On Anger

Anger is making the rounds these days. Well, to be honest, anger has been a big part of many groups’ playbooks for quite a few years now, but lately rage and anger seems to be everywhere, and everyone seems to be using it, talking about it, justifying it, or using it to justify things. And while all my examples in this post will be from the Left, anger bridges the political spectrum. If progressives seem to be talking more about it now, that’s probably for two reasons. The first is that they are experiencing setbacks, which always generates anger. People get angry when things don’t turn out the way they hoped they would, especially when that happens because others don’t do what they expected them to do and seemed to be the obvious answer. The second is that anger has worked for progressives in the past, so their strategies tended to incorporate it directly, so they continue to use it and use it. But as we saw with the testimony from Kavanaugh, anger is used by the Right as well.

I’m Stoic-leaning, and so I believe that relying strong emotions in general is a bad idea, and think that anger is a particularly bad strong emotion. The problem with strong emotions is that they are effectively judgements about a situation and about what the right reaction to that situation that are both self-motivating and self-rationalizing. Strong emotions always contain a belief about the world — that’s what triggers the emotion — and prime you to take an action in response to that. Once that happens, strong emotions trigger the emotional motivation system that we have and so strongly motivate us to take that action, and since the judgement seems so strong we are always tempted to find reasons to accept that our strong emotions are justified, and so rationalize our reaction using reason. Anger is particularly bad for one simple reason: it’s usually wrong. While we might be justified in being angry at the situation, it is rare that anger suggests the right reaction to the situation. Even when it does, while anger itself can be sustained its rightness cannot. Ultimately, anger wants to keep feeding itself and keep its state alive, and ultimately will always end up overreaching. If you keep your anger alive and nurture it, eventually it will betray you by pushing you to do something that you shouldn’t do.

Which leads to this post by P.Z. Myers, where he talks about Donald Trump’s strategy as a “rage troll” Myers first quotesthis Slate article:

Donald Trump is an anger troll. Rage is the one thing he capably nurtures and grows. … He wants to make his followers feel threatened. To achieve this, he needs his opponents to seem irrational. So he sets about making them angry.

He insults them, railroads them, calls people protesting for justice liars and profit-seekers even as he openly enriches his friends. He gives them offensive nicknames and mocks their pain for fun, and to get them to lose control. He’s doing this in plain sight—it’s pretty obvious why people are angry—but his goal is to make their reaction look inexplicable, beyond the pale. After leading angry crowds to yell abuse at anyone he points to, he turns around and marvels at how irrational and dangerous his targets are.

As tactics go, this one is dumb and transparent, but it’s worth describing it because it works. It works a lot.

Myers then goes on to add to that description:

Yeah, that’s the man. But it’s only half the problem: the other half is an electorate that falls for it every time …

Well, no, the problem isn’t that Trump’s supporters or moderates or, well, anyone except those progressives on Myers’ side that get angry fall for it. No, the problem is that the progressives on Myers’ side keep falling for it. They know that Trump is doing things just to get them angry and to push them into acting out in ways that are irrational — or, at least, can be spun that way — and they constantly let him do that to them. You’d think that the obvious way to blunt this strategy is to stop letting Trump goad them into acting irrationally by getting them angry, and so only acting after considering the situation rationally and coming up with the perfect rational response.

Of course, that’s not what Myers suggests:

We need to own our anger, because that’s the alternative. Our rage is aimed at a deserving target, their rage seems to be self-inflicted.

So, in other words, he appeals to “right makes might”. Their rage is justified, their opponents’ rage isn’t, and so they need to “own” it by justifying it and declaring it and the actions that follow from it justified and right.

This isn’t owning your anger. Owning your anger is acknowledging that it made you angry, acknowledging that you acted out of rage, and acknowledging when the actions you took out of rage were actually irrational. Owning your anger means taking responsibility for your anger, both when it is reasonable and when it is excessive, and not justifying excesses because “They made me do it because they made you angry!”. Abusers justify their actions on the basis that what the other person did just made them so angry that they couldn’t see straight, and surely they don’t want to act like abusers, right?

