Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Aut ridenda omnia aut flenda sunt: some thoughts on anger

We live in an age that at least appears to be bathed in outrage. Maybe we are angrier than we used to be. Maybe we are made angrier by the way social media allows us the intimacy of knowing the thoughts of our non-intimates while accelerating the formation of virtual though effective mobs. Maybe nothing has changed but the way we think about these things.

It's not just that we appear to be angrier. To some degree we are expected to be angry. If you enter a discussion about abortion or racism or campus sexual harassment or ISIS or Trump's latest tirade or whatever the issue of the moment is, it isn't sufficient to have the correct opinion. Of course, it won't be accepted if you have a different opinion even if you can mount a reasonable defense of your heresy. But, even when you are on the right side, you have to be sufficiently passionate about it. If you aren't outraged and ready to march, it's suspicious that you even care. 
But this may just give anger too much credit. This week, I've been reviewing Seneca's De Ira. Among the demonstrations of his erudition and theoretical virtue, he speaks to the way we live now. Particularly striking is his questioning of the effectiveness of anger. I think it's common now to think that anger helps to motivate action. Seneca denies this more than he should; in his Stoicism, he believes we should motivated and act wholly on reason. I'm suspicious of this for both Aristotelian and Humean reasons—reason alone will always leave us cold—but I think he's right in the way that anger can at least tend to motivate us in the wrong ways. 
Anger is, after all, an emotion, or a passion in his taxonomy. When we are passionate, we don't think clearly and we act in ways that are not means to the ends we desire. Anger, in particular, takes over. We strike out at people who aren't to blame for the injustices we are angry about; we don't dig deeper into what we are angry about, failing in some cases to see that there was nothing to be angry about in the first place; we harm ourselves and those we care about, metaphorically (and sometimes literally) punching walls and destroying those places and relationships in which we live. We commit injustices small and large to vent our rage. None of this gets us to our goals, at least not in the most direct way. If the machine is unjust, maybe raging against it isn't the best plan. Maybe planning, rationally and coolly, would be more effective.
More importantly, it is easy to lose the humanity of our opponents in our rage. Anger turns our opponents into demons. Demons don't have any goodness left in them, demons don't have reasons, and demons don't deserve our respect. And, if they are demons, we are angels or saints at the worst. Angels are fully good, they have all reason on their side, and deserve full respect. Angels aren't humans; even saints aren't like any humans we know. In anger, we lose the humanity of others and we lose our own. We can no longer see their goodness nor our own failings. And, every disagreement can become an existential fight between Good and Evil. In such fights, no compromise is possible. There is no cooperating with evil. Thus, injustice is likely never to be ameliorated if it can't be erased altogether.
Finally, as Seneca also notes, anger is hard to maintain. You can coldly hate someone for decades, even generations. But, it's hard to maintain the froth of anger for long, at least about the same thing. Online an outrage lasts for no more than a day or two and then another gains our attention. The mob swarms from one to the next. But when we move onto to the next outrage, what happens to the one we've left behind? It's left behind. And, the thing about real problems, real injustices, is that they take time and commitment and anger just won't keep us at that. It takes something else, maybe a passion after all, but not that one. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why shouldn't you sit in my front yard to eat your lunch?

In the middle of the summer a contractor for the city began replacing the sewer lines in our neighborhood. Having finished that, the same contractor is now digging up the streets they have just sort-of repaired to replace the water lines. This has meant a summer with the constant sound of heavy machinery and multiple backhoes and bulldozers racing through the street at breakneck pace and parked throughout the neighborhood overnight, through weekends, and during holidays. The work is scheduled to be completed by March 2017; so much for private contractors being more efficient than public workers. 
These are the sorts of first-world problems that people like me like to complain about. Living in San Diego, they combine with the third-world streets—only slightly better than those around my husband's family home in La Matanza in Argentina—to give us some small thing to temper the weather and sun and ocean and mountains and everything. But I'm not going to complain about that now. Instead, I'm going to complain about myself.
Since this is the last week before the academic year picks back up, I am still at home with the dog and my one remaining monarch caterpillar. I spend the day reading and avoiding work and dreading/longing for the beginning of classes. As I ate a piece of leftover pizza today, I noticed that one of the workers had walked from the work-zone, which surrounds us, but isn't within a block of our house in either direction, to sit on our retaining wall to eat his lunch. This irked me, but I figured that he was only sitting on the wall and, after all, he needs somewhere to eat his lunch. After a second piece of pizza, I looked out again and he had been joined by another worker. His companion wasn't sitting on the wall but lying on the stones on our front yard, between two plants. From being irked, I became angry.
When I walked the dog I noticed that they had their coolers and a radio and a whole spread in front of the house. As Mateo and I walked around the block, I thought about what I should do. Should I confront the workers and ask them not to lie on our yard? Should I call the company and complain about their behavior? Should I wait for Fernando to deal with it?
When we got back to the house, I said hello to them and went inside. By this time I had begun to ask myself a different question: What the hell is wrong with me? Here were two people eating their lunch in the middle of a hot day doing relatively unpleasant work. And, I was upset because they were sitting on a wall and lying on some rocks. Of course, that wall and those rocks are mine. But, they were doing no harm and getting a little bit of rest.
The answer to what is wrong with me (in this context) is a fully American, fully Lockean, common, and inhumane conception of property. The harm they were doing was a very minimal trespass, one that did no damage either to the property or its owners. The wall and yard are in the same shape as they were before their lunch. I wasn't going to be using it for something else during that time. But, as my reactions and actions show, I have deeply imbued the notion that property is sacrosanct, that is exists as a right and value in and of itself and before all others.
But that's not what property is like. Property, as Aquinas taught, exists for the good of the community. A right to property exists to help us avoid tragedies of the commons, because people take better care of what is theirs than what is all of ours, because collective farming and cooperatives and group work in classes tends not to be as productive. But property is not some primary value; it can be justified only insofar as it contributes to the commonweal. In a certain, very real way, each of us holds it in trust for the community. And, when the good of the community is threatened by property claims those claims must be reexamined. Sometimes the community will win and sometimes property will. But when it's between two men sitting down for fifteen minutes and my claims on the wall, it's probably the community that wins.