger of black women than of their own racist attitudes." They're focusing on the wrong thing because shame is too painful. This, I think, is why Lorde ends the speech by inviting those in the audience to join the discussion beyond guilt. Recognition of the uses of anger is a way to get there.

There's much more to say about the uses of anger, and I've only guided us along one strand here. But where we've ended up might leave you wondering if spotting anger is enough. It would be little help to have white women constantly on the lookout for anger so they can reactively correct their own values. To be fair, I don't think Lorde is suggesting that's all that should be done. But she doesn't say much more. Fortunately, Lugones provides further assistance through world-traveling.

(Q6) Remind yourself of Lugones, in particular the difference between arrogant and loving perception

Here we have recognition of the failing each of us have in applying stereotypes to other individuals. In many ways we're inclined to treat others as objects rather than subjects. That is, we tend to treat individuals are carrying the same properties with them no matter what world they inhabit. But importantly, we should recognize that each of us inhabits many worlds, and ha many properties that vary by context. There is no single unifying element. We're the intersection of worlds, if anything. Lugones discusses this generally, for each of us, but it's easily applied to the white academics we just discussed. What's needed is not simply recognition of inconsistencies, but awareness of the many ways in which individuals inhabit different worlds. What's needed is openness and vulnerability to being wrong, and willingness to change one's mind. World-traveling seems crucial to developing integrity, since world traveling seems precisely how one might develop integrity.

Lugones observes that being comfortable in one world is dangerous. This is because one might instill values that are never contradicted. This might emerge in white academics not being able to see their own ignorance, which is a topic we examine in more detail next time.