The Different Layers of Campus Anger

I lived a block away from a campus protest that erupted in November, 1974.  I was a teaching fellow at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, and the campus was about to be shut down in opposition to Gerald Ford’s visit to the city, the first time an American President had set foot in Japan.  President Eisenhower had planned to come in 1952, but the threat of a million people who were reportedly prepared to lie down on the airport runway steered him to Korea instead.  In both cases, some 22 years apart, the resistance centered around American colonialism and residual anger over the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I walked on to the Doshisha campus the day before the campus closed, on my way to teach my English conversation class.  Guards were poised at every entrance.  They were not officials from the University, but were “red helmet students”, a cohort of radicals who could be seen on campus nearly every day marching in step to their chants; wearing red helmets on their heads, white towels covering their faces, and carrying bamboo poles.  On this day they traded the poles for steel pipes, which they were ready to pummel on an approaching enemy.

As an obvious American, I thought I would be an easy target for their violence; that I was the enemy.  I wasn’t.  With some trepidation I walked right past the angry sentries.  They weren’t looking out for me, a symbolic colonialist, but were on the alert for red helmet students from another faction.  The Maoists and Marxists were sworn enemies of each other.  Skirmishes between them were common; the radicals were ready to die for their faction, and often did.

It appeared to me that their cause was misplaced.  They didn’t seem to be protesting American colonialism (most recently carried out in the ill-fated Vietnam War) or expressing resentment for not apologizing for dropping the atomic bomb – twice.  No, their anger at the other faction was so fierce and entrenched that they lost sight of their vision. 

Anger can do that.  Anger can render us myopic, if not blind.  My Japanese friends were highly critical of the red helmet students, in part because their violence and intransigence took away from the feeling of protest that every Japanese person I knew had:  that American colonialism needed to be reined in, that they were ashamed of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the conduct of the Japanese army during the war; and that they desperately wanted America to – if not apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then at least have conversations about it.  That these were issues of justice.

Many American campuses are now in turmoil.  Some commencement exercises have been disrupted; others have been reconfigured or canceled.  It is my feeling that most of the protesters have similar commitments that the Japanese people I knew fifty years ago had:  that injustice is taking place in Gaza with bombings, a beginning invasion of Rafah, and the growing calamity of starvation and famine.  These are legitimate concerns, and one of the great hallmarks of America is that they are allowed to be expressed.

But anger has also seeped into the mix, to the degree that some protesters just want to pummel their adversaries with words or sticks, and take over buildings.  And many anti-protesters are just as engulfed in anger – and want to silence certain language, disallow some conversations, take down names and expel all protesting students, if not throw them in jail.

Anger shows up whenever the ego is threatened.  This can happen – and is happening, when people feel that someone is taking over their turf, their agency, their language, their principles.  The cause then gets lost, because the anger (and the fear which always lurks behind the anger) is directed at someone else.  And we become sentries for potential enemies;  and justice becomes a futile exercise of seeking to vanquish an opponent.  One faction fighting another, often with disastrous results.

There is a deeper anger.  It is the anger of the soul.  It is an anger that emerges when certain things – turf, agency, language, principles are denied or taken away.  Soul anger focuses on issues – and not on enemies, and seeks to find pathways for restoration and reconciliation.  It is hard work.  More often than not we have to work through anger driven by ego to get to the anger of the soul.  It is indeed hard work, and it is also necessary work if injustice is to be effectively confronted.

As anger escalates over campus protests – and God knows how many other issues that the anger entrepreneurs want to manipulate and spew out, I can feel my ego driven anger spike.  I find myself becoming a sentry at the gate, covered in my towel of self- righteousness.  I am not alone.

Take a step back.  When ego driven anger is all we can see and feel, take a step back.  Focus on the issue, and resist demonizing the opponent.  Let the soul have its voice and vision.  If you give the soul space, it will help guide us to more effective action.








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