Maybe you know this about me, maybe you don't.
When I was a kid, I had anger issues. Among family and friends I was famously angry and easy to provoke. That didn't translate into being feared (I was skinny enough to be non-threatening, even in a fury). But there it was all the same, anger on tap, rage that things weren't the way they "should" be.
And let's be honest, it's still a struggle to curb anger sometimes.
But I actively work to dissipate that anger, because it never, literally never, served anybody's real interests, least of all my own. It hurt my relationships, my physical property, and sometimes my fists. There was not a virtuous silver lining. It was exclusively destructive, every single time.
And so it remains today with all anger.
It astounds me how "popular" anger is in the zeitgeist. There are a million strains of "righteous" anger, each a different stripe, but remarkable similar in quality.
Post the right zinger slamming your ideological opponent on social media, and you'll have accolades pile on from your tribal cohorts.
But this behavior will, every single time, drive a wedge between your tribe and anybody outside the tribe. It will convince nobody, and will engender defensive anger in many. They will retreat to their own preferred principles and points of argument, just as you've retreated to yours. And you may tell yourself that it’s cathartic, that it gets the anger out of you to express it. But ask yourself honestly; have you ever felt better after indulging anger? I haven’t. I’ve only felt more sad and tired and hurt than I was before.
The warm attitude toward public outrage reminds me of the 1976 drama Network. Protagonist Howard Beale has one of the most famous monologues in film history. After decades as a news anchor at a national station, he finds he'll be dropped because of declining ratings. It's the trigger that unleashed all his anger... about everything.
“I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!'“
What does this accomplish in Network? Nothing. After decades of reciting every horrible thing that happens in the world, Howard’s outrage at the spectacle of injustice becomes the spectacle of injustice. He thinks his infectious rage can be a catalyst for change, but instead serves to spin-up the public anger flywheel. In raging against bread and circuses, he became the circus, and to mix metaphors, grist to the mill.
SPOILER: At the end of the movie Howard is killed in a staged assassination on live TV to drive up ratings.
The same theme was echoed decades later in the Black Mirror episode Fifteen Million Merits. The protagonist’s deserved and defiant outrage gets entirely commoditized and sold to profit the very system he rallied against.
This lesson is so deeply enmeshed in our psyches that it recurs in fiction constantly, including our most widely beloved stories. To cite another fictional universe, Yoda teaches that anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. It’s the Emperor that wants others to “give in to [their] anger”, explicitly so he can control them.
More recently, author Ryan Holiday has done an excellent job outlining the many problems with anger, and dismantles the idea that anger can be somehow helpful (read here). He should know. Holiday’s books of the past few years focus on Stoic philosophy, the view that managing emotion is dramatically more helpful than emotion managing you. But his first book, the book that made him famous, was about his life as a self-described “media manipulator”. Holiday spent years stoking outrage for profit. He wasn’t even in the news business, he was selling plain color t-shirts. But as he tells it, you don’t have to sell something outrageous to profit from the rage.
Just ask Facebook, Twitter, or any other platform that turns clicks into views into money.
Next time you’re feeling riled up, pause and consider whether you (or anybody) will be better off for indulging the anger. Every time I’ve had the presence of mind to consider, the answer for me has been a clear No.