I’m seeing anger up close recently. I’m seeing more problems with anger now, ones I didn’t see before.
When you break down anger into its constituent pieces, it’s largely a way of making yourself visibly feel bad to effect change from others. The problem is that it’s not very good at it. When people get angry at me, I immediately and reflexively feel as if I now have a right to resist them, on principle alone. There are many times that I’ve successfully resisted or walked away from angry people in my life.
This usually leads quickly to an ultimatum, and a separation; I know, having been on both sides of the equation. This usually leads to a trivial victory – trivial, because it just defaults to the normal state of everyone towards everyone else, benign indifference. On the other hand, in terms of getting you what you outlined as your requirements? Rarely successful.
Either the person you are angry at doesn’t feel you have the leverage to ask for that, or, just as often, isn’t capable of giving it. (The reasons for this frequently go beyond ‘doesn’t want to,’ and come from years of habit, perhaps unspoken beliefs, etc.)
Now, let’s look at something which has been effective, looking back, usually very quickly, at effecting change – something with no cachet however, and no sense of ‘awesomeness’ or ‘greatness’ attached to it. Tears.
Probably every time I’ve seen tears, they’ve been effective at wresting a significant and immediate change out of me. I don’t think they’ve failed once at this. Because they are genuine, and move me on a deeper level that just bypasses the normal anger circuits and yanks everything out onto the table. They’re ‘real’ in a way that few things are. If someone has been so emotionally moved as to put themselves in this situation, then I will respond commensurately.
Granted, these tears have had a gendered aspect, but if someone of my own gender did it? Twice as effective. If I had plans, they’ve been scrapped. There have been times when it would have been extremely useful in my own personal relationships to call up tears, but I couldn’t, and the moment passed.
I can’t imagine someone I know crying and me walking away. Impossible. Even if I barely knew them, it would still compel some kind of response.
Difficult to look at, unless artfully transformed.
Anger, though? Easy. No problem at all. People have been angry at me more times than I can count. Whenever anger doesn’t feel fair (as often happens), it’s easily brushed off. It’s even possible to take pleasure in bucking people’s anger, if you can pose it as some kind of Stand For Justice (which people do, all the time).
By contrast, I have never taken pleasure in the tears of anyone I know, and find the very idea abhorrent.
In personal relationships, anger at least reaches the right person, but outside of that, anger rarely finds its intended target. Instead, it usually finds all kinds of bad targets, who are not really the intended audience but imagine they are anyway.
In fact the people who are sensitive to your criticisms, because they are sensitized to them, usually aren’t the people who are causing the problem in its serious aspects. Often they’re just churning up unnecessary and unhelpful guilt. So that becomes a secondary problem.
Anger often comes with a sense of ‘fighting the power’, fighting an important fight that needs to be fought on behalf of others, not just yourself. When examined critically, though, those ‘others’ are not in a position to appreciate your efforts, and frequently wouldn’t care. If you are explicitly taking up the cause of social justice, that is a different story, but if the welfare of others is not your primary focus, this applies. If it’s a fight for others secondarily, then it’s probably a bit confused and much too indirect.
This brings us to the problem of irrationality in anger, which, outside yourself, becomes pretty obvious. “Anybody can become angry–that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way–that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy” (I think this is the first time I’ve quoted Aristotle in my life).
Your anger might be in the right ballpark, but it is so often contaminated by so many ‘extenuating circumstances’ and flimsy pretexts that it’s hard to sustain at the level it’s needs to be to support the request being made. The more links of reasoning are required in your chain of anger, the more true this is. If you’re five or six links out, forget about it.
This is why I’ve kind around to the ethical view now of anger as a kind of poison.
Sometimes poisons, in small (usually tiny) doses, became medicines, and are helpful. In lots of ways though, anger reminds me of consumer-level stock market investment. Is it possible to pick and choose in the stock market in such a way as to ‘do good’ with it? Yes, theoretically. Considering the alternative uses of your time and talent, however, and how far they take you with the same amount of effort (usually less), and impart other good qualities besides – is it the best choice? No. There are other, much better, much easier ones.
Whatever its theoretical uses, it’s just as easy to go without anger in your ordinary life and get better results.