In 1979, a catchy Kenny Rogers song called “Coward of the County” made it to the top of the country charts. It’s about a man named Tommy, whose father, a prisoner, implores him not to follow the example he’s been set:
Promise me, son, not to do the things I’ve done
Walk away from trouble if you can
Now it don’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek
This is early modern country music, so the song takes for granted that you’ve got to honor thy father, but it is also committed to the eye-for-an-eye ethos of the Old Testament; when Tommy’s girlfriend is gang-raped, the paternal instruction falls by the wayside. The former coward of the county beats the hell out of the perpetrators. Only violence can redeem his reputation, and his reputation is indistinguishable from his manhood — Tommy’s masculinity, not recompense for his lover, is what is really at stake in this story. Turning the other cheek, we learn, is weak after all.
“Coward of the County” celebrates rage as an affirmation of the self and of one’s virility. It poses a question to which the right answer is violence. Nine years after the song came out, the same question was posed to Michael Dukakis during his campaign for president. Would he, if his wife was raped and murdered, favor the death penalty for her attacker? The candidate’s answer — “I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime” — was widely considered to have sunk his campaign. A lack of vengeful bloodlust made him not a model of self-restraint or mercy but the coward of the country.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls the path Dukakis repudiated “the road of payback.” The urge to exact revenge, she argues, derives from our desire for “cosmic balance,” as well as from our attempts to overcome helplessness through displays of power. By this logic, revenge rights the scales, despite doing nothing to restore what was lost or repair what was damaged.
Sometimes there are good reasons for a strong response, including the prevention of further harm. But more often lashing out is a way to avoid looking inward. A 2001 study by Jennifer Lerner and Dacher Keltner found that feeling angry makes people as optimistic about the outcome of a situation as feeling happy. In other words, anger may make people miserable, but it also makes them more confident and obliterates other, more introspective miseries: pain, fear, guilt, uncertainty, vulnerability. We’d rather be mad than sad.
In our political conversations, anger is constantly invoked yet rarely examined. What exactly is it? At its most basic, it is a physiological reaction to threat, one we share with other mammals. Anger manifests as a collection of somatic responses — accelerated heart rate, increased blood pressure, heightened body temperature — that are associated with alertness, focus, readiness to act. But the similarity to animals ends there. Where a dog may growl, bristle, or bite you if you poke it with a stick, it will have no such reaction if you insult its god or its sports team or talk about someone you know who poked another dog.
For our species, with its imaginative and narrative capacities, challenges to one’s status, beliefs, and advantages also count as threats. Human anger is a response to insecurity both literal and imagined, to any sense that our physical or social or emotional welfare is at risk. Attacks of fury can bring on strokes and heart attacks and blood clots. We routinely die of rage.
At its mildest, the emotion is no more than annoyance, an aversion to minor unpleasantnesses. Annoyance with a moral character becomes indignation: not only do I dislike that but it should not have happened. Indeed, anger generally arises from a sense of being wronged. In this respect, my conviction that you should not have cut me off in the merge lane resembles my conviction that we should not have bombed Iraq: in each case, I see an injustice and wish it to be righted. Anger that is motivated by more than a mammalian instinct for self-protection operates by an ethic, a sense of how things ought or ought not to be. But the sentiment’s moral component doesn’t explain its psychological effects. Anger is hostile to understanding. At its most implacable or extreme, it prevents comprehension of a situation, of the people you oppose, of your own role and responsibilities. It’s not for nothing that we call rages “blind.”
Is anyone more possessed by this obliterating anger than Donald Trump? Our nation is currently led by a petty, vindictive, histrionic man whose exceptional privilege has robbed him of even the most rudimentary training in dealing with setbacks and slights. He was elected by people who were drawn to him because he homed in on their anger, made them even angrier, and promised vengeance on the usual targets, domestic and foreign, successfully clouding their judgment as to what electing him would mean for their health care, safety, environment, education, economy.
