On Political Anger

Josh and I have been discussing Pound’s angry letter in response to an editor’s critical comments on Joyce’s manuscript of Portrait of the Artist. We’ve been using this letter as a proxy for our larger, ongoing debate about the uses and abuses of anger in contemporary (mostly political) discussion.

But, as it stands, this way of putting the issue is not sufficiently focused. After all, it’s not like either one of us believes that all anger is good or all anger is bad! Like everyone else, I routinely get mad at stuff I hear and read, and often this anger is justified–and deserves to be expressed. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t be emotionally invested in the issues we discuss. My point is that some caution is in order, simply because anger can easily cloud our judgment. And we happen to be living in a culture where there’s an overwhelming amount of anger-clouded judgment going on. (Perhaps this is true of every culture, but it’s certainly true of ours.)

I believe this often leads to a failure to properly understand our opponents’ views. Or, perhaps more accurately: a lack of interest in even trying to understand them. When people are not in control of their anger, they’re more concerned with winning the debate than with getting at the truth, and that’s a bad place to be–both epistemically and morally. Pound’s letter struck me as being a good example of the dark places this out-of-control anger can lead a person, and I suppose this is what I meant in calling it ugly.

I care a lot about this issue because I have often been guilty of the problematic behavior I’ve described above. As I’ve noted in previous posts, I used to believe that all forms of conservative thinking was just nonsense on stilts–not even believed by the people cynically defending these positions. It was liberating to discover that I was wrong about this. There are insightful strands of conservative thought out there, and I have been trying to glean some of these insights in my (slow-moving) Teleological Libertarianism project on the blog. (More on that soon.)

What I realized was that my anger was leading me to miss important stuff. And once my judgment had cleared a little, I noticed that a lot of the people I agree with politically were doing the same thing. And this horrified me.

Let me give you an example of what I have in mind. One morning this past spring, I went on Facebook and found the following discussion started by one of my friends:

Facebook-Post(I’ve blocked out the names and photos to protect the foolish.)

So, here we have the anti-gay Trail Lifers, caught doing what looks an awful lot like a Nazi salute. The photo hits Facebook, and everyone gets a good laugh. Stupid conservatives.

But then notice the update. (Really, it’s short. Take a second to read it. I’ll wait.)

So, it turns out that the Trail Lifers weren’t doing a Nazi salute. At all. They were singing a song where they start with their hands over their head and slowly lower them. Apparently it’s a common thing that scouts and guides have been doing for years. Now notice the original poster’s Facebook update: “turns out Trail Life isn’t very happy with this photo”, as he links to the above update. That hardly captures what’s going on here! Trail Life is right not to be happy, and the poster should have acknowledged this. The unwarranted mockery continues in the subsequent discussion. The thought seems to be: don’t let the truth get in the way of a satisfying story!

I should clarify: those involved in this thread are all really smart people. Most of them have PhDs in the Humanities or Social Sciences, and the one I know personally is a very impressive political philosopher–someone who’s judgment I respect a great deal. But what he did there was just wrong. And what the photographer who took the misleadingly-timed photo did was even worse. (Pause to imagine what machinations were going on in his or her mind as the photo was snapped at that perfect moment, and then as the misleading image was captioned and published. It’s ugly.)

None of the sheer wrongness of this act was ever acknowledged in the post. Nor (I suspect) has anyone taken a moment to ask themselves: “Why was I so willing to believe these kids were doing Nazi salutes–or, minimally, were so stupid they failed to notice the resemblance?”. I deliberately put this rhetorical question in the first person: when I first saw the update that morning on Facebook, I didn’t question its truth at all. To my shame.

This is not an isolated incident. If you take the time to follow a Libertarian/Conservative blog such as the Volokh Conspiracy, you’ll see repeated examples of leading figures on the Left distorting the views of their opponents and behaving in other abominable ways. I can’t stress this enough: it happens all the time! You just have to be willing to see it.

