Compassionate Anger – The Answer To Violence?

I watch the TV with growing discomfort as the protestors get more and more incensed. They tear down property, deface surfaces and attack the police. Their fury against the outrageous treatment and deaths at the hands of police is boiling over. I feel their despair and their anger and in their cause I do empathise. But I am equally perturbed by what I am witnessing. The anger is manifesting in violence, arson and looting which I fear is overshadowing the hugely important Black Lives Matter campaign.

The injustice felt by many people over the world is causing much anger. As it should. Anger, channelled correctly, is a powerful emotion that can focus and inspire people to create change, creating the energy and determination needed to stand against injustice. Anger can be a force to be reckoned with. History is witness to this. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela all got angry. Their moral outrage became movements that changed the course of countries, giving them a place in history books and people’s hearts. They all channelled their anger constructively to make change.

But anger can be destructive too. When anger clouds your judgement and manifests in violence you lose your focus. We sometimes see minor acts of violence, such as slapping a child on the bum as inconsequential. And yet, the minute you raise your voice or hand in anger you have lost self-control. In that moment, you give away your power.

This is not an excuse to stand by and passively watch a wrongdoing happening before your eyes or a harmful action against you or someone else. Because if you do so, you are culpable in that act of harm. We must defend ourselves when faced against a real threat. But when doing so, come to this from a place of tolerance and compassion. It is not the person you are fighting, but the action that he is taking. Separating the two is key to using your anger constructively.

The Dalai Lama explains this as compassionate anger. He says that we must be angry on behalf of those who are being mistreated and stand up against the injustice itself, leading to social change. But, when that anger is directed to the people in power all it creates is more anger, resentment and fighting.

I was fortunate to watch the Dalai Lama speak a few years ago in London and I was blown away by his message of compassion, explaining how the central idea for this comes from an ancient Buddhist principle of ahimsa. Ahimsa can be interpreted in many ways – some people define it simply as ‘non-violence’ – but the way Buddhists understand ahimsa is that everyone contains a spark of divine spiritual energy and therefore to hurt another person is to hurt oneself. And this doesn’t simply relate to your actions, but also your words, deeds and thoughts.

As I watch the protestors on the TV, I am struck by the fact that they are not in control of their words, actions or thoughts. They have lost control. Some people support these protestors because they believe that when you have exhausted all other routes, and you are still not being heard, violence is the only way. But, make no mistake, violence begets violence; hate begets hate. This has been evident in the last few days when far right protestors in London have now come out in retaliation to the initial Black Lives Matter protests. Suddenly, the conversation has been hijacked by hooliganism and hostility.

As Martin Luther King Jr, the American Christian minister and civil rights movement activist said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

Acting from a place of compassion and tolerance can sometimes feel so hard especially when the rage and fury is consuming you. Sometimes we intellectualise the issue and look at all the facts and the history and justify the violence. But it is at times like this that we must really turn inwards and feel, not think, what is right or wrong. Open your heart and your mind and you will see that non-violence is not something you can intellectualise. It is something that must come from your heart.


This article was first published in Star News Kenya