If Anger Is a Gift, Let’s Not Do Gifts This Christmas
The following is my rebuttal to Michael Karson’s recent post, ‘The Gift of Anger’. This post was just one of a plethora of pro-anger posts assembled recently under the collection, ‘Benefits of Anger’ —and by no means the most objectionable. I chose it because it was clear, concise and limited itself to four points, to which I shall attempt four rejoinders. I note that Dr Karson follows each of his four ‘benefits’ of anger with a caveat or downside (usually the extreme case), and that his piece is therefore more nuanced than might come across below.
1. “Anger tells us when an injustice is being perpetrated.”
Correction: Anger tells us when we believe an injustice is being perpetrated.
Aye, there’s the rub! The other guy usually believes an equal and opposite injustice has been perpetrated. You think it’s unjust that I came home late without calling. But I think it’s unjust that I should be nagged and held to account. He thinks it’s unjust that the toilet seat should be left down; she thinks it’s unjust that the toilet seat should be left up. Those guys think it’s unjust for a given strip of land to be governed by the other guys; the other guys think it’s unjust to have to keep fighting to defend it. Indeed, as Karson himself writes: “[w]ar fury is whipped up with tales and images of injustice.”
War (and conflict generally) is a ‘gift’ [read scourge] of anger…
“Without anger, social justice would be an entirely academic concern.”
Correction: Without anger, social justice would be an entirely academic concern among individuals whose only motivation for social change was anger.
For the rest of us, there would still be compassionate attempts to aid those in need, enthusiastic projects to better the world, the natural and inevitable spread of education and enlightenment, and strategic/popularist political endeavours.
2. Anger incites us to fight for dominance.
Does it? Hmm. Yes and no. Humans, as hierarchical social primates, are naturally status-conscious and power-hungry, angry or not. Anger arises, as with ‘injustice’, when one man believes he deserves a higher rank than another— with the other man usually thinking the opposite. Anger was once highly relevant to such disputes, as physical strength and prowess were how status/ranking was decided (i.e. fighting), and anger provided an adrenaline shot (and facial/postural bluff) to that end. These days, however, when status has more to do with social or financial success, anger is a handicap more than anything else. (See my previous post, ‘Is Zero Anger Optimal? Yes (With Footnotes)’).
In any case, existentially speaking, one can argue that getting wrapped up in status, power, rank and such things (even successfully) can lead to a joyless, stressful, and ultimately empty life. So, even if anger did make us fight for status (i.e. made us more type-A/ narcissistic), then that would only be another of those ‘Bad Santa gifts’ (see illustration above) to go with the creepy doll and hash pipe…
“[A]nger is often the source of the solution to problems posed by anger.”
Agreed— though I’d word it slightly differently: Anger is often the proposed solution to problems whose source was anger in the first place.
But yes, thank you, perpetual cycles of violence are another ‘gift’ of anger.
3. “Anger tells us our personal space is getting violated and motivates us to protect it.”
Correction: If and when you view an impingement on your personal space as a ‘violation’ you will experience anger.
In fact if you construe anything as a violation (i.e. of a ‘right’), then you’ll experience anger. Michael Karson’s own subjective account of a man’s knee touching his on a plane is illustrative. He reports feeling disappointed right off the bat that it is a man, not a woman, sitting next to him (based on prior experiences presumably). He typecasts all such men as “dogs who take what they can”, and misogynists(!) And he believes, apparently, that immediate physical countering is the only way to deal with them (“You’ve got to bang their knee with yours, and claim half the armrest the first time they give an inch.”) Such views will provoke anger, that is undoubtedly true—and potentially spark a nasty interaction on a flight. An alternative non-anger-engendering view might be that the man whose leg overfloweth is a person like you, who may or may not realise what he’s doing, who may or may not be happy to budge a little if asked, and who may or may not be a misogynist.
Air-rage is, however, yes, another ‘gift’ of anger.
4. “Anger tells you that […] a once reliably reinforced behavior is not garnering success. [… Without anger], you will sit in traffic mindlessly instead of considering alternate routes.”
Correction: Your eyes and ears tell you that a behaviour is no longer garnering success. Anger just makes you want to blame or punish someone for it.
Without anger, you will either sit in traffic mindlessly [sounds pretty Zen actually] OR consider alternate routes, depending on your goals/needs. If you’re not in a hurry, you may choose to take the time to enjoy a whole extra movement of a Beethoven symphony. If you are in a hurry, you will be sufficiently motivated by urgency or impatience to work out an alternate route without additionally needing to feel outraged at the ineptitude of city planners, or peeved at the injustice of fate.
But yes: road rage is another gift of anger for which we should give thanks.
Concluding remarks: Montaigne, the French writer, was baffled that people would refer to anger as a ‘weapon’, “for we move other weapons but this moveth us”. I’m just as baffled that people would refer to anger as a ‘gift’, for we give other gifts away, which are received happily; but this gives us away, and is received unhappily. If anger is a gift, it’s a whole gift set: with road rage, air rage, narcissistic rage, war, and perpetual cycles of violence all included, to mention only Karson’s special selection.
If anger is a gift, pray don’t re-gift.