Repost: On Anger

I’ve been thinking a lot about anger recently.  In fact, I’ve been looking at the topic long enough to be ready to put my thoughts on paper.

For a person interested in studying anger and the angry response, this is a kind of perfect moment.  There’s so much anger out there, being expressed in all sorts of contexts by all kinds of people, that there’s plenty of grist for the mill.

I can’t speak to what’s happening to other peoples in other countries right now, because I haven’t been traveling recently, but Americans (I can say with utmost certainty) are living in an Age of Anger.  There’s great frustration with political leadership.  There’s tremendous polarization which has led to anger between competing political camps—some have referred to these camps as “tribes.”  There’s nearly unprecedented economic hardship which has been caused by a pandemic that is being grossly mismanaged by lots of American “leaders” who are supposed to be protecting us.  There are many examples of racial injustice and, unfortunately, racial animosity.  For all these reasons and many more, the country feels like a tinderbox.  I sometimes get the impression, as an American who’s lived in countries that have had revolutions and showed signs of being “failed states,”  that this nation is heading in that same direction, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  This realization, that so much of this has been self-inflicted, has made me angry too.  So, not only have I been a student of anger, I have also been experiencing it.

When we look at anger, we must realize that it almost always has a source or a cause.  In most cases, anger doesn’t just come out of nowhere, meaning that it doesn’t just spontaneously occur for no apparent reason unless we’re talking about anger that is rooted in mental illness.  There are certainly people who are chronically angry but don’t have such disease.  In cases of this sort, there is still a catalyst or a fountainhead.  People want to be content.  Being unhappy and angry takes extra effort and goes against our natural inclination.  So, for a burning kind of anger to exist, there must first be a spark.

Anger is an emotion, and we often think of emotions as being irrational.  However, certain kinds of anger are very rational.  Righteous anger, for example, is a response that happens when we go through the analytical steps needed to see that an injustice has occurred and that the only appropriate response is a kind of outrage we might can indignation. For this reason, righteous indignation is certainly not knee-jerk.

A good example of righteous anger is the emotional response that comes from witnessing an unjust murder, like what happened in the George Floyd case or the more recent Rayshard Brooks murder, or when injustice happens to a whole class of people for no other reason than they’ve got the “wrong” skin color, religious affiliation, gender, or sexual orientation.  If we witness an injustice but don’t feel righteous anger, there’s a problem.

On the other hand, there’s misdirected anger.  This type is irrational because it’s misguided and thus misses its mark.  Such anger is frequently a result of a kind of logical fallacy called “false cause.”  For example, the angry blaming of people of color during an economic recession as the cause of the financial downturn.  (Just because one event happened before the other or that both happened at about the same time doesn’t mean that there is a causal relationship between the two.)  Being angry with something or someone who is blameless is irrational and illogical and thus misguided.  Misdirected anger often manifests itself as scapegoating.

When we think of anger, we also must think of the way it’s expressed—the effect of the anger.

Anger can be expressed in healthy and unhealthy ways.  Anger that seeks to manifest itself in ways that are constructive and designed to correct an injustice can be said to be healthy.  Anger channeled in ways that lead to personal growth or enlightenment can also said to be life-affirming.  In both instances, the angry person has gained control of the anger rather than being controlled by it.

Anger is extraordinarily dangerous because its expression may cause us to act in ways that mimic the very injustice that angered us in the first place.  For example, a person who responds to racial injustice by looting businesses is perpetuating injustice.

This is why I have long been against the death penalty.  If killing a human being is unjust, then the state must not do what it condemns individual citizens for doing.  A hypocritical government immediately loses the moral high ground once it acts unjustly.  In this case, the government is allowing its collective anger to express itself in vengeful ways.  Anger expressed unjustly always creates more anger and injustice.

Thanks very much for reading my piece.  I look forward to hearing from everyone who feels the need to respond.

