If You’re Angry, You’re Part of the Problem, Not the Solution
It’s ironic that the only thing we all seem to agree on lately is that there’s a lot to be angry about.
On the left, we have the insurgent anger of “resistance.” Race, gender, police brutality, immigration, the environment — unspeakable wrongs are happening right in front of us, they argue — and anyone who can’t see that is complicit. The other side has just as much rage. Just a few weeks ago, Sohrab Ahmari, a Catholic convert and editor for The New York Post became a hero on the right for arguing that the stakes of the culture war are so high that it’s time for conservatives to do away with Christian kindness and civil discussion in favor of seeing “politics as war and enmity.”
If you’re not outraged, they both tell us, “You’re not paying attention.”
Anger, in this way, can seem almost inspiring, even admirable — that it’s a sign of how much you care. The American-Irish political journalist Alexander Cockburn was famous for sitting young writers down and asking them, “Is your hate pure?” If they hesitated, if they squirmed, he wouldn’t hire them. He once asked this question to a young Ed Miliband, who would go on to be the leader of the Labour Party in Britain and later a cabinet member. Miliband replied that he didn’t hate anyone. This, Cockburn smirked as he proudly retold the story, “tells you everything you need to know.”
Yeah, it shows that Cockburn — and the people who stroke our angriest impulses — are only making things worse.
For a simple reason: It’s not controversial to say that most of what is wrong in this world is not intentionally wrong. How could it be, unless you believe that the majority of people are evil? Think about it: Are most people doing wrong on purpose or are they like you — in all the times you have been or done wrong in the past — probably (wrongly) convinced that what they’re doing is right? Obviously anger is not the most effective or appropriate response to these situations.
And what about the cases when wrong is being carried out deliberately? What about actual evil — which sadly is all too real? Here, again, anger isn’t the right response either. Because truly diabolical people are far too nefarious and dangerous for us to approach with anything other than our most rational and strategic efforts. (You don’t foil sociopathy by yelling.)
History overwhelmingly disproves the idea that self-composure is a synonym for resignation.
Yet here we are, constantly being egged on by both sides about why we need to get angry, telling us that our hate should be pure.
If anger was something that made people better, do you think athletes would work so hard to get under the skin of their opponent? Do you think lawyers would try to attack and frustrate witnesses under cross examination? Of course not. It is precisely because anger is blinding, because it makes us irrational, that one opponent uses it to undermine another.
What we need — in sports, in life, in activism — is restraint, not rage.
Oh, but that’s very privileged of you to say, one might think. You wouldn’t be so blasé if things were worse for you personally.
History overwhelmingly disproves the idea that self-composure is a synonym for resignation. George Washington’s defining characteristic? It was, as he often said, the ability to look at things in the “mild light of calm philosophy.” He refused to get upset, he refused to get angry — no matter the insult, no matter the injustice, no matter the betrayal. And it was precisely this self-control that allowed him to direct his efforts towards his great task — freeing a colonial people from the subjugation of a capitalistic imperial empire, to put it in modern language — so it cannot be argued that he simply tolerated the status quo.
History also shows that there are far more effective emotions to incite if your goal is to create action and meaningful change.
A recent exchange illustrates this well. On the eve of his inauguration, President Donald Trump, took to Twitter to attack congressman and civil rights icon, John Lewis.
It was just a highlight of a cycle that was to come: Trump using Twitter to try to provoke someone, with the talking heads in the media (on both sides) taking the bait. Basically, everyone got upset about it.
Except one guy: John Lewis. Lewis could have easily responded with anger to this attack on his character. Instead, he had a moment of self-reflection, calling what he described as “an executive session with myself.”
The following day, Martin Luther King Day, as it happened, Lewis took the high ground in an apparent response to the president. “I say to the future leaders of this state, the future leaders of this nation, of the world — you must never, ever hate,” Lewis said at a memorial breakfast “The way of love is a better way. The way of peace is a better way.”
No one can say John Lewis is “all talk.” Or that privilege corrupted his response. This is a man who had been beaten nearly to death in 1965 as he and 600 people attempted to peacefully march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to protest segregation. What he learned in a career of effectual political action is that getting angry is not a strategy. It’s a distraction.
