Did Your Angry Tirade Work?

Anger in politics is common. What is strange is that people defend getting angry as if it is a strategy, rather than an unfortunate product of our emotions getting involved. 

A reader shared a delightful Onion article with me that got me thinking. It's called, "Former Conservative Recalls Belittling Tirade From College Student That Brought Him Over To Left."

Why is this article funny?

Because it resonates. We know it is a common behavior. We also know that it is absurd. It is a waste of time, yet we do it. 

Or rather, we at least know it is absurd when other people use belittling tirades to attempt to win people over. What "we" do instead is something perhaps more sophisticated, more nuanced.

We might, for example, be shouting down unacceptable positions. We might be forcing someone to face facts that they're in denial of. We might be helping someone who is very dense to see reality. We might just be exasperated at their persistent bad intentions. And when they react poorly, it's of course their fault.

The tendency to see our own behavior as somehow unique from others' is not only true in politics. We do it all the time. It is why we forgive ourselves for (usually accidentally) cutting someone off while driving, but flip out when others do it to us. It is why anyone at all thinks it is reasonable to have a loud cell phone ringer in public. 

Why Try to Use Anger in Politics?

Let's look past the natural flare-ups of anger that occur when talking about something that feels threatening, or when we're in a bad mood. Such flare-ups occur even in conversations with people we love and trust. Let's look to it as a strategy. Why would someone try to use anger in politics?

Perhaps people are hoping to emotionally punish someone else into changing. If the person you're belittling feels enough pain from social rejection or shame, they will change to avoid the pain.

Perhaps people are hoping that being angry makes the point they're making more real or more clear. and resonant.

Or perhaps it just feels good to express oneself in this way rather than practice restraint.

But what's the effect?

Exercise in Futility

Imagine if you were pro-choice, escorting someone to a Planned Parenthood location. Outside are people with posters of dismembered fetuses, yelling at you to "repent!" for your sinful behavior. Is such a situation more likely to cause you to reconsider your feelings about abortion, or cause you to harden yourself and dig in deeper?

If you created a piece of art, and while displaying it people yelled at you to take it down because to them it was racist, or a form of cultural appropriation, would you be more likely to suddenly decide your art is racist, or would you justify your artistic choices?

In both of these cases, someone may end up cowing to intimidation. This is different. If enough people with sticks or threats are telling you that if you continue to express yourself you will feel pain, you might not express yourself. But would you change your mind?

When someone attacks a decision you made, are you more or less likely to get defensive?

When you sense anger, are you more likely to respond with peace, or with more anger?

When you hit someone, are they likely to agree with you, or hit back? When they take up sticks and shields, do you agree with them, or arm yourself?

When your political enemies belittle your group, call you evil or stupid or awful, does it cause you to pause and take stock or your positions, or belittle them in return?

Do you really believe that your opposition reacts any differently?


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.