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. 

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