Last week, I was reading a blog by the Chinese novelist Xiolu Guo in which she pours out her anger against the oppression she faced in her heartbreakingly tough life. Oppression in the traditional, freedom-killing, fishing village in an authoritarian China. I will not continue to summarize it here, but the events that mark her rough childhood are worse enough for me to believe that no one sane would hesitate to call it unjust. Below the blog, however, are a lot of comments with the common complaint that Guo is just being bitter. True, these events have happened, and it maybe justified that she was angry about them happening, but to keep talking about it is “her just being bitter”. Some comments offer a peek to exactly how labelling of anger as bitter seems to work in our heads. “Does this woman ever stop moaning”, one comment asks. It continues to explain that her anger “comes across as poisonous”. That if she eventually gained a better life and also a scholarship to study in London (which she did), how can she still be bitter about the past?
Who is marked bitter?
Often, the label of bitterness is used by members of the dominant group to dismiss the anger that members of marginalized groups express. Especially, when this anger is political and moral. Anger towards oppression and abuse. Members of marginalized groups are expected to have restraint while expressing their anger towards the dominant groups. If the intensity of anger trespasses comfort zone, it gets called bitter. It is a tactic that is used over and over again against anger from marginalized groups. For instance, “why are so many people who are transgender so negative and bitter?” asks a question on Yahoo answers. “Especially transgender women”, the question continues. Why should they be so angry? In other words, the extent of their anger is invalid.
In my own family, for instance, my younger sister quite often, and quite vocally, expressed anger against a particularly evil act done to her by someone in the family. Nobody denied the depravity of the incident, but they repeatedly advised her to not “get bitter about what happened”. Sure, what had happened to her “was wrong,” but then “why be bitter about it?”. When I interfered and pointed her anger to them again, they often dismissed it by telling me that “she was just being bitter”.
Expiry date of anger
How is it that, simply by calling someone’s anger bitter we are able to dismiss it? Here is what seems to be happening: What we mean when we say that someone is bitter seems to be that they are not just angry, but they are still angry. That the validity of anger has expired. There is just no point to it anymore. The anger may have been valid at some point, but it has been way too long now. Calling someone’s anger bitter is therefore an accusation. Google the term “bitterness” and you’ll find heaps of articles on how to avoid bitter people. On 10 reasons why you should stay away from bitter people. And on why you should never let your anger turn bitter. To their own detriment then, people may feel guilty about experiencing that much anger. So they work on calming down the anger, or justifying why they are this much angry.
But is bitterness always anger that’s invalid, pointless and unjustified? After all, it is an emotion. An emotions are alive, and occur as responses to something. Depending on the context, there can be an emotion that’s not justified or justified. You would not say that for sadness or anger that it is always unjustified. You would save that decision for after you have checked whether the context in which it came about, justified it’s coming about. If you insert the validity of an emotion into its very meaning of the emotion, then the dominant group can always misuse it. Think about it: if you need to make it seem like someone is wrong in taking the anger this far, call it “bitter” and that’s job done. Anger silenced. They will now spend some time being guilty of taking it so far.
A small clarification before moving ahead: I’m not saying that bitterness needs to be welcomed. It is a terrible emotion to bear and the bearer suffers throughout the time it stays in them. So, it’s not the best emotion to bear. But then, neither is sadness and anger, and a range of other emotions. These are all emotions that sit heavily on us, and make us feel like shit. But we don’t usually stop listening to people while they are bearing these other emotions. We don’t invalidate the content of an expression simply because it is angry or sad.
What’s then a better way to understand this emotion?
What’s then a better way to understand this emotion? In her poignant new paper titled Losing Home: Injustice and Moral Bitterness, feminist philosopher Katie Stockdale, draws from work in moral psychology to show us that a couple of things consistently occur in all cases of bitterness. First, it is an emotion that usually manifests as anger in response to a perceived injustice. You have a certain expectation of the world, which when it fails in a particularly prominent way, you find that an injustice has occurred. Second, there a of loss of hope in the prospect that this injustice will be ever repaired. Therefore, there is usually an event, or a series of events that one feels is unjust and is angry about. If the event is seen to have been caused by a person, the anger is directed at that person. But important for this anger to transform into bitterness is the fact that one exhausts all hope that there will ever be a reparation for what happened. That there will ever be repentance, or even acceptance of wrongdoing from the person who is perceived to have acted unjustly. Bitterness is therefore when anger towards a perceived injustice and loss of hope that there will be repairation, meet each other.
Injustice creates bitterness
Sure, it maybe that there is no injustice but only a mistaken perception of one. Chelsea fans, for instance, can be bitter towards a match their team lost. No would really agree that there was an actual injustice here. But that’s the point. Because while there can be cases where someone is simply overreacting, at the same time, there can be cases where the perception of injustice collides with an actual injustice. A terminally ill patient can be bitter about the onset of cancer. That such suffering befell upon them can be an actual case of injustice. In such a case then, bitterness is justified. It is justified because what is perceived as unjust is objectively, and actually, unjust. We brought the invalidity out of the meaning of bitterness and put into the context – where it belongs. Bitterness itself is neither valid or invalid, not justified or unjustified – it’s simply neutral. It’s justifiability is up for debate. Like any other emotion.
The same goes with bitterness from marginalized people. All of us humans have some moral expectations of the world and its inhabitants. That the world will not trample us for how we look, that people will not be unkind to us because of how we dress. That a certain dominant group will not misuse their power to undermine us. These are all simple moral expectations of any heart that beats. When these are broken, an injustice occurs. When these are broken over and over and over again, one loses hope that there will ever be justice. From here on the anger towards this demolition of your moral expectations becomes bitter. Is it justified? Is it valid? Again, that depends on whether or not perceived injustice is real injustice or not.
Lets use an example. Suppose that a person of color is bitter against the group that oppresses him. In her paper, Katie Stockdale gives takes a leaf from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, where he talks about his embitterment when “discovered the weight of white people in the world”. He says, “I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.”
Instead of questioning the legitimacy of Baldwin’s anger because he is being bitter, we now have a different task. We now know that bitterness happens when perceived injustice meets a total loss of hope. Now, Baldwin’s bitterness begs the question: Is it true that what they are perceiving as injustice was an actual injustice? We don’t make Baldwin feel guilty for feeling bitter. We don’t ask for justification about why he was so angry and not angry in the right amounts. Instead, we ask questions about whether or not there was injustice, and whether or not it can be repaired.
The one who caused injustice has to take responsibility
The shift in the meaning of bitterness now transforms it from being an accusation to a tool using which we can locate moral failures. If you need to invalidate someone feeling bitter, you need to prove that their perception of injustice is invalid. That no injustice took place. Or that they should not have had these basic moral expectations in the first place. It was unjustified that they had these moral expectations. But suppose it does turn out that their bitterness is not justified, well then, okay, perhaps it is time to move on. But what if we do find that the perceived injustice is a real injustice, what then? Who is to blame then? Obviously the one who caused the injustice, right? Not the one whose anger has become embittered.
Each instance of legitimate political or moral bitterness now stands staring into some injustice with waiting eyes. Waiting for reparation. The onus of correcting the injustice, whatever that might mean, is on the person who perpetuates the injustice. There is no onuc on the victim. It is longer an accusation. It is just an emotion like any other. When marginalized groups express it, they are only pointing out to what they think was an injustice and to their utter and exasperating helplessness in trying to repair that injustice. For bitterness to heal, at the very least, a hope that what happened can be repaired needs to blossom first. And that can be too much work to expect from the victim.3