Is Negativity Necessary for Social Change?

Nick Rabb
Nick Rabb
Jun 4 · 10 min read
There are always two sides to every story. (Original Artwork)

This past weekend, I was sitting with some of my friends in the warm sunshine of a beautiful, early-summer’s day. We are all organizers with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate movement aimed at stopping climate change and creating millions of good jobs in the process. We had just finished a good hike, found reprieve at a local bar, and let our bodies and minds recuperate in the warm waters of friendship.

One of the Sunrise Movement’s core principles is that we share our stories. As friends working toward the same, lofty goal, we know that we truly connect when we speak from the heart. Others new to the tenets of the movement tend to resonate with our emotions as we flip through the pages and chapters of our stories. Our collective mindset, encouraged both by UV rays and IPAs, turned toward sharing our own stories of what made us join up with the growing climate movement. Why were we here?

Common to many stories were intense emotions of anger, or of guilt; the former directed towards the status-quo or greedy actors perpetuating the fossil-fuel industry and ruining lives, the latter pointed at oneself for living in a society shouldering the least burden and subsequently exhibiting perhaps the most apathy. As organizers, it’s paramount to our goal that we reflect on our experiences in order to determine how we can reach others. By sharing our anger or shame with others outside the movement, perhaps it will resonate with them and spur them into action.

However, a thoughtful friend interjected with a very thought-provoking question: Are these negative emotions essential to bring others into our movement? Must we feel bad in order to move towards change? This question strikes at the heart of history, as we must ask what galvanizes progress, and interrogate whether it is necessarily a product of pain. We should examine where guilt and anger come from, why they may be so common among those who resolve to take action, and finally attempt to determine if they are necessary to engender change. Our collective future may depend on an answer to this question.

Guilt

Guilt (noun) — 2b: Feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offense or from a sense of inadequacy.

We all know what it feels like to feel guilt. When we’ve abdicated a responsibility, that vacuum forms in the pit of our stomach. Throughout the day, our minds are plagued by background chatter reminding us of our misstep. We are tortured by our wrongdoing.

We feel guilty when we’ve just completed a tough workout, but then lapse from our healthy mindset and engulf a pizza as a treat. If we’ve cheated on a partner, our brains can be flooded by guilt; our eyes shamefully turning away from someone we once viewed so differently. Many of us in the fight against climate change feel guilty that we are in positions of relative privilege compared to those who have already suffered tremendously as seas rise, temperatures soar, and migration increases. Especially in the global Northwest, many are just now beginning to recognize the severity of the crisis while many across the world have already lost so much.

To feel guilty necessitates that we must have had a responsibility towards something or someone. After all, we can’t have done something wrong unless there was something right that we should have done instead. We feel guilt in accordance to our responsibility to our health when we eat that pizza after a workout. Our responsible fidelity towards a partner is called into question after an incident of cheating. Many of us are recognizing that we have a responsibility to our planet, ecosystems, and the rest of humanity when we see how we’ve abdicated such considerations in the wake of climate disaster.

Our guilt can incite us to act if handled properly. It seems that this negative emotion is key for many who seek to change their ways; whether they be in the area of personal health, relationships, or activism. Our picture may be incomplete, however, until we examine the other commonly cited emotion that drives us to act: anger.

Anger

“Though the angry may seem negatively predisposed to life, they are in their hearts recklessly hopeful… We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever we don’t get something we want; we do so only when we first believed ourselves fundamentally entitled to secure it — and then oddly did not.” — Alain de Botton

We feel anger when something does not meet our expectations of what should be common sense. The fury swells in our heads, filling our senses with an irresistible urge to fight, yell, or to hurt. Anger pervades our every faculty as we become single-mindedly driven to right an injustice, or put someone in their place; generally, to correct an abnormality that we can’t possibly imagine was allowed to exist in the first place.

When sitting in slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic, we can easily become deeply frustrated with the incompetence of other drivers, or the poor designs of roads and highways. Traffic should never run that slowly. If we’ve just been laid off from our job, it’s only natural to curse our boss and management as foolish, and indignantly storm out of the office. We were a great worker, and should have been kept on — perhaps promoted. Hearing stories of people whose homes or friends were incinerated in a wildfire, and seeing the billions of dollars in profits that are made by oil and gas tycoons all the while, we are apt to want to reach through the screen and shake the billionaires by their necks. Nobody should be dying or having their lives ruined by the same thing that enriches others to darkly comical levels.

Each scenario has two components: an expectation and a reality. We expect that traffic should run smoothly, but in reality it is truly a mess. We expect that we should be treated as a human with dignity at work, but in reality may be just another number to upper management. We expect justice in the world where reality is plagued by powerful injustice every day. The anger we feel stems from the difference between the expected and the real. We wish so desperately that our expectations would match with what we see in our existence. That difference can move us to tears, to scream, or to a furiously speechless despair wondering how this reality is possible.

Negative Emotions

In both analyses of anger and guilt, we were looking for clues that might give credence to the trend of negative emotions inciting us to act. As a final investigation of these emotions, it may be useful to ask why, in the first place, they are considered negative at all.