19 thoughts on “Repost: On Anger

  1. My father was an angry man, and our family lived in fear of triggering him. It did not prepare me for how to handle anger in the world.

  2. This post feels like it’s more timely than ever, even though your title suggests that it is a “re-post“

    I once saw a button that read “why do we kill people who kill people in order to prove that killing people is wrong?“. Your passage about the death penalty reminded me very much of that.

    1. I’m glad this post feels timely (even if my response is very tardy). I selected it because there seems to be much anger in the world today. And people think they can bomb anger away. Bombing others does not kill anger; it only makes it grow. We’ve had enough time to learn this lesson. Why haven’t we learned it? Thank you for the comment.

  3. Anger can indeed be a complex and powerful emotion, often rooted in a variety of sources. Your distinction between righteous anger, which is a rational response to injustice, and misdirected anger, which can be irrational and illogical, is crucial.

    1. Hi. Thanks for the comment. Some anger is needed in the world because we need to be able to develop empathy for those who are mistreated. This feeling can then help us to do something about a clear injustice (even if “doing” means nothing more than speaking about it to others).

  4. Especially with economic stress, it can feel impossible to snap out of angry mode. I’m someone who is more often down or angry than happy, lately, but I have found that when I do nice things for myself, i feel less unhappy. (and it’s been misdirected anger more often than not, so snapping out of it is critical for my mental health and the health of people around me.) Normally, I don’t believe it’s great to be too self-indulgent, but if you are feeling the impact of unfairness or injustice and can’t access those happier emotions, then you might try what I have: simple treats, like a hot bath with a fragrance you really like, or a dessert, or even a gift to yourself (hey – it’s still cheaper than therapy!). Watching funny youtube videos can also really help…and finally, helping another person who is suffering works well. Doing that is a great stress reliever, because in many cases you find you’ve also made a strong connection that will last through good times and bad.

    1. Wow! So much wisdom in your comment. Yes, being self-indulgent isn’t always a bad thing. (We are often guilty of denying pleasure to ourselves in this very difficult world.) Again, thanks for offering such wonderful reminders and advice!

  5. Anger is indeed a big issue right now in our world. When we become the object of someone’s anger, surprisingly, love isn’t the answer when we struggle to feel love for the person hurting us. Care and compassion goes a lot further. The angry person has been triggered, usually by their own unhealed and raw emotions, and they have no tools for expressing themselves without venting out.

    If we can stay calm, and respond in a compassionate or caring tone, we can help the situation from escalating further.

    Of course, there are just some rage-aholics, and it is best to walk away, or even just tell them, “As long as you are venting on me, we cannot have a discussion. When you calm down, we can discuss the situation.”

    1. Thank you for the great advice. Staying calm when life’s waters get choppy is hard for me. Your comment reminds me that I need to work on this part of myself. I wish you all the best.

  6. Hi, all. I reposted this with the Israeli-Palestine conflict in mind, but it has wider implications as well. Having lived in the Middle East for many years, I know a lot more about what’s going on there than most Americans do. My heart primarily goes out to the Palestinians because they are living in an apartheid state and under the thumb of a much more powerful overlord that has meted out one kind of injustice after another over many decades. (Of course, I am not an apologist for what Hamas brutally perpetrated days ago in various locales within Israel.) I have personally known many Palestinians who were displaced and had homes confiscated over the years and have had to live in refugee camps and other countries as a result. I’ve long had a soft spot in my heart for the weak and the oppressed. I know one thing for sure: Trying to kill grievances with bombs only makes more grievances and strengthens existing ones. What about this is so hard to understand?

    1. I, Troy Headrick, wrote the above comment that was attributed to “Anonymous.” I composed this at work when I was not signed in to my WP account.

    1. We keep thinking that others are making us angry. Anger is a way of responding that we have complete control over. People don’t cause us to explode with rage. Exploding with rage is a choice we make. The best way to “defeat” an enemy is to turn him or her into a friend. Thanks for commenting.

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