In saying all this, I don’t mean to be making the Cable-news move of declaring a pox on both houses equally. I don’t believe that the sins of the right are matched by the sins of the left. But here’s the thing: the sins of the left repel me so much more. I feel contaminated by them. If our beliefs and our causes are better, then we shouldn’t have to sink to such tactics. I think a lot of Conservative positions are poorly defended, so I’m not terribly surprised when some of their defenders mislead and use inappropriate rhetoric. But when my own side does it, I feel personally betrayed.

To wrap things up, here’s my stance on the anger debate. When we too quickly dismiss the people we disagree with as stupid or evil–as we routinely do!–we’re the ones in the wrong. And even if we think the views are poorly argued or harmful, we should take the time to expose the wrongness and try to convince them of it. Like Socrates. Anger can be a healthy emotion, and there are plenty of discussions in which it’s ultimately warranted. But too often it serves as a cheap substitute for the pursuit of truth, harming everyone involved.

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4 Responses to On Political Anger

  1. Josh says:

    Isn’t your example more one of the perils of out-of-context momentary glimpses at something on the internet, and the likelihood of hoaxes therein, and not as much about the expression of anger? I mean obviously that’s a real phenomenon, and one that’s bad, but isn’t that distinct from the manner in which someone expresses themselves (i.e., angrily or not)? Couldn’t you be entirely non-angry and still make mistakes like this, and also couldn’t you be very angry but also very acutely aware of context?

  2. Nates says:

    I’ll answer your question with another question, Josh. Do you believe that these Facebook users’ dislike of the depicted conservative group played a significant role in their gullibly believing such an obvious hoax? (Or with their not feeling bad afterward for having believed it?) I hope we can agree that they would have been much less likely to fall for a similarly absurd story involving, say, the local Young Democrats. At any rate, if we don’t agree on this much, then we may find it difficult to find common ground in this discussion.

    Assuming we do agree about this, my suggestion is that anger (or any other attitude of disrespect toward people we disagree with) best explains this difference in reaction. And then I’m trying to draw a lesson from this, which is: anger (or disrespect, etc.) is often a knowledge-distorting emotion. That’s a reason to be wary of it in political and cultural discussions.

    Also, just to clarify: given that my concern is epistemic in nature, it’s ultimately the emotional state of the writer I’m interested in, not what form the writing itself takes. (Of course, people caught up in throes of anger will often express themselves angrily–which is why we can use their writings as clues to their inner state–but they need not do so.)

    In general, I have a philosophical and personal interest in these sorts of knowledge-distorting attitudes. I’m now more self-conscious about anger and disrespect (and thus perhaps less likely to be misled by them than I used to be), but there are plenty of others. For me–someone who’s competitive by nature and who takes pride in his intellectual abilities–the desire to win a debate (or simply not to be proved wrong) is always a hazard. I do worry about how this clouds my judgment in our various blog discussions.

  3. Josh says:

    I do agree that certain kinds of anger cloud people’s judgment. I’m working on the thought that there are forms of anger not susceptible to that criticism (insert perhaps futile future blog promise here), but yes, I do agree in that limited sense.

    Now I think there are a couple of other factors also at work in your Facebook example, and I think those factors explain the misjudgments more than the emotional state of the people involved.

    Factor #1 – groupthink. We’re talking about an example where a group of people are very willing to believe a set of people they perceive as other. This seems conceptually distinct from whether they are angry or not.

    Factor #2 – the internet’s lack of context. People catch a glimpse of a picture for which no immediate context is provided, in a situation where they’re unlikely to even take the time to pursue that context. If it’s on their phone and they’re stopped at a traffic light, for example, the thought just doesn’t have enough time to develop. This factor is also conceptually distinct from whether they’re angry.

    Factors #1 and #2, in conjunction with a certain kind of anger, will obviously produce bad results. Which is exactly why we need an account of good and bad anger. I think that if one has done the work to avoid groupthink and also context-free experiences, the form of anger that will result may be better. I’m not saying those are sufficient conditions for good forms of anger expression, but perhaps necessary ones.

  4. Nates says:

    Agreed.

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