Do we really want to get each other angry?


Greg Williams says we need to get angry:

It is apparently OK for those family members to angrily demand a better response from the federal government to the current health crisis. But when the addiction recovery community — more than 23 million Americans and their families — gathers to walk, speak and put a face on recovery there doesn’t seem to be much anger at the current state of affairs that is costing us more than 100 American lives every day.

Apparently, anger is a frightening emotion for many in the recovery community. . . .

But how else are we going to collectively move the needle on the current epidemic without using the prime emotion that has been at the forefront of all other advocacy movements in American history

First of all, there are not 23 million Americans in recovery. That kind of truthiness is a good example of some of the risks of activism. It invites skepticism from anyone who looks into that number and invites argument about the definition of addiction and recovery within and and outside of the recovering community.

Floating balloons and celebrating that recovery is possible has been a great start in many communities. But when we look around at other marginalized health populations in history like the HIV/AIDs movement and the disability movement, they get a capital M on “Movement” in our cultural reflections only because they got angry.

. . .

As Stacia Murphy says in my documentary “The Anonymous People” about Marty Mann’s driving force (the first woman to ever achieve long-term recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous who chose to use her personal story publicly for social change), “Advocacy is about anger.”

Well, there are costs to that kind of activism. I have no idea if Marty Mann’s activism contributed to her relapse, but it’s pretty clear that her activism played a big role in her keeping it a secret. Fortunately, she was able to restabilize, but it’s pretty easy to imagine that secret being a big barrier to continuing her recovery.

Looking back on AIDS activism, are we ready for schisms and more radical groups, like ACT UP to become the most visible face of recovery activism? Thinking about the post-MLK/Malcolm X civil rights movement, are we ready for competition to be the face of this cause?

More importantly, what, exactly, are we supposed to get angry about? Williams references discrimination in housing, insurance, employment and access to health services. I’m not sure I know what he’s talking about.

I was reluctant to even comment because I don’t want to be a contrarian or inflict my political fatigue on others. The competition for recognition as an aggrieved class is fierce, ugly and I suspect a lot of us have no interest in recovery being associated with it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for advocacy and I get mad too, but I’m not interested in getting angry, staying angry or getting others angry, especially when those grievances are not concrete and specific.

What comes to mind is this insight from Bill White and Bill Miller’s article on confrontation.

In its etymology, the word “confront” literally means “to come face to face.” In this sense, confronting is a therapeutic goal rather than a counseling style: to help clients come face to face with their present situation, reflect on it, and decide what to do about it. Once confronting is understood as a goal, then the question becomes how best to achieve it. Getting in a person’s face is rarely the best way to help them open up to new perspectives.

Where there are injustices, I’d rather see advocacy that holds a mirror up to the culture that brings it face to face with the injustice and appeals to our shared values to correct the injustice.

I’m not saying it’s the right way or the only way. Maybe it’d be less effective, but it doesn’t demand anger and focusing on individual issues rather than an aggrieved “us” can help avoid the clamoring to be the recognized leader of the cause. (This might be better for the cause and for individuals.) I’m not an expert on the expansion of naloxone, but it’s my impression that success followed policy makers coming face to face with tearful parents who lost their kids who asked (not demanded) legislators to increase access to the drug.

I don’t think we should all take my path and I’m skeptical of certainty. I’ll go with MLK’s sincerity, determination,  faith and conscience, but I’ll take a pass on the anger.

6 thoughts on “Do we really want to get each other angry?

  1. Jason.. well stated. When I lost my 26 year old son after a 13 year struggle to find long term, affordable, quality recovery and care from mental illness and addiction, I was angry..very angry. Angry that these illnesses carry their own significant weight of stigma. Angry that we live in a culture that hasn’t made up it’s mind about whether or not addiction is a disease and what, exactly we mean by that term and what it may require of both the addict and the surrounding society. Angry that billions of dollars are wasted each year on incarcerating individuals, who, I believe, are sick. Yes, I was angry, but no longer. Do I still want to see change…absolutely. And it is happening, perhaps slower that what some of us would want, but it is happening. My heart knows and breaks for every loved one caught in the web of addiction and for those who struggle to break free and freedom only comes with the loss of life. For me, I’d like to think that I have replaced some .. not all .. of my anger with an informed compassion. I see that in you .. and in Greg Williams. Let’s be cautious with our anger.. it’s a hot flame that can burn both ways.


  2. I wondered about the underlying assumption that we ought to get and stay angry on the range of injustices mentioned. There seems to be the impression that we are failing if we don’t see things from the author’s viewpoint. Each of us needs to chart our own course – quiet diplomacy, ‘holding a mirror’, advocacy, example and humour can all be valid tools in trying to change things for the better.


  3. There are better ways to challenge the status quo than condescension towards those who you are trying to activate. And, lack of anger is certainly not my dilemma. So much to be angry about, so little time.


  4. Well said. “Getting angry” is not the point; making change is the point. It’s well and good to point to ACT-UP and other such organizations – but let’s go back a little further and remember the Civil Rights movement and Gandhi’s movement in India, both of which created monumental changes in the world without whipping up fury (and its side-effects). In fact, the approach was just the opposite.

    As A.A.’s Step 10 puts it, “We have found that justified anger ought to be left to those better qualified to handle it.” As Mmtt points out, many of us are already pretty angry people already, and don’t need any incentive that way. This sounds like a good excuse to remain in that state, which is not a healthy place for most of us.


  5. Good points, Jason. I’m skeptical of many public advocacy efforts as they seem to be beholden to the pharmaceutical/medical approach to treatment (beyond detox) and agnostic about stable, long term abstinence. Harm reduction isn’t enough for me.


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