Anger as a Tool of Persuasion


As last week’s judicial committee hearings made very clear and very present, anger can be a very powerful tool of expression.

​It’s powerful when it rips the seams of expected rhetorical discourse; it’s powerful when it sears through the superficial niceties of extemporaneous speech. It’s powerful—sometimes even especially powerful—when it is expected and yet does not appear.

As a rhetorical tool, anger is as old as the Old Testament (Leviticus is often cited as a relevant example here, but so, too, is Genesis). Aristotle defined anger in Rhetoric as a compelling means of persuasion—a speaker (or writer) can provoke an audience’s angry response simply by identifying the state of mind conducive to the audience’s anger, grasping the object of the anger, and understanding the reason for the anger.
Jonathon Edwards flips this masterfully in the (slightly) more contemporary 1741 classic, Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God. His sermon, which ecstatically describes the hellfire and damnation awaiting his audience, is an ur-text for an orator’s hyper-controlled performative power. Among its unforgettable images is Edwards’ admonition that “the God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire.”
Anger is often powerful in rhetoric because its expression flouts the rules of control that ensure social civility. And its evocation of danger, as Edwards’ sermon makes clear, prompts fear (another useful rhetorical tool). But anger’s persuasive power depends on an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of its expression. Edwards’ congregation must first acknowledge the validity of Edwards’ anger—and God’s—before they can be persuaded to feel afraid.
Of course, as Rebecca Traister argues, such acknowledgement is contingent on an audience that shares common ground with the speaker. When, for example, Kavanaugh expressed his outrage, it was deemed persuasive by those audience members with whom he most identified (and who most readily recognized their own anger—and perhaps their own fears—in Kavanaugh’s remarks). This is one of the reasons why so many powerful men in the room viewed Kavanaugh’s opening statement as persuasive, and why women like Amy Klobuchar and Traister and Kate Harding and Megan Garber (and me) saw it as an out-of-control, illegitimate appeal.
A perhaps more powerful instance of rhetorically persuasive anger is extemporaneous anger. This was the anger expressed by Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher in their confrontation with Jeff Flake. Its power is different from that exercised by Edwards or Kavanaugh because it depends on forcing identification and recognition where no basis for such identification exists. This is why, without any discernible common ground between Archila and Gallagher on the one side and Jeff Flake on the other, Archila insists that Flake look her in the eye. By her insistence she forces his recognition of the emotion that could push a person to engage in such an audacious social act.
But what of the persuasive power of the anger that remains unexpressed? Sometimes this is the anger that provokes the most powerful response of all. Christine Blasey Ford’s opening statement was, as so many women furiously and empathetically noted, calm, candid, and apologetic; in it, she admitted that she was “terrified.”
Why didn’t Ford use the anger that many women argued was rightfully hers to express? Perhaps she recognized that unlike Edwards, she was not facing an audience who viewed her as powerful and who would be convinced by her hyper-controlled, performative rage. Perhaps she knew that unlike Kavanaugh, she was not a member of a powerful elite quick to be provoked by threats to self-preservation and more readily convinced by an angry display. Perhaps she realized that unlike Archila she was not a silent survivor and could not have forced an identification through the pain and rage of an extemporaneous, previously undisclosed admission.
Or perhaps, to echo Traister, Ford simply recognized that she is a woman, and so she behaved as an angry woman is expected to behave.
In the days following Ford’s testimony, however, it has become clear that her absent anger  provoked a fiery and intense response. This is partly due to the fact that Ford, by rejecting anger’s rhetorical power, appealed not to her immediate audience (who, infuriatingly, seemed to accept her terror as tacit acceptance of her “appropriate” place), but to an audience that recognizes the legitimacy—and the urgency—of an anger that cannot be expressed.
Anger, after all, is not only a tool of persuasion. It is also sometimes the means for catharsis. Because Ford was disallowed anger’s expression, she—and by extension the women who recognized themselves in her silence—were disallowed the catharsis that Kavanaugh claimed. This doubled denial is one reason for their rage: There are simply too many women who haven’t yet been able to express, much less purge, their pain.