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The Real Roots of American Rage

date Dec 24, 2018
authors Charles Duhigg
reading time 10 mins
category article

Anger in summary

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

All humans experience anger in some form

He went looking for an average town and found Greenfield. He figured if he could show that its citizens, despite their contentedness, still experienced occasional bouts of fury, it would be a wake-up call to other researchers that more scrutiny of anger was due.

When anger is useful

And contrary to Averill’s hypothesis, they didn’t make bad situations worse. Instead, they tended to make bad situations much, much better. They resolved, rather than exacerbated, tensions.

How does anger work?

They served as signals for the wrongdoers to listen more carefully and change their ways. More than two-thirds of the recipients of anger “said they came to realize their own faults,” Averill wrote. Their “relationship with the angry person was reportedly strengthened more often than it was weakened, and the targets more often gained rather than lost respect for the angry person.”

Use of anger in the society

And yet our political system was cleverly designed to maximize the beneficial effects of anger. The Bill of Rights guarantees that we can argue with one another in the public square, through a free press, and in open court. The separation of powers forces our representatives in government to arrive at policy through disagreement, negotiation, and accommodation. Even the country’s mythology is rooted in anger: The American dream is, in a sense, an optimistic reframing of the discontent felt by people unwilling to accept the circumstances life has handed them.

How anger has shifted

Anger is different today

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 … has been broken.

Directed at ordinary citizens

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.

When anger leads to revenge, not solution

Ordinary anger can deepen, under the right circumstances, into moral indignation — a more combustible form of the emotion, though one that can still be a powerful force for good. 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.

Reframing: focus on conditions (lacking emotional resonance) to focus on morality (elevated emotional commitment)

Chavez had a basic theory about organizing: The key to solidarity, he believed, was appealing to workers’ emotions—particularly their sense of moral outrage. Urging people to fight for their own self-interest could achieve only so much. If you focused solely on higher wages or better working conditions, you were setting goals that lacked the emotional resonance people needed to commit to a cause. But if you could transform a labor dispute into an angry, righteous movement, then people’s sense of the possible would change.

How morality and meaningfulness is used in the anger

Chavez believed that people needed to look beyond their day-to-day complaints. The kind of anger he drew upon did not offer the immediate catharsis that Averill would one day describe. Rather, it provided something else: the opportunity to right an injustice, to feel like part of a meaningful fight.

Successful protests have power moral roots

A great deal of research has explored Chavez’s thesis that moral outrage can achieve widespread change. Scholars, in examining successful protest movements, have sought to explain how anger goes from the fleeting feeling that Averill studied to a pervasive, more powerful moral force.

Moral offense

Many soldiers who rebelled had attended religious festivals immediately prior to mutinying, and had listened to religious leaders preaching about the historical oppression of Muslim holy men and Hindu prophets. The rebelling regiments had thus seen their everyday frustrations remade as something more profound. “When the regiments had an opportunity to reframe their complaints as moral offenses, it sparked something,” Rao told me. People’s righteous anger gave them permission to fight back.

Angry and involved

Marshall Ganz, who spent 16 years organizing alongside Chavez, told me. “You can’t organize a group of victims. If people only see themselves that way, there’s no sense of agency, no sense of power. But when you tell them that we’re fighting an injustice or an offense to their dignity, they become angry and involved.”

Figuring out that moral crusades work!

“The thing people forget is that the political left were really the ones who perfected the politics of anger,” Ganz told me. “It’s the progressives who figured out that by helping people see injustice, rather than just economics, we become strong.” Movements don’t emerge from small acrimonies. They require a sense that it isn’t just an individual who wronged us, but a system that must be reformed. “If you can make it a moral crusade, you can win,” Ganz said.

Stoking emotions is easy, channeling to useful ends is harder…

Stoking the emotion is easy. Learning how to channel it to useful ends, he told me, is harder. For anger to be productive, at some point, it must stop. Victory often demands compromise. “You have to know how to arouse passions to fuel the fight, and then how to cool everyone down so they’ll accept the deal on the table,” Ganz said.

Proper management of anger

“Cesar had to literally starve himself to stop the outrage and frustration from getting out of control,” Ganz told me. “You have to control and direct the passion, or else it can burn down everything you’ve worked so hard to build,” he said. “I’m not sure if enough people understand that right now.”

Leaders determine if the righteous anger is used properly

When channeled by someone like Cesar Chavez, it can lift up the disadvantaged and reshape a nation. But its power is not reserved for the righteous. When less scrupulous leaders tap into our rage and use it for their own ends, the emotion can be turned against us, in ways large and small, often without us even realizing what is going on.

Sadly media has always used moral outrage for monetization

Corporatized outrage can be remarkably effective, but it’s fundamentally manipulative, and tends to further the interests of the already rich and powerful, often at the expense of the little guy. Rarely is it a force for social good. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the media industry. If the bill collectors figured out how to use interpersonal anger to their advantage, the cable-news business perfected the monetization of moral outrage.

How media uses moral outrage

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.

How social media also fuels the unproductive anger

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. On social media, the old rewards of anger—recognition of our unhappiness, resolution of our complaints—are replaced with new ones: retweets, likes, more followers, more influence. The targets of our rage, meanwhile, tend to be strangers less inclined to hear us out than to fire back.

How campaigns have become anger and fear

“If you can map an electorate’s fears, and then turn those into anger by moralizing your opponent’s sins, they’ll show up at the polls,” Steve Jarding, a Democratic campaign guru who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told me. “The essence of campaigns today is anger and fear. That’s how you win.”

New anger

This is a scary place to be—for us as individuals, and for the nation as a whole. The ways in which anger is constantly stoked from every side is new, and the partisan divide that such anger fosters may have pushed us further down a path toward widespread violence than we realize.

How to deal with this new kind of anger

Create transparent, fair and procedural institutions

When people believe that social institutions are functioning, they’re much less likely to feel vengeful urges. One study, for instance, found that when laid-off workers believed firings were handled fairly—that a process was adhered to, that seniority was respected, that worker evaluations were properly considered—they were less likely to protest or complain, even if they disagreed with the outcome.

How people start taking justice in their own hands

It also makes sense that this emotion ought to be rare, because the desire for revenge can be exceedingly destructive. In many cases, the targets feel violated themselves. They are now injured, and may start seeking revenge of their own. People begin taking justice into their own hands, because they think institutions cannot provide it.

When protests are futile

But the protests have yet to produce higher salaries than what was promised before the walkout, or additional school resources. And they damaged relationships with lawmakers that teachers will need in the future.

Start talking with the other side of the people

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.

Give hard reflections

Still, we can’t maintain this fever pitch, or we will risk forfeiting the gains that good anger can bring. The most immediate task is to recognize our anger for what it often is. The researchers in Israel held up a mirror to the residents of Giv’at Shmuel in the hopes that the reflection would shock them. Americans would benefit from taking a similarly hard look at their reflection—and we don’t need to enlist the help of social scientists to do so.