Think of Abraham Lincoln. A defining moment of his life came in 1841 when he, then no more than a successful Midwestern lawyer, saw a group of slaves chained together on a riverboat like “so many fish on a trotline.” Abolitionists had witnessed scenes like this for centuries and many of them became radicalized in the process. Lincoln’s reaction was different. It wasn’t anger, he felt, but a deep and profound sadness at the injustice of it. But this was key. For all the passion of the abolitionist movement, it was Lincoln who spent the next two decades plotting a course of political change that ultimately accomplished what generations of Americans had failed to do. It was Lincoln — unlike even the radicals — who never doubted that the Union could be preserved, that the war could be won, who steered the ship unswervingly through those terrible times, all the while preaching a need for understanding, for forgiveness and mutual culpability. He was even-keeled in his determination to improve the world.
The Civil Rights Movement — per Martin Luther King’s leadership as well as the leadership of brave people like John Lewis — was defined not by anger, but by love. By a call to better angels, not our worst ones. So was Gandhi’s. The most powerful and enduring symbol of resistance to the Vietnam War was not the angry, long-haired students, it was the monk who doused himself in gasoline and lit a match — without a hint of emotion, only perfect stillness and moral urgency. Churchill’s famous line during World War II was that he didn’t hate anyone, except Hitler — and even that he tried to keep professional. If Churchill could do that, what excuse do we have?
My point is that while peace isn’t always the solution, avoiding anger is. Because to paraphrase and add to the line from Angela Merkel, just as you can’t complete tasks with “charisma,” you can’t do much when you’re blinded with rage or hatred either.
Indeed, this is what many philosophers ask us to step back and learn from history. “Constantly run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever. And ask: Where is all that not? Smoke, dust, legend… or not even a legend.” Alexander the Great was as angry and motivated to put his dent in the world as they came, and what happened after his early death? The whole empire fell to pieces. What of Gracchus or Catiline, whose angry conspiracies against Rome were driven by a kind of Joker-esque nihilism of just wanting to see the world burn? Not only did they fail, but chances are many people aren’t even going to be familiar with my reference. Because Marcus was right — it was forgotten. It all became dust.
The fact that we will all become dust one day is not a reason to do nothing. It’s a reason to do the right thing, the right way.
You must treat indifference with empathy, cruelty with compassion, anger with patience and love.
In his fascinating essay, Of Anger, the philosopher Seneca makes a similar point. He wanted to know if it was possible to respond to evil and violence “judiciously and with foresight,” instead of being driven by some primal emotion.
“Does a good man not get angry?” he asked. “Even if he watches his father get killed or his mother raped?” No, was Seneca’s answer. But just because we don’t give in to anger doesn’t mean we have to accept this injustice. “The good man will carry out his duties without fear or turmoil… My father is being killed; I’ll defend him. He has been killed; I’ll avenge him — but because it’s right, not because I’m grieved… To get angry on behalf of one’s kin is the mark of a weak mind, not a loyal one.”
It calls to mind the powerful example of Laura and Rob Tibbetts, whose daughter was murdered by an undocumented immigrant in 2018. After the body was discovered, letters started pouring in. People tried to stoke their passions of this grieving family for political purposes. “This is why we need to build a wall,” they said. “Those people are animals. We need to protect ourselves.”
If anyone had an excuse for “pure” hatred, it was probably the Tibbets family. And what did they do?
They opened their home to a young boy whose parents were also undocumented immigrants and had worked in the very same fields as the man who had murdered their daughter. That’s not just a lovely example of forgiveness, it’s a profoundly virtuous and impressive act. There must be so much pain in their heart, so much anger. Yet they rose above it. They spoke out against those who tried to turn their pain into profit and to polarization, calling it “everything that’s dark and wrong in America right now.” And instead of being tempted by anger, they focused on finding a way to see through the rage and the hurt to find something common in their shared humanity.
It was a decision that will produce more real change than any of the pundits can ever hope to.
Who should we listen to? Whose example should we follow? The people who capitalize off of blind emotion in order to gain a following? Or people like Rob and Laura Tibbets who are quietly doing good, despite their very real grievances?
There is today, as there has always been, profound injustice in this world. But that injustice will not be solved by getting upset, by painting the other side as irredeemable, or by giving into our worst impulses.
It must be addressed politically, personally, and with precisely the opposite of the traits that caused the injustice in the first place. You must treat indifference with empathy, cruelty with compassion, anger with patience and love.
We know this from our own personal lives. The things that make you the most angry are the things you have the toughest time resolving. Has yelling or losing your temper ever made things better at home? Or does it only make things worse?
Each of us has to work on this, myself included. We cannot let ourselves be rattled by the wrong we see in the world. We must limit our inputs, and cut out toxic provocateurs and manipulative media. We must sit quietly with our own thoughts, and push ourselves to respond to everything we see with kindness and calmness.
It’s easy to be clever or cruel. It’s hard to be composed and clear. But which gives us the change we need?