Anger and activism often go hand in hand.
Anger as an emotion, in and of itself, is not “bad,” said Dr. Melanie Joy, a psychologist, founder of Beyond Carnism, and co-founder of the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy. Anger, managed in a healthy way, can motivate people to take meaningful action that makes the world a better place.
But anger, manifested in unhealthy ways, can not only turn people off to the animal protection movement, but can also damage activists’ relationships with their loved ones or themselves. Carrying around chronic anger can become toxic, and toxic energy never helped anyone — including the animals, Joy said.
Lady Freethinker spoke with Joy about anger, how this emotion manifests in unhealthy ways, how activists can root themselves in compassion while also holding accountable the people who harm animals, and why resilience rather than impulsivity in the face of adversity is a healthier option — for both people and their causes — in the long-term. Answers have been combined and edited slightly for length.
A Q&A with Melanie Joy, Psychologist and Founder of Beyond Carnism
Can you start by talking to us about anger?
It makes sense that people are angry when they witness animal cruelty. Anger is a normal, legitimate emotional response to experiencing or witnessing injustice or unfairness. Our anger is a sign that our moral compass is working. In and of itself, it’s not a bad thing. Anger is an incredibly important emotion because (when expressed in a healthy way) it motivates us and empowers us to take positive, proactive action on behalf of others.
Anger can also be a cover for more vulnerable emotions. Sometimes people get angry because it’s a safer emotion for them to feel. A lot of people tend to have a default negative emotion; it’s their go-to emotion when things are hard. Some people go to fear, some people go to sadness, some people go to anger.
There’s a lot of built-up anger that people have from having been in this movement for a long time, from having to live in a world that daily offends some of our deepest sensibilities. We’re witnessing injustice and violence constantly, and we’re often on the receiving end of unfair and unjust behaviors. Many of us have some degree of traumatization from being awake to this atrocity and having witnessed the horrors. When you become traumatized, you start to develop a worldview, a mentality, that can really take you over if you are not aware of it.
Managing our anger is important, because when people do not understand what anger is, or know how to manage and live with it, that anger can morph into something else – into misanthropy (where people become anti-human), into depression, chronic frustration, and a whole host of other problems.
How can you tell if you’ve been hijacked by anger?
One of the ways that you recognize that you are relating to your anger potentially in an unhealthy way is if you notice you are “disregulated.” Emotional disregulation is a feeling of being out of balance. When it happens around anger, you may feel a charge. You could feel overstimulated. You feel this tightness, this tension inside of you. What it means is that your body is in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. You’re in a state of hyper-arousal; you have less access to your rational faculties, and you are less connected to your empathy.
If you feel like you’re getting triggered, pause. Ask yourself: “Is my reaction ultimately going to help or harm? Is my reaction ultimately going to create the kind of dialogue that is helping to create a better world, or is it going to fuel the flames of moral outrage?” And if the answer is the latter, don’t do it.
How have you seen anger in the movement manifest in unhealthy ways?
The anger in our movement that’s not managed in a healthy way is causing a lot of problems. Not only is it turning people off to our message, but it’s also turning vegans against each other. You can see a lot of people who are working to create a more compassionate world but using the very same communication and attitudes toward their work that they are trying to change in the world.
The sense of urgency that we feel in the movement — it’s understandable. The problem is that the sense of urgency makes us myopic; it limits our view. This one interaction that I am having right now becomes super charged, and everything is riding on it; it creates this catastrophic thinking. It makes us feel like everything is more important than it is, and it makes us lose sight of the bigger picture so that we can be thoughtful and strategic and make sure that our lives and the movements and groups we are a part of are as effective as possible and have longevity.
What happens is this sense of urgency triggers us and makes it more likely that we’re going to have disregulation. The urgency and disregulation go hand in hand: when you feel a sense of urgency you are almost already disregulated. It causes us to act in ways that are nonrelational.
When we relate to our anger in an unhealthy way, we become blended with it, and it has the charge of contempt. Contempt is judgment plus anger, essentially. Contempt is the feeling of being morally superior, of feeling “better than,” or of feeling more worthy than others of being treated with respect or occupying space on this planet.
Contempt is the flip side of shame; shame is the feeling of being less worthy than others, of feeling like you are less worthy of being treated with respect and occupying space on this planet. Both of these beliefs or feelings are two of the most harmful and most disconnecting feelings that we can experience.
How does treating others with contempt hurt the animal welfare cause?
Studies have shown that contempt is the number one emotion that kills relationships. When you are in an argument and you feel that someone is looking down on you and seeing you as somehow “less than,” that’s a harm to your dignity. Chances are you feel ashamed in their presence, and studies have shown that when people feel shame, they go into hyperarousal. They disconnect from the person they are interacting with, they disconnect from the message, and they tend to do the opposite of what that person wants them to do.
If we communicate with contempt toward other people and what they are doing – “You’re eating animals, how could you?”, for example — not only is that not a healthy way to communicate, it’s not a relational way to communicate. It’s harming that person’s dignity. It’s also not strategic. You have caused someone to do the opposite of what you want them to do.
Why is it important to target behaviors rather than vilify or shame the people committing them?
When we understand human psychology, we understand that all of us, every single one of us, is nothing more nor less than the hardwiring we’re born with and every single experience we’ve ever had throughout our lives. When we realize we are the products of various social systems and family systems, we can appreciate that good people can participate in harmful behaviors, and it doesn’t make them bad people. We’re deeply conditioned.
If you look at every single system of oppression, whether it’s carnism (Editorial note: the invisible belief system that teaches people it’s okay to eat certain animals but not others) or speciesism or patriarchy, they are all organized around the same core belief – the hierarchy of moral worth and the belief that some individuals are more worthy of being treated with respect than others.
