By Troy Headrick
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.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.