To help us answer this question, we can imagine a series of sliding scales depicting different levels of, in our case, responsibility and expectation of reality. At the far left end, we are very irresponsible, or have a very pessimistic view of reality. On the right, we are incredibly responsible, or deeply optimistic. If we plot our aforementioned guilty scenarios, we discover that on the responsibility scale, our pizza binge, infidelity, and environmental inaction fall to the left of their more responsible counterparts. Likewise, on our expected reality scale, slow traffic, workplace injustice, and murderous profiteering fall to the left of their counterparts of higher expectation.

If we assigned numerical values to each of these points, we would plainly see that there is a difference between the left and right points of each scenario. On a normal number line, if we take the difference between a smaller number — one to the left side — and a larger number — one more to the right — we get a negative difference. Mathematics is the language that our brains construct to make sense of reality, so making this comparison is really not all that far off from why we logically assign negativity to anger or guilt. Our negative emotions are negative because of this difference.

Framing the Difference

It could be tempting to be satisfied with our analysis of negative emotions, call it a day, and finally answer our original question. However, logic can be quite tricky, and there is another way we can view the differences we plotted on our scales. Something very interesting happens when we change the frame through which we view these differences.

Our fears, guilt, or anger are only one side of a duality that others must understand.

Just as every larger number subtracted from a smaller number yields a negative, we can simply flip the order of the subtraction to yield a positive. Instead of viewing our infidelity with guilt, we can instead view greater personal responsibility as a positive, and temper our negative emotion with a will to improve. After being laid off, rather than angrily lamenting over labor’s fundamental injustices, we could view the difference we see as an opportunity to move reality closer to our expectation. Each negative has a corresponding positive of equal magnitude if you are willing to frame it as such. Neither can exist without the other, and we must strive to achieve balance in how we view such differences in our experiences and expectations.

Before we finally answer our initial question, there is perhaps one final point to consider when thinking about these emotions: why is there even a difference between reality and expectation at all? Should it not be that the two points on our scale are perfectly flush with one another?

Daring to Imagine

Our brains are incredible organs, and perhaps their greatest ability is their capacity to logically reason through induction. As we learn, our brains internalize patterns based on repeated behaviors that we see in the world. Our unique reflective capabilities then allow us to imagine what would happen if the pattern was slightly different; comprised of different events in a different world.

When we imagine what the world could be like, we are creating those rightmost points on our scales. We imagine that traffic should flow smoothly. We dream of ourselves as righteously responsible towards a loving partner. Our neurons and synapses surge with hope when we think of a world in which the greatest injustices of our time are rendered inert, and millions are free to live in health and prosperity. Imagination can lead us to concoct a better version of our reality, and subsequently trigger a negative or positive revelation of the difference between the two.

Without the capacity to imagine a better future, nobody would ever be able to move forward.

We can even use our imaginations to attempt to internalize the suffering or joy of others through our capacity to empathise. Imagining the visceral pain of one whose family was swept away by flood waters triggers a pattern of neural activation that renders us in despair. Seeing a landmark climate policy approved, and the jubilant look on the face of the legislator who wrote it, inspires us to also feel that same excitement and pride warming our entire body as we realize that change is possible.

Imagination is crucial in both dreaming up a better world, and recognizing that some are suffering in the world that we currently live in. Without it, no change would ever occur except by random happenstance. Without dreamers and empaths, the world would remain much more static than we observe on the day-to-day. To move forward, we must first imagine the finish line that we can run towards.

Running to the Future

I believe now we can finally answer our original question of, “Are negative emotions necessary to incite others to act for change?” I believe it can be useful to feel and share the negative flavor of our emotions because they are deeply humanizing. We all know what it is like to feel loss, pain, anger, guilt, and much more. We likely feel them daily, on a smaller scale. We know now that every negative emotion can be framed as a positive opportunity to progress. Recognizing that our reality can be changed to meet expectation is a crucial catalyst for embracing this positive framing. I would argue that our negative emotions are necessary because our positive drive to change reality cannot exist without having a corresponding negative view that reality does not meet our expectations.

The final key takeaway that I believe is of utmost importance is that to begin to galvanize others towards progress, we must stoke the flames of their imagination. Without the capacity to imagine a better future, nobody would ever be able to move forward. Our duty as activists and members of social movements must be to inspire those with whom we interact every day. We have to share our stories to trigger empathy, rev up the engines of imagination, and then paint a picture of a better tomorrow that we know can be achieved.

When we’re sitting outside on a hot summer’s day, surrounded by a group of friends and filled with the joy of companionship, we should dare to share our hurt. Our fears, guilt, or anger are only one side of a duality that others must understand. As the sun warms our bodies from the outside, we cannot forget to let the fires of imagination simultaneously heat us from within. Action will naturally follow, because we know that together, a group of friends can accomplish feats both small and large. All we must know is where we’re going, then simply gather our courage, and take a step.

Nick Rabb

Written by

Nick Rabb

Engineer, philosopher, and teacher. I am a big fan of flipping preconceived notions on their heads.