What does handling anger in a healthy way look like?
When we relate to our anger in a healthy way, there are two things happening. We recognize our anger for what it is – nothing other than an emotion, a data point that we may or may not be witnessing an injustice. And when we relate to our anger in a healthy way, we are not blended with it; it hasn’t overtaken us. We don’t look at the world through the lens of our anger. We stay separate from it, to some degree.
In my more recent writing, I talk about what I call the formula for healthy relating. If you look at any relationship, any communication, you can boil it down to this key formula: We practice integrity, and we honor dignity.
When you practice integrity, it means you treat the other with respect, the way you would want to be treated. When you honor dignity, that means you think of the other as having fundamental worth.
When you practice the formula, you’re engaging in healthy or relational behaviors; you’re creating security and connection. If you practice the formula in your communications, you substantially – and this is supported by a tremendous amount of research – increase the chances that your message will be heard in the way it’s intended to be heard, that you will have the outcomes that you want.
If we’re not self-aware, then we are basically at the mercy of our emotions, as opposed to noticing. What is really important is to learn to self-regulate and to learn your signs or your symptoms of disregulation. You sit down and you say, “When I am disregulated, where do I notice that in my body? What is the feeling? Oh, tightness in my chest, butterflies in my stomach, I start to get hot, my hands start to shake.” You have those written down, so you can stay on alert for them.
(Then you ask) “What helps me get back into a state of regulation? What do I notice I need to do?” And you have that written down, so that you’re prepared for when you’re witnessing cruelty and you get angry — or other emotions. You might feel grief or anxiety, so you want to be able to know how to manage those.
Can you talk about anger and social media interactions?
I do think one of the reasons we have so many high rates of angry expressions is because anger, and particularly moral outrage, has been normalized — not just among people in this movement, but by people in the world.
There have been many studies showing that social media algorithms encourage the expression of moral outrage and contempt. They reward people for it. They encourage shallow thinking. And when you’re communicating online, those algorithms are set up to increase the chances that you are going to be triggered, disregulated, and morally outraged, and (that you’ll) want to react in like kind to hurt people.
What do you do about that? The first thing is just try to avoid it if you can. It’s like, “Don’t pick up the bottle; don’t open the Facebook feed.”
Some things you can’t avoid, but there’s a lot that people can avoid, and they don’t. Social media, and in fact traumatic material itself, can have an addictive pull. There’s this addictive pull to getting engaged in the toxic communication that surrounds moral outrage. It’s that part of ourselves that hasn’t been healed and that is really activated and wanting to be engaged with this. And it’s not good for us.
The way I describe the trauma narrative is that it’s almost like trauma is this entity that has taken over your psyche. It’s taken you over, and it wants to stay alive. And the way it keeps itself alive is by getting you to feed it with more traumatic material.
A lot of times, it’s driven by this sense of survivor guilt that many people who are working for animals have: “I feel guilty just for being alive, I feel guilty because I’m not being tortured like the animals are,” for example. I’ve heard this from thousands of people.
I’ll say, “Stop watching the videos.” And they will say to me, almost 100 percent of the time, “But I feel it’s the least I could do, compared to what the animals are going through. The least I can do is to bear witness to their suffering.”
You watching that 2-minute video is doing nothing for those animals being tortured. What it’s doing is feeding the part of you that is increasing the chances that you are going to communicate in a way that’s not going to help the animals and probably end with you burning out.
So really recognize that. Give yourself permission not to witness. Give yourself permission to get off social media. And if you can’t get off social media, do not pass on toxic communication. Do not pass on communication that is morally outrageous. This form of communication, and the mentality that it reflects, is the reason that our movements are cannibalizing themselves and turning a lot of people off to a cause that needs all the help it can get.
Can you talk about compassion and accountability vs. complacency?
This idea that somehow compassion cannot coexist with strength and holding people accountable, which is part of helping to shift problematic systems, came out of some toxic, patriarchal culture.
We can certainly feel compassion and hold people accountable at the same time. We just need to hold people accountable while honoring their dignity in the process. What that means is that when you communicate with someone, you focus on their behaviors: Here is what you are doing that I find to be difficult and harmful or hurtful to me and here is what I would love to see change.
And you see them in your mind as a fundamentally decent human being. Talk to them the way you would talk to somebody that you have respect for and that you care about and that you love.
The real question is how do we create an environment that increases the chances that the person we are communicating with is better able to access the compassion we want them to be able to access to make more compassionate choices in their lives. We create that environment by not feeling and expressing contempt towards them. And this is how we hold people accountable.
What else would you like people to know about carrying chronic anger vs. building resilience?
There are two things I would like to add that I think are really fundamental to building personal resilience and health and building healthy, resilient organizations and movements. One of them is building relational literacy, the understanding and ability to practice healthy ways of relating, and this includes healthy ways of communicating.
Most of us don’t get the training we need to learn to communicate and relate in a way that is healthy. But the information is out there. I wrote a book called “Getting Relationships Right,” which is a one-stop guide to building relational literacy, because I felt really strongly about this issue. And we have a lot of resources on our website. People can visit us at carnism.org. I also cannot recommend highly enough Sam Harris’s app “Waking Up.”
The people who are doing some of this really important work in the world can benefit tremendously from taking care of themselves and being able to build a practice for themselves that helps them stay grounded.
Research has shown that people who stay in healthy connection with others build healthy relationships, and people who have a practice of awareness building and self-awareness building are much more likely to be able to be successful at whatever they set out to do and to live healthy, fulfilling lives. And we need that — especially when we are carrying around the burden of knowing what we know and trying to change the harm happening in the world.