Yet Trump’s furious and fury-fueled ascent is only the culmination of fury’s long journey toward enshrinement in this country. Our legal system, for example, has been lurching backward for some time from the ideal of impartial justice toward a model based on retaliation. The prison system still employs a plethora of terms that suggest otherwise — “rehabilitation,” “reform,” “correction” — but its current rhetoric and practices are often purely punitive. Families of crime victims are now sometimes invited to the executions of their relatives’ attackers, as though the death penalty were an instrument of personal revenge. (Many of those families decline to participate, and some have protested the sentences.)
Governments regularly manufacture or exaggerate threats to suggest that violence is necessary and restraint would constitute weakness: during World War II, the United States condemned citizens of Japanese heritage; during the postwar period, it targeted leftists. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it scrambled to find new adversaries, and has now settled on Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people. The provocation of anger is essential to government by manipulation, and the angriest people are often the most credulous, willing to snatch up without scrutiny whatever feeds their fire.
On social media, audiences give perfunctory attention to facts so that they can move on to the pleasure of righteous wrath about the latest person who has said or done something wrong. Anger is the stock-in-trade of many politicians and pundits and of the tabloids and websites that give them voice; it is the go-to emotion, perhaps because it is inherently reactive, volatile — easy to provoke, easy to direct. Indeed, as Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj argued last year on Vox, it has become a kind of commodity, a product marketed to select customers. Anger-provoking content is more likely to succeed, more likely to “stick,” not least because, you have to imagine, anger itself is a way the mind gets stuck.
Many of the more prominent media outlets trafficking in outrage — making ad hominem attacks, dividing the political world into heroes and villains, giving us this day our daily rage — are aimed at conservatives: Fox News, say, or the talk radio networks. But many on the left are equally smitten with anger. I grew up in the shadow of the slogan “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention,” which equates the feeling with engagement, with principles; it suggests that you cannot have the latter without the former. Righteous rage is often seen as a virtue.
Rage is not quite the same thing as outrage. You might say that the latter is motivated less by wrath at what has been done than by empathy for those it has been done to. People showed up to the huge demonstration at the San Francisco airport on January 28, when the ban on travelers from majority-Muslim countries went into effect, not to harm anyone but to prevent others from being harmed. And yet the distinction between love and hate is not as easy to delineate as it might seem. It’s rare that anyone admits to a desire to hurt. The antiabortion movement invokes love for unborn children as justification for its actions, but to nearly everyone else it appears driven mostly by resentment of women’s autonomy. That wrath has led to some of the most serious domestic terrorism in this country.
In part because hate is so often excused or explained by love in these conflicts, it’s dangerous to grant anger a special authenticity. Throughout last year, the ire of conservative voters was regarded as a deep augury of real concerns, real convictions, even as the ease with which crowds can be incited — and the weak factual basis for many of their concerns — was demonstrated again and again. People on both ends of the political spectrum were often furious about things they had not paid much attention to and didn’t know much about. Anger is frequently mistaken for a dowsing rod indicating something deep, when it is better understood as a dial that can be spun with a flick of the finger.
Who has the right to be angry? Anger is considered justified if it is a reaction to outrageous circumstance, so denying the grounds for anger denies its legitimacy. And behind the question of who has the right to be angry is the question of who is allowed to act on his anger.
Denying the reality of racism’s impact is an essential part of demonizing the anger of non-white people as unreasonable, baseless, even criminal. And when women are angry, it’s seen as a character flaw. For decades people have stereotyped feminists as angry, and in doing so have denied aspects of women’s experience that it is reasonable to be angry about. In the conservative Christian culture that the writer Kelly Sundberg grew up in, forgiveness was considered an essential feminine virtue. Praising it in girls and women, she notes, encouraged them to excuse men’s transgressions — beatings, betrayals — again and again. The imperative to forgive made a virtue of powerlessness. Women’s relationship to power will remain uneasy as long as the right to be angry is seen as a masculine prerogative.
There are a few country songs — by Martina McBride, the Dixie Chicks, Carrie Underwood — that describe killing abusive spouses. But violence in “Coward of the County” makes the protagonist manly; in the hymns to killing your husband, no one is made more of a woman — they’re just more likely to survive.
