Anger, Violence, and Shame

football violence Matt Bai, writing in the NYTimes today, asks a question that is on many minds in the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy, "Is the Anger Gone?"

For anyone who hoped that the tragedy in Tucson might jolt the political class into some new period of civility and reflection, suddenly subduing all the radio ranters and acid bloggers, the days that followed brought a cold reality.

He, like many others, is referring to the superficial tone of all public, not just political, rhetoric. If it were more civil, it would enable a wider range of responsiveness, but the apparent civility would only hide the angry tone of life in the US that continues to rumble beneath the surface.

Bai asked why we do not seem to be able to experience the kind of national epiphany that emerged from the "Army-McCarthy" hearings of the 60's.

Not all transformational moments entail violence. John Lewis Gaddis, the pre-eminent cold war scholar and Yale professor, sees a national turning point in 1954, when Senator Joseph McCarthy testified before a Senate subcommittee in what came to be known as the Army-McCarthy hearings.

The interrogation of McCarthy by Joseph Welch, an Army lawyer — “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” — resonated throughout a country that was just then discovering the nascent power of television. Years of ruinous disagreement over the threat of internal Communism seemed to dissipate almost overnight.

“The whole McCarthy moment — the air just went out of it altogether,” Professor Gaddis says. “McCarthy was politically dead at that point and physically dead in three years.”

Bai's longing builds on many mistakes about the meaning of anger, violence, sham, and decency; mistakes that may help explain our apparent powerlessness in responding to a political world that seems to have gone over the top, to use today's vernacular. First, let's look at anger and violence.

Agreements to tone down the political rhetoric would be wonderful, but would not address the underlying causes of widespread anger. Temperate conversations always allow, but do not guarantee, more possibilities for agreement and coordination of action without coercion or domination. [This is the tie to my work on sustainability. Flourishing needs a non-dominating culture to appear.] Anger is a recognizable pattern of behavior that surfaces in situations where actors cannot find any ready and proven action held in their inner toolbox of possibilities that would serve to break the evident deadlock. By common agreement we call that pattern, anger, and label it as an emotion. It is very important to distinguish the emotion from the act that generally accompanies anger. Violence describes such an act, but is not the same as anger.

Violence can be and is all too frequently used as a tool of ideology with no emotion involved. Violence is at the extreme of many classes of action designed to get someone to do your bidding. Other means include reasoned arguments, compensation, pleadings, and so on. Anger does not always lead to violence, either. We talk about stuffing one's anger, meaning that we simply grit our teeth, restrain from responding to the immediate emotion until it subsides (at least superficially).

Anger arises in a situation where one party is demanding the other do something to resolve a breakdown in the action. It shows up when the flow has been relatively uneventful until a moment when it suddenly shifts to what would be described as anger by some observer, either an onlooker or either of the actors involved. The phenomenology, not psychology, of anger that I fall back upon in trying to explain human behavior suggests that the anger comes from a sudden emergence into consciousness of a prior unsatisfying experience that metaphorically (or similarly) pops into the present moment. The past becomes the present, and the party on which the anger is visited takes the place of the one present in the memory.

There is no way for that party to abate the anger because he or she hasn't a clue of where it is coming from. It's not in the scene at hand. The anger arises because the lack of effective responses at the moment in the past becomes the same for the present moment. With no strategies or tools stored in the body appropriate for the moment, emotions of all sorts become present. Fear accompanies sudden situations where one lacks coping capability. Strollers flee from the appearance of bears in the forest. Rangers may leave hurriedly, but not out of fear.

A long discussion for a blog, but a necessary one to begin to open up the meaning and origins of anger. If we want to defuse the violence that anger triggers, we must uncover and deal with the accumulated unfulfilled set of cultural and personal promises or dreams that reappear when the normal flow of action is seriously interrupted. And until we begin to delegitimate the use of violence in angry encounters, we will continue to see events like that in Tucson. Anger will be with us as long as people carry dreams or other forms of unrealized promises, presumably forever.

But violence, as either a physical or speech act, need not be the action of choice in angry moments. For that to happen, the existing normality must be replaced by something more benign. Not just a momentary armistice; a long period of cultural change is necessary. Such is the strategy in my work and book. Sustainability, based on flourishing, is a vision rising from a world full of unfulfilled promises. Its prolonged absence has fueled anger strong enough to ignite revolutions. When the culture itself in the cause of the unfulfilled promises, then there is no other way but to change the culture. Anger management by any quick fix cannot work.

Welch-McCarthy1.jpg

To finish this long blog post, the comparison to McCarthyism and the enormous impact of Joseph Welch's remonstration asking, Have you no sense of decency?" is not valid today. Shaming works only when there is a recognized societal norm that can be called upon when its absence becomes dreadfully present. McCarthy built his case on inflating the "Communist menace," and on adopting a bullying set of tactics. The times were gentler then. The embryonic television programming was full of unrealistic, but blissful, domestic situations. Walter Cronkite was the metaphor for calmness in the media. Violence, of course, was present, but it was not a norm in today's sense. The absence of publicly condoned violence set the ground for the immediate and powerful impact of Welch's statement. People, especially our leaders, were expected to act decently.

Shame has little or no power in a culture where violence is accepted as a normal part of public speech or of entertainment on the playing field and the many screens we watch today. To what extent shaming might work today, depends on the existence and power of a different and more benign norm. Norms are nothing more than widespread agreements on ways of acting in public (and in private). It is clear that no such norm exists. The public's ownership of 250,000,000 guns, designed only to do violence, is more than enough proof. So any form of shame aimed at violence simply will not work.

In any case, shaming has nothing to do with the anger that leads to violence. We must, if we are to avoid the tragedies of Oklahoma City or Tucson, engage in a widespread period of deep personal and public reflection to uncover and deal with the mass of unfulfilled dreams and promises that show up all too often with such tragic consequences. Those who would continue to keep these lingering, potential sources of anger alive, but have no real intention of or lack the capability for realizing them must be held as complicit in whatever tragedies occur in the future.

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2 Comments

David M Carter said:

John,

You wrote a couple of things in this blog post that stand out with me. Both are profound and provocative. I hope that you will elaborate more on them in the future.

1) Flourishing needs a non-dominating culture to appear.

2) Sustainability, based on flourishing, is a vision rising from a world of unfulfilled promises.

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

I'll try to continue on this theme.