Anger Management

posted Jan 22, 2007

Of all the problems facing the United States, and the civilized world in general, I would pick this as the most important:

...the anger that lately pervades our politics is more than just an aftereffect of six years of Democratic setbacks... Our political anger is only the most impressive expression of a much wider cultural transformation. In politics, in music, in sports, on the web, in our families, and in the relations between the sexes, American anger has come into its own. Wood says we’re living in an era of “New Anger,” and regardless of who becomes our next president, New Anger isn’t going away anytime soon.... Anger has turned into a coping mechanism, something to get in touch with, a prize to exhibit in public, and a proof of righteous sincerity. - Stanley Kurtz's review of "A Bee in the Mouth"

Emphasis mine.

We always face problems and always will. Most of them can't be made to go away, we can only work together to ameliorate them, since so many of them boil down to "things aren't perfect" and we'll never get to the point where everybody agrees everything is perfect.

Without the ability to work together, we can't solve any of the other problems. The sort of raw unadulterated anger that is now worn with pride doesn't permit us to work together. In the worst case, even just negotiating with someone is a betrayal, a sign that your anger isn't pure enough.

The base logic is something like this:

  1. I care about issue X.
  2. Because of the way in which I care about issue X and my other beliefs, I think Y is the solution.
  3. The only reason someone could not think Y is the solution is because they do not care.
  4. In fact, while they claim to believe in solution Z, since they don't actually care the real explanation must be that they think Z will give them personal advantage, or they simply hate the group of people affected, or they must have some other ulterior motive.
  5. Wow! People who don't agree with solution Y are evil! And we should treat them as evil!
  6. For bonus points, "Wow, I'm a really good person for hating people who 'claim' to 'believe' that Z is the 'solution'! Everybody pat me on the back!" (Scare-quoting all the significant words of the opposing argument is a major indicator of this thought process.)

The anger problem is a secondary consequence of this logic; the even deeper root problem lies in step 3, where I've bolded the one part of that logic argument I think is false. The rest of the logic is sound. Even #6 is a perfectly valid conclusion given point #5.

If you can't come up with five issues off the top of your head that do not fit this pattern, you're not very political.

Those pro-choicers may claim to want to be able to chose what to do with their bodies, but what they really want to do is kill babies!! Evil!Those pro-lifers may claim to believe in life, but what they really want is control over women's bodies!! Evil!
People who support big welfare grants may claim to want to help the poor, but what they really want is to create a massive base of people completely dependent on them who will vote them in to office again and again!! Evil!People who want to make it hard to stay on welfare may claim they want to promote dignity and that we can't afford the societal burden, but what they really are is racist, using this to keep the poor down!! Evil!

And on it goes, for issue after issue.

One thing that makes it complicated is that for any evil motive you could impute, you can probably find someone for whom it is actually true, and that one person may actually be evil as a result. (I'd suggest reading my Determining Motivation From Actions for some pointers on how to figure that out, without falling into this anger trap.) But I don't think any such motivation will be shared by the general public.

For a long time, the fear was that people would create little bubbles for themselves with things like RSS readers so that they would never even be exposed to alternative opinions. We've managed to avoid this exact scenario, while settling into something even worse! While blogs may directly link to alternative views, they first prime their readers with criticisms and complaints, and the resulting reader will come to the piece with their opinions already set. This is worse than never seeing the opposing arguments at all, because if you've simply never seen the opposing arguments and you someday encounter them, they may shock into thinking about them. You might even change your mind. With this system, we immunize people against the counter-arguments while bypassing the step where the reader actually thinks about the argument.

(Come to think of it, while I've never consciously realized this before, I think this is why I like to open my posts with the links and quotes I want to talk about, even when it would be stronger writing to leave them for later in the post. You deserve a chance to follow those links and form your own understandings and opinions before you read what I have to say about them, and the writer deserves a chance to speak to you before I've colored your opinion, be it with my brilliant analysis or horrific misconceptions, as the case may be.)

Perhaps this explains the kind of people we see so often on the web; for any argument you throw against them they've got a border-line instinctive response lined up, like Pavlovian stimulus-response. It's quite clear than in the worst cases the argument isn't even read, it's just scanned for keywords that trigger the appropriate Pavlovian response. Whether the response is appropriate is irrelevant, because the argument was prejudged worthless anyhow. For an individual, this is not the path to understanding, and for a community, this is not the path to productive debate.

If I could make one plea to the blogosphere, it would be: "Shun people who claim large groups of people are evil on the basis of their beliefs!" I don't think there's as much evil in this country as is commonly assumed. I think there's a lot of people trying to do their best with their little tiny slices of life and tiny windows onto the great huge world that we live in. The label of "evil", and the righteous anger it engenders, should be a final resort for when you've truly determined that there is real evil on the basis of more than strong disagreement with your views.

We need a return to civility in our discourse. We need more slack, more assumption of good intent, more questions and fewer conclusions about what other people believe. We are all in this together, whether you like it or not, so a bit of effort towards finding ways to get along and less effort finding reasons why everybody else is irredeemably evil would make things better for all of us.

 

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