The Real Roots of American Rage

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from The Atlantic,
January/February, 2019:

The untold story of how anger became the dominant emotion in our politics and personal lives—and what we can do about it.

I. An Angry Little Town
Soon after the snows of 1977 began to thaw, the residents of Greenfield, Massachusetts, received a strange questionnaire in the mail. “Try to recall the number of times you became annoyed and/or angry during the past week,” the survey instructed. “Describe the most angry of these experiences.” One woman knew her answer: Recently, her husband had bought a new car. Then he had driven it to his mistress’s house so she could admire the purchase. When the wife found out, she was livid. Furious. Her rage felt like an eruption she couldn’t control.

The survey was interested in the particulars of respondents’ anger. In its 14 pages, it sought an almost voyeuristic level of detail. The author of the questionnaire was James Averill, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. he was convinced that his academic colleagues misunderstood anger. Averill decided that the best way to understand anger was to survey ordinary people—people who get upset at their co-workers, who yell during rush hour—about their experiences. He went looking for an average town and found Greenfield.

Then, in early 2016, Averill was watching newscasts about the presidential primaries. The election season had barely started … reporters swarmed Donald Trump to ask how he felt about such a public renunciation. “Well, I think she’s right, I am angry,” Trump told CNN. “I’m angry, and a lot of other people are angry, too, at how incompetently our country is being run.” Trump continued: “As far as I am concerned, anger is okay. Anger and energy is what this country needs.”

Recently, however, the tenor of our anger has shifted. It has become less episodic and more persistent, a constant drumbeat in our lives. It is directed less often at people we know and more often at distant groups that are easy to demonize. These far-off targets may or may not have earned our ire; either way, they’re apt to be less invested in resolving our differences. The tight feedback loop that James Averill observed in Greenfield has been broken. Without the release of catharsis, our anger has built within us, exerting an unwanted pressure that can have a dark consequence: the desire not merely to be heard, but to hurt those we believe have wronged us.

Lately, evidence of anger’s destructive power is everywhere. Witness the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in which the nominee and his Republican backers in the Senate denounced the proceedings in red-faced diatribes. “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham shouted at his Democratic colleagues. “Boy, y’all want power. God, I hope you never get it.” On the midterm campaign trail, former Attorney General Eric Holder offered a revision of Michelle Obama’s high-minded credo from just two years earlier. “When they go low, we kick ’em,” he said. “That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.”

on both the left and the right, a visceral disdain for one’s political opponents has become common, as have feelings of schadenfreude when the other side suffers a setback. In 2012, political scientists at Emory University found that fewer than half of voters said they were deeply angry at the other party’s presidential nominee. In 2016, almost 70 percent of Americans were. What’s worse, this partisan nastiness was also directed at fellow citizens who held opposing views. In 2016, nearly half of Republicans believed that Democrats were lazy, dishonest, and immoral, according to the Pew Research Center. Democrats returned the favor: More than 70 percent said that “Republicans are more closed-minded than other Americans,” and a third said that they were unethical and unintelligent.

Trump made the most of this animosity during his campaign, as Averill predicted he would; he has mastered the levers of emotional manipulation better than any of his political opponents. But our predicament predates the current president. In 2001, just 8 percent of Americans told Pew they were angry at the federal government; by 2013, that number had more than tripled. If we diagnose our anger problem as merely a Trump problem, we’ll be sorely disappointed when he eventually departs public life and we remain enraged.

If moral indignation persists, however—and if the indignant lose faith that their anger is being heard—it can produce a third type of anger: a desire for revenge against our enemies that privileges inflicting punishment over reaching accord.

We are further down this path as a nation than you may realize, but it’s not too late for us to reverse course. If we can understand anger’s mechanisms, we might find a way to turn our indignation back into a strength.

II. Righteous Rage
Moral outrage must be closely managed, or it can do more harm than good.

III. The New Anger Merchants
In 1987, a television reporter named Geraldo Rivera began hosting a daytime talk show. It failed to attract much attention in its first year. Then he tried a new formula, inviting white supremacists, skinheads, and black and Jewish activists into his studio, all at the same time. A brawl broke out. The set was trashed; punches were thrown; Rivera’s nose got broken. The episode was a hit.

The more recent rise of social media has only further inflamed our emotions. Facebook and Twitter don’t create content; they’ve outsourced that work to their users, who have quickly noticed that extreme statements attract more attention.

This isn’t to say that these platforms can’t harness our anger toward more productive ends. The democratic nature of social media has given previously marginalized groups new outlets to express their outrage and to translate anger into action. The Women’s March originated and was organized on Facebook.

But the political actors who use anger to more cynical ends still have the upper hand. Political consultants have long been among the most devoted proselytizers of rage.

IV. The Revenge Impulse
Researchers call the phenomenon in which anger, rather than making things better, becomes a cycle of recrimination, rumination, and ever-expanding fury the revenge impulse.

V. A Better Use for our Fury
psychology’s conventional teachings. The best-known theory regarding how to reduce conflict and prejudice within a population was known as the “contact hypothesis”: If you can just get everyone who hates each other to talk in a controlled, respectful manner, this doctrine holds, they’ll eventually start speaking civilly. They won’t like each other. But prejudices may fade, and moral outrages will mellow.

The researchers figured that the contact hypothesis had clearly been developed by someone who had never visited Israel.

s America reaches the midpoint of a presidential administration that has driven nearly everyone into a rage of one kind or another, we are at a crossroads: Will we continue, blindly furious? Or will we see our rage as a disease that must be cured?
The goal shouldn’t be to eradicate anger. We couldn’t if we tried, and as James Averill’s study showed, we need our anger. We need it to air our grievances with our friends, family, and colleagues. We also need the moral outrage that motivates citizens to push for a more just society. Neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on justice; likewise, injustice can come from either side.

Cable news didn’t immediately sink to the same depths, but the influence of the daytime shout-fests was undeniable, especially once Fox News and MSNBC entered the fray, in 1996. Broadcast news had been constrained by regulations that enforced fairness and encouraged decorum. Cable executives, however, could do whatever they wanted.

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