Anger is not a creative strategy
If fury is a poor agent of transformation, why do we trust it to represent and ensure our individual and collective best interests?
Think about the last time you were fire-hot angry. For me, it was a few weeks ago. My roommate, who’s currently working the frontlines as an essential worker, asked me to drop off and pick up his dry cleaning.
In normal circumstances, completing this errand would have been a no-brainer. It’s one I often run for him with no hesitation due to the flexibility of my working hours and the inflexibility of his. And he’s not just my roommate. He’s my friend. We’re Southern transplants who approach life with a service mindset and look out for each other as if we’re family.
The current circumstances are abnormal though. We’re experiencing a once-in-a-generation pandemic that’s transformed every aspect of work and life as we once knew it. The public-health crisis is real for all of us. But it’s especially real for those like my roommate who lack the personal protective equipment that requires to safely and effectively perform their jobs.
Still, I argued, we’re under strict state-government-issued stay-at-home orders. Like most New Yorkers, my mantra is as follows: If it’s not within walking distance, it’s not happening. And traveling to his dry cleaners would call for not just a train, but a bus ride too.
The impasse was real: He needed dress shirts but couldn’t get away from work during the cleaners’ hours of operation; I wanted to adhere as closely as possible to the guidelines from health care and government officials. For a few weeks, there was no compromise in sight. So I filled the void with silent anger.
My roommate has fresh shirts and our relationship is intact. So no need to worry about us. Instead, I’ll re-invite you to answer my initial question: When was the last time you were fire-hot angry?
Even if your personal life is an anger-free zone, there’s likely a news story that’s made your blood boil more times than you’d like to admit. After all, anger is an innate human emotion. We all have access to it and it shows up in myriad ways depending on the person and circumstance.
In my experience, anger is a response to feeling unseen, unheard and/or unacknowledged. So when it’s expressed, anger functions to compel the recipient to see, hear and acknowledge us. But our culture has seduced many of us into wielding our anger with the expectation that doing so will achieve the political, economic, social, and creative outcomes we desire. However, favorable outcomes need strategic action. And anger, no matter how intoxicating or alluring, is not a strategy.
Lately, I’ve been questioning the role that anger is playing in the federal response to the COVID-19 public-health crisis and will play as 2020 presidential campaign kicks into high gear. Most notably: If anger is a poor agent of transformation, why do we trust it to represent and ensure our individual and collective best interests? So I went to the science of anger for answers.
Anger is a social emotion
The American Psychological Association defines anger as “an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong.” According to the American Addictions Center, anger can be described as a “secondhand emotion” because it never exists in isolation. It occurs when pain is combined with an anger-triggering thought. (These thoughts include personal assessments, assumptions, evaluations or interpretations of situations that make you think that someone else is attempting (consciously or not) to hurt you.)
The AAC, the only publicly traded addiction treatment company that was the subject of a five-month Mother Jones investigation and required to pay $7 million after a jury found it was negligent in client’s death, also characterizes anger as a “social emotion” because it is always directed against someone — even if it’s directed at yourself.
It makes sense since so much of our engagement with other humans occurs on social apps, which give users powerful channels to anonymously and thoughtlessly express their anger with little regard for the humans on their other side of their vitriol.
Tech companies and media organizations can temper these impulses but that would diverge with its business models that earn revenue from the engagement that the most offensive, shocking and outrageous content generates. So there are very few incentives against creating or sharing angry social content.
Anger is a contributor to and beneficiary of the melding of cancel and call-out cultures that convince social-app dwellers that if you huff, puff, scream and shout loud enough, your wish will be our command.
To be clear, of course, you are at liberty to feel and express your anger. If you’re one of the unsung heroes of the creative class (a woman, person of color or LGBTQ+ individual), goodness knows you have a litany of reasons to blow a gasket. And it feels empowering to our sense of belonging for others to perform anger in solidarity with us. The danger for us is that while anger is potent enough to punish individuals, it very rarely is up to the task of dismantling the systems that enable those problematic individuals to come for you in the first place.
Anger has its advantages
With that said, there are legitimate payoffs to being pissed off. Anger can motivate you to take action and defend yourself against real or perceived threats. It can also shame people into shifting their behavior long enough until you occupy your anger with someone else.