(Ironically, the cartoon that Myers shows right above that in his post is about a Trump supporter trying to make someone angry and that person not actually getting angry at all. It misrepresents the situation in a way that both dishonestly makes progressives out to be far less actually mocking than they were and grossly insults anyone who prefers their steaks done that way, but most importantly it, uh, supports the idea that progressives shouldn’t be baited into getting angry, which is not the message Myers is promoting here).

But anger is self-justifying, and Trump has kept progressives in a constant state of anger. And so they keep justifying being angry and the way they act in reaction to that.

Dalrock has a post that gives two examples of this, focusing on feminism specifically. In the first, a woman goes off on a rant against her husband:

I yelled at my husband last night. Not pick-up-your-socks yell. Not how-could-you-ignore-that-red-light yell. This was real yelling. This was 30 minutes of from-the-gut yelling. Triggered by a small, thoughtless, dismissive, annoyed, patronizing comment. Really small. A micro-wave that triggered a hurricane. I blew. Hard and fast. And it terrified me. I’m still terrified by what I felt and what I said. I am almost 70 years old. I am a grandmother. Yet in that roiling moment, screaming at my husband as if he represented every clueless male on the planet (and I every angry woman of 2018), I announced that I hate all men and wish all men were dead. If one of my grandchildren yelled something that ridiculous, I’d have to stifle a laugh.

My husband of 50 years did not have to stifle a laugh. He took it dead seriously. He did not defend his remark, he did not defend men. He sat, hunched and hurt, and he listened. For a moment, it occurred to me to be grateful that I’m married to a man who will listen to a woman. The winds calmed ever so slightly in that moment. And then the storm surge welled up in me as I realized the pathetic impotence of nice men’s plan to rebuild the wreckage by listening to women. As my rage rushed through the streets of my mind, toppling every memory of every good thing my husband has ever done (and there are scores of memories), I said the meanest thing I’ve ever said to him: Don’t you dare sit there and sympathetically promise to change. Don’t say you will stop yourself before you blurt out some impatient, annoyed, controlling remark. No, I said, you can’t change. You are unable to change. You don’t have the skills and you won’t do it. You, I said, are one of the good men. You respect women, you believe in women, you like women, you don’t hit women or rape women or in any way abuse women. You have applauded and funded feminism for a half-century. You are one of the good men. And you cannot change. You can listen all you want, but that will not create one iota of change.

In the centuries of feminist movements that have washed up and away, good men have not once organized their own mass movement to change themselves and their sons or to attack the mean-spirited, teasing, punching thing that passes for male culture. Not once. Bastards. Don’t listen to me. Listen to each other. Talk to each other. Earn your power for once.

So, something that even she admits was minor prompted her into a roaring rage that scared even her. In the middle of it, even she had to pause to wonder if he really deserved what she was saying to him. And then the rage overwhelmed her and justified her anger despite the fact that he was doing the thing that feminists insisted men do to women: listen. But that wasn’t good enough for her rage, and so she goes on to blame him specifically, a man in his 70s, for not forming or being part of some kind of men’s movement that could fix all these problems and so her rage at him specifically was justified because he was a man and men hadn’t done enough to fix the problems. The rage justified itself so that she could feel good about her rant and that, ultimately, she did the right thing because he deserved it.

And the irrationality of her “reasoning” is clear. Men originally would indeed get together as men and only men to try to solve the problems of women. When they did so, feminists complained that you can’t solve women’s problems without having them represented. So they did. But then feminists complained that male voices still dominated the discussion, and so started demanding equal representation, or even dominance in numbers. Men, they argued, shouldn’t be the ones driving discussion about women’s issues. This led to the actual advice that men listen to women, usually expressed as “Shut up and listen!”.

So he did. And she justified her anger by insisting that he stop doing what women were telling him he needed to do, and instead go off with men and figure out how to solve the problem without making women do it for them, which is precisely what women and feminists told him he couldn’t do because it was unacceptably sexist. Thus, she creates a circle of unacceptability where nothing he does could ever possibly be right and she can always be angry at him for not doing what he’s supposed to do, despite there being nothing that he could do that would be acceptable.

