The Politics of Anger

So here we are, 2017 upon us. Ringing in the New Year always means time for change; fresh starts, new beginnings, and resolutions. So how about some self-reflection, shall we? But not about the usual topics-relationships, dieting, exercise, etc. How about some post-election, political self-reflection? Yay, so much fun, right?!?  For Clinton supporters, frustration at the election results is justified, and there has been plenty of that frustration aired out online. However, it’s overly simplistic to simply criticize Trump or his supporters, when the issues long inherent in our political process need to be dissected and analyzed. And these issues go beyond party lines, which means that we all need to take a good, long, uncomfortable look in the mirror. In particular, I think there are two main issues that have contributed to the chaos of our current political situation.

Issue #1: Anger is an effective means of control.

This is really nothing new. Remember reading the novel 1984 in high school? (Or reading Sparknotes, for some of you…) Well, in case you don’t, I’ll remind you. In the dystopian world of Oceania that George Orwell creates in 1984, a ritual known as the “Two Minutes Hate” is used to rally the citizens around “Big Brother,” and against their “enemy.” In this ceremony, the citizens were able to vocalize anger and frustration at the perceived enemy of their nation. Though the reality was that the “enemy” changed regularly, the citizens are fired up against them. The end result is that the central character Winston Smith, eventually succumbs to not only loving this tyrannical government that encourages this anger, but actually substituting lies for truth. When Winston is later being tortured, he is asked how many fingers his torturer is holding up. Though he is holding up four fingers, he demands that Winston acknowledge that he is really holding up five. Winston tries to rectify this, but to no avail:

“’How can I help it?’ he blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’

‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’” (Orwell, Part 3, Chapter 2)

Though it would be quite the slippery slope to say this is exactly what is happening today, the reality still stands: the path to disavowing truth includes rallying people around a perceived collective anger. In much the same way as in 1984, we can easily fall into the trap of making a group out to be “the enemy,” and it’s easy to believe that this group has “always been the enemy.” For instance:

“It’s always those Fundamentalist Right-Wingers who are racists and close-minded.”

“It’s always those Liberal Left-Wingers who are trying to take away freedom and turn America into a socialist nation.”

Now, I acknowledge that there is definitely a place for righteous anger and standing up against injustice. I just think most of us lean more towards “angry” and less towards “righteous,” if you know what I mean? When we villianize a group, we stall the process for real compromise and change. This often means that politicians keep getting elected, without actually following through on their promises. Beware your anger being hijacked for political purposes.

Issue #2: We actually enjoy self-righteously tearing down anyone who disagrees with us. Everyone has a visceral reaction to things we find abhorrent. This has worked well for dividing America among party lines for many years now. However, on both sides of the aisle in this recent election, we allowed ourselves to get out of hand as we tore one another apart. Though it was (and is) true to say that Donald Trump is often ridiculous and lewd, and Hillary Clinton has been part of systemic government inefficiency, it is also true that neither of them is the devil incarnate. Yet the supporters of each candidate took to social media and workplace conversations to, in no uncertain terms, declare why “the other guy” was the absolute worst. And I think by doing this, we literally get a high off of it. It feels good to be right. Maybe it helps us make sense of all the crazy, and feel a little bit like reason and decency have not left the social arena. And we do make great points:

Yes, Donald Trump’s approval of sexual assault was outrageous and grossly offensive.

Yes, Hillary Clinton’s efforts to downplay her connection with Wall Street and the haze surrounding the Clinton Foundation’s past were troubling.

Though I’m not trying to make the case that our world is on the verge of such a dystopia as in 1984,  I would argue that we need to beware our own undoing. It would seem that our current, relentless, self-righteousness works against us by continuing to make us victims of a system of elite politicians who seek to con our votes, our consciences, and our respect for one another in order for them to get what they want-and us to get very little in return. That has been most clearly seen in the election of Donald Trump, but is true of many politicians as well. And if we’re being fair, both Trump and Clinton were problematic candidates reflective of systemic political disfunction. If we are not conscientious of what is actually occurring, we can fall into the trap of believing anything told to us if it supports our political narrative, and what we want to be true. It’s easy to begin seeing “five fingers” where there are only four.

This fact also raises an uncomfortable truth. Our society likes to taut our moral relativism…until moments like this. We make ourselves supporters of an individual’s right to their own moral compass until we can no longer ignore the blatant immorality of “the other candidate” (or the president-elect) and their party. The problem is, we can’t have it both ways. Either certain actions are always wrong for everyone, or they aren’t. Either there is absolute moral truth, or there isn’t. I like to believe the former is true.

Assault is wrong.

Deception is wrong.

Vulgarity is wrong.

2 + 2 does, in fact, = 4.



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