The word ‘angry’ is being thrown around with loose abandon. Editorials across the free press note the ‘anger of the voters.’ There is legitimate anger. But there is also illegitimate anger. Does legitimacy make any difference? Is anger the same whether legitimate or not? Is an angry voter a rational voter?
The essence of anger is an attempt at empowerment – some would just say an attempt at power and control. People naturally want control of their life – and when frustrated often turn to anger as a life tool. If it works – it is only a short term gain.
Every business manager or labor union leader has been to at least one seminar on ‘anger in the workplace.’ Generally these seminars are designed to identify people who bring their anger with them – they were angry before they ever entered the workplace doors. Anger is a big issue in modern America. A cottage industry has sprung up with Anger Management classes. Even Hollywood has made movies around this single issue. The spoof with Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler makes the point of this post. One angry act does not make an angry person – and conversely – an angry electorate does not necessarily translate into a political movement.
How can we distinguish between legitimate anger and the pent up explosive anger of an individual. We offer this simple test: Is the demonstrated anger disproportionate to the circumstance? Jack Nicholson again offers some useful insight. Several years ago Mr. Nicholson was driving in Los Angeles. He did something with his car, like cut someone off, and the other driver yelled something at Jack. Jack stopped his car, grabbed a convenient golf club, and began to beat the other driver’s car. Lawsuits were filed. Negotiations ensued. An out of court settlement was reached. Road Rage is a modern phenomenon and is considered the product of an “angry person.” With perhaps legitimate offense, the person acting on Road Rage is considered to be responding disproportionately to the offense. The Road Rage Motto is: “Anyone going faster than you is a maniac, anyone going slower is an idiot.” All of us recognize road rage when we see it. And flipping someone off is different than pounding their car with a tire tool.
But how about Government Rage. When does frustration with government, (either for doing too little or for doing too much) tip the scales to Rage? Some people have justifiable anger at some government practices – or lack of practice. We have to note that behavior rising to the level of atrocity is value dependent. At the top of this writer’s list is the failure to monitor our financial system. The devastating economic collapse of the first decade of the 21st Century has earned a prominent place in history. Other people have different values – different ideologies – and there is no real right or wrong in prioritizing perceived disaster. There is no shortage of issues – take your pick: Iraq, Afghanistan, private business bailout, health care, education, infrastructure maintenance, immigration… The difference is in the expression of anger at the perceived wrong.
We should probably make a note about terrorism as political expression. Some organizations plot and plan violence against others for political or religious gain – Al Quaeda comes to mind. While the product seems a violent expression of anger, the organizational cause separates terrorism from individual expression of anger. September 11, 2001, was a terrorist act. The Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh was an expression of out-of-control government rage. While McVeigh initially had cohorts – these men backed off when they realized McVeigh was serious about murder. McVeigh’s act was terrifying, as was Jack Nicholson when he was swinging that golf club. Violent rage is different than methodical, purposeful, terrorism.
Distinguishing acts of terror from acts of rage is problematic. A few historical examples might make the point. Columbine High School Shooting, the 1927 Bath School Disaster, the 1966 University of Texas Massacre, and the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Most of us do not think of these incidents as acts of terrorism – certainly they were terrifying – but we generally think of these as the actions of deranged individuals – angry people driven to rage. When we see students walking through the cafeteria carrying machine guns we get the idea right away this is not a legitimate protest of the school lunch program.
Over the top rage does not necessarily mean physical violence. Dramatic distortions of truth qualify as being disproportionate to the circumstance. We are not talking about people sitting around their kitchen tables in the evening bitching about misunderstood government action. When people take time off from their jobs, make ridiculous posters and signs, travel across the country, and gather in groups to chant and scream and stomp and shout – perhaps they have gone over the top. To actively and adamantly solicit others to ridiculous belief systems is a form of government rage. But rage is not sustainable – thus rage does not translate into a viable political movement. When we see people defining the government of the United States of America as totalitarian, fascist, communist, and socialist we get the idea right away that this is not a legitimate protest of government programs.
No one could convince Timothy McVeigh that he had crossed the threshold of sanity – his internal anger was steaming. No one could have convinced those two boys at Columbine High School that they were across the line of legitimacy.
The same seems to apply to those who promote racism. Check the picture to the left – there is no doubt of the racist intent. This is over the top of normal angry discourse. We are not saying that these people are terrorists or that they are deranged (well, maybe a little). But it is apparent that their unbridled anger has not been focused into positive energy.
Whoops, we just introduced another term from anger management – positive energy. What are we talking about – positive energy? Anger, at its most basic level, is energy. Healthy anger is not an emotion that stands alone. Anger is a by-product of fear, or hurt, or feeling out-of-control. The fear, hurt, or out-of-control feelings may be misguided but the emotion feels very real. With the validity of emotion our fight or flight syndrome kicks in and we generate energy. To be clear, love can also generate energy. The point is that we have energy to expend – the question is what is an appropriate expression of the energy?
People in the pro-gun 2nd Amendment lobby quickly note the Founding Fathers as justification for their demonstration. They note the Declaration of Independence that clearly states that an abusive government should be challenged. The pro-gun folks see themselves in the image of Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and Washington. Are they the same – or is there a fundamental difference? None of the founding fathers went to protest rallies with their semi-automatic pistols strapped to their sides in hopes of intimidating others.
A public display of a gun is not a sign of willingness to work together toward a common solution. Using a gun to dictate government action is the conceptual opposite of the purpose of the Constitution of the United States. Using guns and bombs to kill innocent people (Oklahoma City, Columbine) is not an expression of sane politics.
Back to positive energy. In my own life I was fortunate to find a job working with computers in 1972. I had no formal computer training – I had never even seen a computer. I took a job as a night computer operator, in 14 months was a computer programmer – and life was good. But after about ten years there were people all over the place with college degrees in Computer Science, Information Systems, Business Computer Applications – all over the place. My competition for promotion became people with five years experience with a college degree compared to my ten years of experience. I was angry that some of these educated folks were promoted around me. I used that anger as a motivator to go back to college – I went to night school four nights a week for four years and graduated from college. Positive energy at work.
Anger, legitimate or not – feels the same. Channeling the energy of anger into positive or negative action is the difference. Walking around with a gun strapped to one’s side is a menacing act of negative energy. Carrying signs distorting government action on health care as being fascist, socialistic, communistic, totalitarian, and dictatorial – to the point of comparisons to Adolph Hitler – is ridiculously negative and does not serve anyone well. This sort of behavior promotes the worst in people. Resentment, bitterness, hate – the products of misdirected anger provide dangerous fuel for people who already suffer emotional trauma.
Consider this – anyone who is fanatical about anything is harboring some deep emotional trauma. I say this because the very nature of man – the one thing that distinguishes man in the animal kingdom – is the ability to reason. Our Founding Fathers might have been angry with King George – but they reasoned a response – they formed a government where reason would prevail. Violence would not be necessary to change leadership. Voters could express their desire at the polls. A positive expression of opinion.
The question is not really one of anger. The question is of the expression of the anger.