Plus, her question here is basically him why he didn’t come up with a solution for her problems, to which I can only reply as Raiden did in the first Mortal Kombat movie: Why didn’t you? When she had a man who as she admits would listen to her, why didn’t she come up with a solution and tell him to get together with men — and maybe even women — and go implement it? If she thinks the solution is so easy or obvious that a man can easily figure out what it is despite not having the problem himself, surely she should have been able to come up with it and communicate it to men who, by her own admission, were listening to her, right?

But she didn’t. Because her anger and rage isn’t about solving the problem. Her anger and rage doesn’t care about solving the problem. It only wants to keep being angry. And she is accepting its recommendations blindly and wondering why nothing gets better, which only stokes her rage. If she calmed down and thought about things, presumably she’d see that she was being unfair to her husband and irrational in her conclusions. But anger wants to keep being angry, and it keeps telling her that she’s justified in being angry and that everything she did was right. If she let it stop, then she might have to accept that what she did was unfair and irrational. And few people ever want to accept that.

The second link I’m going to talk about is from earlier in the year, and features a woman talking about liberal men being fed up with liberal women and their anger:

To a certain extent, we expected it from the men who wear lobster-printed pants, the men from Connecticut, the Young Republicans of America with their gelled and parted hair, their summers in Nantucket, their LL Bean slippers worn on the porches of fraternities, 2pm on a Monday. But when my friend pulls me aside in a hotel bar and tells me it’s happening to her husband—a man who donates annually to NPR and voted twice for Barack Obama, who has a degree in Art History and works for a non-profit—neither one of us knows what to say.

Everywhere across America, liberal unions once so strong in love—relationships founded on mutual respect and trust and commitment and loyalty—have found themselves upended, or at the very least foundationally rocked, by the political escalation as it relates, perhaps most specifically, to womanhood and gender. Twenties or thirties or forties, children or no children, married or engaged or committed via long-term relationships: I have met more women than I can count in these past three weeks alone who have confided, in low voices—or once shouting, disbelieving, desperate, we have three children, one woman cried to me—of the disruption in their own home.

Of men—previously, pleasantly, progressive—rising up with unprecedented hostility, anger, abandon, and resentment.

Hours later, another wrote to tell me of a save-the-date no longer in need of saving.

My fiancé called off the engagement, she wrote. He loves me—he’s sure, and I believe him—but he’s “overwhelmed” with everything and “doesn’t know how to comfort me” and “doesn’t love who I’ve become.”

Who I’ve become: a phrase I’ve heard most frequently by women who have found themselves rightly riled, women who have perhaps never before—until recently—cited themselves as feminists report the fury, the frustration, the foundational shift as it’s occurring in the men they love so fiercely and the relationships that hold them as a consequence to the male gaze gazing now at their woman, riled.

But I knew these men—I loved one myself—and they are far from misogynistic monsters. They are far from Trump supporters. These men, on the contrary, comprise a particular slice of American males: they are men who did not vote for nor support Donald Trump, but are reticent to admit his behavior, rhetoric, and policies are as outrageous and offensive—downright threatening, maddening—as their female partners perceive them to be. These are, make no mistake, men who wholly sought us for our strength, our independence and education. The jobs we held or coveted. The degrees degreed in our name. Our passions and pursuits and our can-do, want-it-all attitudes. They work as medical researchers or in the arts, in teaching or social work. They queue up the Saturday Night Live skits that humiliate Trump, to consume with our coffee on Sunday mornings, but find it unpalatable and unpleasant that our resentment and our fears linger long into the workweek.

Perhaps it was sexy, initially: how they saw in us an equal. But how quickly we lose our status when we as women are angry or upset, frustrated beyond belief, when we add our voice to the chorus of #metoos or feel daily symptoms borne of helplessness. When the solution to our problems is not a man or a new necklace, but a sense of elongated empathy emanating from the person we’ve chosen as our partner.

A psychology colleague suggests the mental butler—a well-known psychological phenomenon that argues our subconscious is so acutely aware of our tendencies, predispositions, and preferences that it influences behavior. He explains the idea via racially motivated shootings, arguing that while a white cop may not be overtly racist, his mental butler—who, over time, has come to associate African American men with athleticism, aggression, and larger stature—may cause him to act more quickly, confidently, and aggressively when encountering a black man as opposed to a white man.