The American Addictions Center calls anger a “substitute emotion” because in addition to its social function, it can serve as a conscious or unconscious distraction from pain. “People change their feelings of pain into anger because it feels better to be angry than it does to be in pain. Think about it: When you’re experiencing pain, it’s often top of mind. It’s all you can think about. Anger reorients the focus of your pain onto harming those who have caused you pain. Anger can also feel useful because it can hide our fear.
Then there are the feelings of righteousness that derive from anger. “When you are angry,” AAC literature says, “You are angry with cause”:
“The people who have hurt me are wrong — they should be punished” is the common refrain. It is very rare that someone will get angry with someone they do not think has harmed them in some significant fashion.
But to protect you and punish them, anger has to keep you stuck. In Chapter 3 of The Tools, authors Phil Stutz and Barry Michels write about a concept they call “the Maze” to describe how it feels to be “so trapped in hurt and anger that you can’t move on”:
It’s called the Maze because the deeper you get into it, the harder it is to escape The person who has “wronged” you becomes your obsession. It’s as if they’ve taken up residence in your head and you can’t get them out. You curse them, you argue with them, you plot revenge. In this state, the other person becomes your jailor, trapping you in a maze of your own repetitive thoughts.
The irony is that anger disempowers the recipient to act in ways that would diminish it. Anger can drive people to ignore us and our experience. It can disaffect people from listening to your point of view and convince them to double-down on theirs. It could trigger them to pull out the scorecard to tally all the reasons they believe they should be angry at you. (That’s if they care that you’re mad to begin with.) None of these advantages seem worth staying in or retreating to the past — when possibility and transformation lie in the future.
Anger distracts from our similarities
In last Thursday’s Daily Newsletter following former President Barack Obama’s endorsement of former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, I wrote:
General elections are won by the most energized and unified party. And Obama understands that Democrats are less likely to be as energized and unified around how to best approach the security and sustainability of the party’s core policy outcomes. But there’s overwhelming consensus on making a Trump a one-term president, holding onto the House majority, reclaiming the Senate and reasserting political influence at the state and local levels. The former president is betting that refocusing the party’s gaze on the GOP’s marginalizing priorities is a winning message.
Obama’s words are especially interesting when viewed within the frame of the current moment. For the past five years — ‘round the time Bernie Sanders and his movement rose to national prominence — the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has measured how down candidates and voters are for the cause based on the purity of their positions on issues like health care, criminal justice reform, the climate, immigration and student-debt crises.
These purity tests have been effective in moving the party to the left on these issues. And that’s a substantial achievement. But, when weaponized, they’re also the source of meaningless partisan infighting and, most significantly, a distraction from the regressive and exclusionary politics that undergird the conservative Republican playbook.
Policy solutions to the issues that matter should be tested against vigorous debate. But it’s mindful to remember that anger comes at another cost: It often sows division among and animosity toward those with whom you share common ground.
As I argued in this Weekly Newsletter, research shows that the majority of Americans agree with progressive positions on most policy issues:
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2019 report on how Americans see major national issues, nearly seven-in-10 Americans (69 percent) said reducing health care costs should be a top priority.
58 percent of Americans said they were not too or not at all confident in Trump’s ability to make wise decisions about immigration policy.
Majorities of Americans said the federal government is doing too little to protect key aspects of the environment including water (69 percent), air quality (64 percent) and animals and their habitats (63 percent).
And two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) said the government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.
As for the economy, only four-in-ten Americans said Trump’s economic policies have made economic conditions better since taking office. Within the context of the COVID-19 economic fallout and potential recession, even his loyalist supporters could find themselves breaking free from the president’s vice-like MAGA grip.
But, as this research reminds us, public or personal transformation is a product of influence — not anger. It’s difficult to empower people to take some action they wouldn’t otherwise take without it when anger is at the root of your engagement.
If you’ve experienced my personality, then you’re aware that I’m a naturally expressive person. I can cry, scream, curse or laugh at a moment’s notice. It’s always been critical for me to design and be supported by online and offline environments and rituals that enable me to process the full range of my emotions. It’s only then that I’m able to determine if my anger, for example, is useful as creative energy or wasteful creative distraction.
So if anger isn’t a creative strategy, then what is it? Personally, I think of anger — and other emotions like joy, fear, gratitude or disappointment — as frequencies on our internal GPSes that point to whom and what we value. And when these values are violated or minimized, it’s our creativity that moves us from where we are to where we want to be.
This article was originally published to This Should Help, an independent publisher of top-notch multimedia content for a vibrant community of business-minded creators who value direct relationships with their supporters, creative ownership of their work, and financial independence from corporate interests.
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