Why are we so angry?

anger

David Brooks argues today that it's a mistake to attribute the shooting in Tucson to political vitriol. The shooter, he writes, shows every sign of being a violent schizophrenic, motivated by something other than the current angry political rhetoric. Thus, it is a case of overkill (intended) to blame one's political opponents and their spokespeople in the media for the tragedy. He writes,

In short, the evidence before us suggests that Loughner was locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it. Yet the early coverage and commentary of the Tucson massacre suppressed this evidence. The coverage and commentary shifted to an entirely different explanation: Loughner unleashed his rampage because he was incited by the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party, the anti-immigrant movement and Sarah Palin. Mainstream news organizations linked the attack to an offensive target map issued by Sarah Palin’s political action committee. The Huffington Post erupted, with former Senator Gary Hart flatly stating that the killings were the result of angry political rhetoric. Keith Olbermann demanded a Palin repudiation and the founder of the Daily Kos wrote on Twitter: “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.” Others argued that the killing was fostered by a political climate of hate.

I agree with Brooks on this point, but, in his and others defense of political speech, he misses a much larger and important point. Angry acts arise, not from the moment of the action, but from a much older story of unfulfilled promises. It is something in the present that triggers the angry act, sometimes but not always the perpetrator(s) of the dissatisfaction carried in the stories of the past that shape action in the present.

The shooting puts a spotlight on the angry context of politics in general. The important question we should be asking is why does something that exists in the culture of many polities without creating so much rancor produce so much anger in the US. It's not just in political speech that we see the signs of anger. Murder, the epitome of anger, is about three times higher in the US than in our neighbor to the North, Canada. The ratio of gun ownership in the two, measured by percent households owning guns is about 4 to 3. There is no clear correlation with gun ownership, so the large number of homicides in the US would seem to come from other sources. There are many arguments for gun control, which I share, but this shooting, by it, adds little to these arguments. It would be more meaningful to examine the 70-80 deaths caused by guns everyday for all reasons, with suicide and murder roughly equal as the more relevant data.

What I see getting lost in the instant punditry is a focus on anger itself. Where does all the anger shown in political rhetoric, domestic violence, entertainment content, road rage, and other places in our culture come from? There is so much anger everywhere that anger management has become a big business. I found thousands of articles like the one quoted below pointing to services to "manage" anger. Many touted their programs leading off with something like, "Anger is a normal emotion, but . . .

One out of five Americans has an anger management problem. Anger is a natural human emotion and is nature's way of empowering us to "ward off" our perception of an attack or threat to our well being. The problem is not anger; the problem is the mismanagement of anger. Mismanaged anger and rage is the major cause of conflict in our personal and professional relationships. Domestic abuse, road rage, workplace violence, divorce, and addiction are just a few examples of what happens when anger is mismanaged.

I believe that this is all based on a misconception of the phenomena of anger. It is the same error made in managing the environment through greening. Neither program addresses underlying causes. If these root factors are not exposed and addressed, any management program can have only momentary effectiveness. In the model of human behavior on which I build my arguments for sustainability, emotions come forth when the immediate situation causes a breakdown in the flow of action so serious that there is nothing available to the [angry] actor to restore the flow toward the end that was envisioned in the first place.

Anger comes when the breakdown raises a story from the past about some other unfulfilled promise, linked to the immediate scene. The actor is driven by a desire to have that old promise fulfilled in the present. Often, as in many domestic interactions, the anger is visited upon the same person that is present in the old story. But in the case of stories that are based on some impersonal or diffuse cultural story, the anger alights on some person rarely involved in the inner story. That is why we label so many acts of political or other acts of public violence as senseless. I expect we would find unfulfilled promises at the root of all if we could probe the psyche of these angry. It may help to defuse the anger with some form of behavioral discipline, but the story of unfulfilled promises will still linger to show itself again in the future. It might help to recognize that it is always an observer (including the actor) of the action that labels the [emotional] act as anger. The cause is not the ascription of anger, but the unfulfilled promise that rose from the unconscious and entered the room.

The Tucson shooting again raises the issue of guns, but the more important issue to address is what's the source of all the societal anger. In my last post I used the American Dream as a metaphor for the set of promises underlying our political-economic-social system. That Dream is voiced mostly through political rhetoric, but lies deep in the psyche of Americans. When this country was born, it might have been appropriate and realistic to speak of such a dream, when there was so much of the Continent still empty in terms of space and cultural structure.

Is it still realistic? Some dream, perhaps, but not the same old story. The limits of the Earth are increasingly setting bounds on our efforts to find happiness. The doors to an equal share in our prosperity are slowly closing. The American exceptionalism that fueled the Dream is disappearing with the rise of many other countries. As long as our political system continues to generate stories that are full of empty or unrealizable promises, we will see more acts of political violence in the future. It is inevitable.

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3 Comments

David M. Carter said:

John,

I must disagree with your statement (last paragraph): "The limits of the Earth are increasingly setting bounds on our efforts to find happiness". This would only be true if happiness is tied directly to our levels of consumption and ability to amass financial resources. Unfortunately, that is what most Americans believe. Well-being science is discovering quite conclusively that happiness (more aptly, well-being) is only slightly correlated to our economic circumstances. Specifically, well-being arises from the quality of our relationships, the extent to which we are truly engaged, the extent to which we find meaning in what we do, and to the extent that we are able to cultivate and experience positive emotions. There is psychological fall-out from our hyper-consumerist society that, unfortunately, many of us fail to notice. I find myself falling into the same trap when I seek out more working hours in the hopes of building up adequate college funds for my children, rather than spending the time with them necessary to foster those things that truly bring us the most well-being.

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

Thanks. I didn't find the right words I was trying to say the world is different now from the state in the 1700's, and that the "dreams" no longer live in the same context. I should not have connected happiness directly to any limit. I do think that well-being will be affected in categories other than the subjective assessment of happiness. It is determined, as you say, by the quality of our relationships, but only in part. Maslow's hierarchy begins with the need for proper subsistence and similar material goods.

Tom Ehrenfeld said:

Nice post, Dad. I think that there's a parallel in the system dynamics affecting this shooting and the system dynamics driving unsustainability. The key here is that the political pundits and media opinionators are virtually incapable of framing the events in Arizona sensibly. They are locked into a model of argument that seeks blame, that scores points, that has lost a sense of reflection, become un-tethered from basic values of caring and humanity. While personally I find more complicity in the actions of the far right, and the far right media fostering the rhetoric of violence and demonization, I find that the entire community of people who shape opinion in this country are complicit. I don't expect the public debate to help me understand the actions any better; instead I can only hope to see one person give voice a few of my thoughts, so that possibly some positive change will occur. But how can real change happen with this collective addiction to, what, the emotional equivalent of consumption? I can't precisely articulate this addiction, but I find the collective behavior to be mindless, mechanical, destructive.

How do we get to the point where someone steps up and says "Have you no shame Senator?" What will it take to generate compassionate, informed, constructive public discourse?