If a man has somehow wrongly internalized that to be a feminist is to be hateful towards an entire group of people, angry for the sake of anger, condescending, inefficient, than perhaps no woman he has chosen or been tasked to love can shake him of his mental butler. Perhaps no man is capable of understanding, truly, what is always on the line when you are a woman, and how Trump and his toxic rhetoric threatens so very much of it. Perhaps no man can recognize the sinister in Trump’s threats because he has not endured them—in some form or another—for the whole of his life.

My boyfriend? He once built me benches color-matched to our dog’s collar, knowing the matte of that mint green brings me more joy than anything. He lined the benches by the garden. The garden we’d built together. We did that work in unison: he backed up the pickup while I shoveled soil into the beds. The peppers are finally ripe enough to pick, but he’s no longer around to eat them.

In my backyard, in my America, I think of the mental butler. I try to imagine a mindset so wholly shaped by gendered bias that—despite any sense of love or tenderness, respect or commitment to partnership—a man, even a progressive one, automatically and subconsciously conflates feminists or a rise in feminist outrage to a threat to the collective male contingency/population. I think of the way a spider moves—fast and without reproach. First the problem is on the porch. Then it is climbing up your bedpost. Look as it spins a web around your morning and then your month and then your marriage. Look—and please keep looking—as it grips and continues gripping everything you once held dear inside his web.

What I wish these men could know—far beyond our disappointment in the president, or in their leaving—was how it felt, for so many of us, to wake on buses or trains or planes on our way home from the Women’s March. I woke that night to a thousand taillights—many cars but far more buses, thousands of stories packed onto wheels—as we traced the edges of America, making our way home, creeping, fading slowly into the places where we might not so easily belong. But as we climbed the smudged dusk of West Virginia—the heart of America, indeed, the heart of Trump Country—it seemed, if only for that evening, as if the porch lights had been left on for us, for this and this night only, and how amazing it was, truly, to watch our steady stream of red lights blink and brake as we led one another home.

So, these were liberal men. These are men who supported their goals and ambitions, oppose the same things they do, share the same political beliefs, seemed to be in love with them, and all sorts of other good things. And when these men tell them that they’ve changed, that they aren’t the people that they fell in love with anymore, that they’ve become obsessed, that they seem to always be angry, that they seem to be advocating irrational and harmful ideals, she and her friends don’t stop to ask “Maybe we are“. Or, at least, they don’t do so for long. Instead, they rely on a rather ridiculous idea of “the mental butler”, or that they’ve been convinced by others that feminism is about hating men as opposed to even thinking if maybe, just maybe, they were convinced of that by the rage-filled rants of the feminists in their lives that quite likely ranting about how terrible men are without bothering to exclude those wonderful men that they supposedly were in love with, like the first post I linked here. But their anger is justified, right? Trump just is that anti-woman, right? Maybe. But if he is and if it is right for women to be angry at him not everything you do while angry is justified as a response to the situation. If these women — as I suspect they did — were constantly angry and constantly going on about that situation, their men would likely get tired of it after a while. To use an analogy, imagine someone who thinks that their co-workers are stupid and lazy, and constantly tells you about how they think that. You’d probably get sick of that after a while and wish they’d talk about something else. Now imagine that you are one of their co-workers, and they not only don’t exclude you from that assessment, they explicitly include you in their rage. Just imagine how quickly you’ll get tired of that.

But anger — and strong emotion — justifies itself, and justifies its actions. The author here combines justified anger with a justified feeling of solidarity or belonging to insist that the men are just unreasonable and/or unconsciously sexist and/or just don’t understand. They’re right, and their feelings are right and so their actions have to be right, right?

But they aren’t right. And as long as they are under the influence of anger and other strong emotions, they’ll never see that. And they won’t be free of that influence until they stop, sit down, evaluate things rationally, and see what actions are justified and which aren’t.

But strong emotions like anger make that difficult if not impossible. And that’s why we shouldn’t trust them. And that’s why it’s so scary that so many people not only do trust them, but revel in trusting them … which is precisely what we should never do.

2 Responses to “On Anger”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    Excellent!

  2. On Responsibility | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] on from my discussion of anger, in this post I’m going to talk about something that I found very appealing about Stoic […]

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