The Politics of Anger

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I subscribe to five news outlets: The Globe & Mail, The Toronto Star, iPolitics, The New York Times, and The CBC. Reflecting on these outlets, I observe broadly they offer two types of content: news and opinion. The former is usually observational, and factual. The latter ranges from analytical pieces that develop the facts of a matter in a logical and rational way towards a conclusion. The other end of the range are pieces that are purely subjective and offer little other that the author’s biased opinion, with neither explanation nor rationale. Articles at this end of the spectrum often bother me, may be even anger me.

Recently I’ve noticed a number of articles related to anger. Charles Duhigg wrote an excellent article in The Atlantic. CBC’s, The House has commented as well. I too observed the emergence of anger in the last [2015] Canadian Election. The elevation of anger is something that has troubled me for a while; it clouds the mind and hides the facts. More worrisome, it is expected to get worse.

Many of these columns seek to understand the source of the anger. Some suggest it is related to the growing gap in incomes or the lack of responsiveness by politicians to key issues. In a recent posting I wondered if anger was spawned from a feeling of disenfranchisement. Many issues we face today are sourced elsewhere, beyond the boundaries of our current national-political systems, beyond our scope of [political] control; decisions that impact us are made by leaders in other political jurisdictions, beyond the scope of our vote. The inability to participate in the decision-making process is frustrating; it makes me angry as I have no control. A route to resolving these issues seems to involve international co-operation, but this form of co-operation is under attack.

In his 1977 survey James Averill, a psychology professor at University of Massachusetts, came to realise that there is value in anger: anger attracts attention, motivating people to act. Good anger encourages us to identify our grievances and act.

Dacher Keltner, the director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab observed: “When we become angry, we feel like we’re taking control, like we’re getting power over something.” If left unresolved, anger can deepen into moral indignation, leading ultimately to situate those who are the source of our anger as enemies.

I have heard several politicians lament the abuse they receive on social media, but is the simply a reflection of their actions. It is clear many political parties provoke division among the electorate, stoke anger, by articulating extreme positions, sending out provocative newsletters, fanning conspiracies. Such actions form a dedicated base of voters by appealing to emotions to develop a sense of moral outrage; outrage can create cohesion. In doing so they provide this base the opportunity to address an injustice, and feel like part of a meaningful fight. Permission to fight. Permission to tweet obscenities to the “enemy”.

At some point, the anger needs to stop so people can talk and develop a compromise solution. Our democratic system, that structures opposing arguments, guides anger to a place where it can be resolved. In sowing the seeds of anger and rage in the general public, politicians turn emotion against us and subvert the system of discourse. Steve Jarding, a Democratic campaign consultant who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School, observed: “The essence of campaigns today is anger and fear. That’s how you win.”

The politics of anger is monetized by both political parties and news services. For the political party, anger drives contributions. For the news media, anger increases viewership and subscriptions. Anger is nourished by the indignant pundits and anchors like: Jim Acosta, Chris Cuomo, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow, who provocatively express uncompromising positions. It suggests a questionable relationship between these media outlets and the politicians.

It appears to me that the stoking of anger has gone beyond national politics. Evidence is mounting that the Russians have successfully leveraged fear and anger to swing opinion in various countries towards the election of the incompetents.

Author Charles Duhigg submits “When we scrutinize the sources of our anger, we should see clearly that our rage is often being stoked not for our benefit, but for someone else’s.”


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