The Ifaluk concept of song, justifiable anger, differs from other concepts of irritation on the island and from anger as it is defined by middle-class America. Song is not used for feelings about unpleasant or frustrating events; it is only used to describe reactions to morally-condemned actions. Justifiable anger among the Ifaluk people helps to maintain peace by identifying actions that may disturb the moral order. The pro-social concept is the focus of an article by Catherine Lutz (1990), which has just been added in PDF format to the Archive in this website.
The Ifaluk have other words for emotions produced by other circumstances, such as for the annoyance at sickness, for the feeling that develops in the face of recurring minor annoyances, for the emotions that one might have when relatives do not live up to expectations, or for reactions to misfortunes or slights. Their word song, however, is reserved for the reactions to others when they infringe on island moral values, when other people violate the rules.
When someone’s actions provoke feelings of song in others, those emotions are normally spread through gossip and they quickly get back to the offender. The offender then, normally, feels metagu, a fear of what that justifiably angered person may do.
Justifiable anger is often associated with the four chiefs of the major clans on the island—the final arbiters of morality. Their song about transgressions of island codes of behavior helps maintain peacefulness on the island. In fact, their emotional leadership is closely tied to their moral and political leadership.
Anticipation of justifiable anger by others prompts everyone to try to adhere to the island’s social codes, such as the value they place on everyone sharing anything they have with anyone else who passes by. A person who hoarded food and ate it alone would be condemned by everyone. The stingy person is disliked almost as much as the hot-tempered one. When people share their food, or when they bring food to a communal event, they must bring the proper amount and share or risk the song of others.
In order for Ifaluk children to be raised properly, parents must inculcate in them the proper emotional feelings of fear about the possibility of song in other people. Children are reminded frequently if their behavior would produce justifiable anger in others.
Justifiable anger tends to flow downward in the hierarchical structure of the island, from the chief to the commoner, from the older to the younger, from the man to the woman. On the other hand, the person lower on the social scale can invoke song in return for affronts or in attempts to change power structures. However, no one seems to become justifiably anger at the chiefs, whose authority over island values is unquestioned.
According to Lutz, song is a powerful emotional concept on Iflauk, one that helps maintain peaceful values in a place where violence is a very rare occurrence. Justifiable anger also, at times, may function as a device that people use when in pursuing, or disputing, interpersonal power. Song, in fact, may be a symbol of morality and dominance, an ideological ploy, an act of subversion (sometimes), and a red-flag in daily socio-political life.