The terms used by primatologists are unsettlingly helpful in understanding the social role of anger: “threat display,” “dominance behavior.” Expressions of rage are a means of exercising control over others and asserting status, a status defined in part by the right to dominate, which belongs to parents, bosses, police officers, husbands. “Dominate” is what Tommy ultimately did, what Dukakis failed to do.
As Nussbaum points out, “People with an overweening sense of their own privilege . . . seem particularly prone to angry displays.” The more you expect to get your own way, in other words, the more upset you are likely to be at being thwarted; those who are most thwarted must learn to apportion their wrath with care. Indeed, the most deeply wronged are often the least interested in resentment. In her essay “The Uses of Anger,” Audre Lorde reflects that women of color “have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so they do not tear us apart.” In an obituary for Nelson Mandela, the writer Stephen Smith makes a similar point. In prison, he writes, Mandela came to see that “hatred and enmity were mimetic, a trap laid by the ‘evil’ other: fall into it and you and your adversary become hard to tell apart.” Mandela, who was as entitled to anger as anyone, nevertheless gave it up. But he did not give up his endeavor to change the world around him. The difference is significant.
Fury is a renewable resource; though the initial anger may be fleeting, it can be revived and strengthened by telling and retelling yourself the story of the insult or injustice, even over a lifetime. Many accounts of American anger focus on what people are angry about, as though reactive anger were inevitable and the outside stimulus provoking it, the only variable. They rarely discuss the status of anger or the habits of mind that support it. Those are discussed elsewhere, in spiritual and psychological literature and in anthropological texts.
In Christianity, wrath is one of the seven deadly sins; patience, a cardinal virtue, is its opposite. Buddhist theology regards anger as one of the three poisons, an affliction to be overcome through self-discipline and self-awareness. “The traditional ethical precept about anger is sometimes translated as not to get angry,” Taigen Dan Leighton, a Zen priest and translator of Buddhist texts, explained to me. “But in modern Soto Zen Buddhism, we say not to harbor ill will.” The Buddhist writer Thanissara Mary Weinberg put it thus:
Anger is traditionally thought to be close to wisdom. When not projected outward onto others or inward toward the self, it gives us the necessary energy and clarity to understand what needs to be done.
We will all feel anger at one time or another, but it doesn’t need to become animosity or be renewed and retained. Buddhism offers an elegant model of anger management. Harness the emotion, feel it without inflicting it.
Some cultures consider anger a luxury in which one should not indulge. The Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon, a 1986 study suggests, regard anger as dangerous, undesirable, and closely tied to violence. Jean Briggs, an anthropologist, lived with Inuit people in Canada in the early 1960s, and reported that they highly valued emotional control: “The maintenance of equanimity under trying circumstances,” she observed, “is the essential sign of maturity, of adulthood.” Volatile adults were seen as disruptive, disturbing. Anger was something you were supposed to outgrow.
We in America have not outgrown it; we don’t even think we should. The left in particular has viewed anger as an essential catalyst for change, a belief evident in the names of our demonstrations and movements. In 1969, the Weather Underground organized the Days of Rage, in which the several hundred young radicals who showed up were outnumbered and outfought by the Chicago police. In the 1970s, Britain’s Angry Brigade carried out a series of small-scale bombings. In 1991, the political rock band Rage Against the Machine was formed, and throughout most of the Nineties the anarchist collective Love and Rage put out a newspaper of the same name.
Yet in my observation, those dedicated to practical change over the long term are often the least involved in the dramas of rage, which wear on both the self and others. After hearing, say, hundreds of detailed accounts of rape, you may remain deeply motivated to engage in political action but find it difficult to get emotionally worked up about the newest offense. The most committed organizers I know are frequently indignant, but they’re not often incensed. Their first obligation is to changing how things are — to action, not self-expression.
Much political rhetoric suggests that without anger there is no powerful engagement, that anger is a sort of gasoline that runs the engine of social change. But sometimes gasoline just makes things explode.