Some recent on-line interactions, and many that came before, have brought home the importance of addressing the role that anger plays in political discourse. There are many dimensions to the problem (and I do see it as a problem), involving both empathy and narcissism, fragile egos and legitimate concerns.
First, a disclaimer: I do not consider myself either immune to or innocent of the expression of anger in political discourse. This is not one of those political divides with some people on one side and some on the other, but rather one in which aspects of each of us can be found on either side of the divide, with some individuals more to one side than the other.
This is not a problem that belongs exclusively to one ideological camp or another: Within the last week, I’ve been angrily lambasted by two ideologues, one on the left and one on the right, cascades of enraged pejoratives issuing forth from each, each upset with me for disputing their respective highly combative certainties. The problem, as I repeatedly tried to tell them both, isn’t the ideology, but the attitude. It may be that the attitude correlates more strongly with one ideology or another, but that is not the relevant point; rather, the attitude, wherever it occurs, is toxic, and far more of an obstruction to progress than the substance of any particular ideology.
Still, there are legitimate questions involved: Is anger ever useful? Does it ever serve an indispensible political or social function, motivating people who would otherwise be unable to motivate themselves, or disincentivizing behaviors that are on the wrong side of such reactions? If so, to what extent and under what circumstances? Is anger ever the best possible reaction? Or is it sometimes the best attainable reaction, even if not the best imaginable? Or is it simply dysfunctional, in all circumstances?
A moderate, reasonable poster on a Facebook thread where the angry left-wing ideologue tried to convince Democrats not to vote for Democratic candidates in protest of their not being pure enough for him, gently praised his anger, while opposing his call to inaction. She viewed his anger as a productive, motivating force, putting the feet of the powerful to the fire. This may be the case sometimes, but I think it is grossly exaggerated, and more often an excuse for engaging in something for the most part dysfunctional.
First, we exaggerate the degree to which our public officials are “the other,” serving their own interests at our expense. While there is certainly some of that, I think it is far more often the case that our public officials are sincerely dedicated to some view of what produces the greatest public good, and are passionately working in service to that agenda. More often than not, public service involves accepting a salary well below one’s earning potential (though there are arguably much larger long-term financial benefits), and certainly far more public scrutiny and constraint of personal liberty and personal space than adheres to work in the private sector, or in lower-profile positions. Some of this is off-set by the honor involved, by the prestige conferred, but being an elected official is not an unambiguous boon for those who successfully pursue that path.
Second, the ideological certainties that spark inter- or intra-partisan public anger with elected officials, on average, are wrong more often than they are right (I am not including anger over alleged ethical breaches, which is not the issue here). If we assume, generously, that in interpartisan disputes, one side is on balance wrong and one side is on balance right in any given instance (it may often be the case that both sides are on balance wrong, though it is almost impossible for both sides to be on balance right), then the split between false certainties and justified outrage would be about 50-50. But the intraparty ideological disputes reduce the portion of those who are “right” into some balance of those who are right and those who are wrong once again, leaving significantly more than 50% of the individual instances of angry certainty in the wrong on the substance of the matter (even disregarding the disutility of the form, in those instances in which individuals are in the right on the substance of the matter).
So, if we all employ righteous anger on behalf of those positions we are each absolutely certain are the right positions to advocate, more righteous anger, on average, is being deployed on behalf of positions erroneously held than on behalf of well-founded ones. The Czech author Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, captured both this, and the more general dysfunctionality of anger even when right, by putting in the mouth of his main character, observing an angry protest in Paris, “Don’t they understand that the raised fists are the problem?”
I’ve argued in another post (The Foundational Progressive Agenda: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=317) that humility is the necessary cure for this defect in our discourse: We have to each strive to recognize, especially in matters that are contested by large segments of our society, that, in any given instance, what we are certain is true may not be, and that by each admitting that, we open up greater opportunities to approach, together, understandings that are closer to the truth.
The perennial counterargument to this, of course, is “but they’re not willing to do this, so by doing so unilaterally, we only weaken ourselves.” I don’t believe that this is accurate (of course, I may be wrong! :)); I believe that those who argue with the most reason, goodwill, and humility are, in the long-run, the most attractive to the persuadable majority, and provide the best and most useful contrast to the unmovable ideological zealots who have almost always dominated public discourse.
What anger does is to divide and entrench us, to divert more of our energies to non-productive conflict and away from productive efforts to serve human needs. The inevitable conflict over how best to govern ourselves, in general and particular, serves us best when it is least rancorous, and most rational. The commitment to striving to be reasonable, humble people of goodwill is the cornerstone of such constructive public discourse. Anger, both within and without, is our common enemy.