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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: 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.

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  • There is, of course, an entirely different essay that could be written under the title of the above post, involving how popular anger is often stoked and manipulated for both political and commercial ends. I think the conclusion of that essay would also be that anger is more dysfunctional than functional, that there are many instances when recourse to it reduces oneself to a tool of either cynical or small-minded political agendas, or serves only the enrichment of individuals endowed with a talent for enriching aggrandising themselves by appealing to it.

  • I too make no claim to immunity from any of the following all-to-human emotions, just for the record.

    For the sake of argument, perhaps partisanship is a false duality altogether. There were originally no formal parties arranged by constitution; they emerged as convenient structures for debate often given a disturbing categorization, factions–a fracturing of a percieved unity. Yet if partisanship is an expression of false duality, the divides we create to enhance discussion, themselves, have the tendency to serve as repositories for our passions and our passions, if not recognized as such, can misguide us.

    Logic first appeared as a game in the courts of ancient Greek cities. It was called, “the Yes-No” game. In debate, in our sophistication of the Yes-No game, it is often extremely competitive individuals who are impelled to engage in it. Fear of loss, fear of shame, humiliation, a sense of I must win at any cost, generate anger and instead of viewing our opponent as nemesis (your nemesis, if competitive, can only make you better and in the long term, is your friend), too often we see our gaming opponent as enemy–out to burn our village, steal our cattle and women.

    We fail, at this point, to think clearly and to carry on the terms of debate; we fail to be good sports knowing full well that in contests, there are winners and losers and that we cannot always be the winner. Yet by losing, we are not dead on the battlefield, we have experience and information that will enable us to win on another day with improved skills and strategies if we have paid attention to the causes of our previous defeats. Losing is never desirable, but with the right state of mind can render us victorious in the future.

    Critical thought is necessary for the engines of our society and economies and itself is the engine of personal self-improvement. Yet, few can actually accept criticism without resentment or feeling the irresistible urge to contest it. As a former college athlete, I have seen instances where the best athlete on the field never performed well because he had fixed his vanity on himself too much and was “uncoachable.” A person who received coaching well but had less athletic prowess would defeat this person through the hidden strength of discipline which was the manifestation of criticism taken seriously and without fear, over time.

    In politics it is all attitude: left, right, centrist–all positions are political attitudes–the secret, I think is how we train our “attitude” to carry us through victory and defeat. With enough facts, enough evidence, experiences, defeats, failures of reasoning, all bundle into one gestalt, we can change our political attitudes, thus we must not attach these dispositions to our persona so much that the rigid abstractions of our political attitudes cause us to be unfriendly when engaging a nemesis.

    Love thy nemesis; it will help us overcome our enemies

  • Exactly right, Pete. One of my recurring themes is that the real divide isn’t between Left and Right, but between reasonable people of goodwill who know and understand that they will never know and understand quite enough (or those aspects of each of us), and their opposites, both within and without.

    The point of my little essay isn’t, of course, either of the individuals (one from the left and one from the right) mentioned briefly in passing and for the purposes of illustration, but rather the phenomenon that they (along with the rest of us, to varying degrees) illustrate.

    Each of us has some balance of hubris and humility, of ego-involvement and sincere commitment to the public good, and these are relevant dimensions to the fundamental political challenge that we face both individually and collectively, along with the related issue of to what extent our purpose becomes inflicting damage on particular despised others rather than facilitiating the welfare of others in general.

  • I think the role of anger in politics, both as a form of discourse, and as a tool that is manipulated, dovetails closely with some other distinctions. For examples, here are two that come to mind:

    1) The degree of reliance on “in-group/out-group” differentiation. The more one’s political discourse characterized by identification with one or more “in-groups” in opposition to one or more “out-groups”, the more opportunity to mobilize anger in service to that orientation.

    2) The degree of sincere concern for the public good versus the degree of ego-investment in an identity associated with one’s political opinion. I’ve noticed that the most angry participants tend to view all discourse as about them personally rather than about the issues at hand, and tend to view their position as indistinguishable from who and what they are as a human being.

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