|I‘ve already confessed to two of my personal failings: a lack of courage, and a proclivity to procrastinate (or cowardice and laziness, if you prefer). A recent article by Feith Stuart has led me to recognize a third — my periodically bad temper. Feith writes:
Here’s a truth I know: Every time I am rude or thoughtless, every time I am careless with someone’s feelings, every time I call someone a name during a fight, every time I act in a way I know to be harmful as a way to feel relief from what I’m feeling (because that’s the only reason we lash out at others — to make ourselves feel better) I know I’m destroying my credibility as a loving human being.
I handle adversity badly. When things go wrong, I invariably overreact. When I was younger, that usually meant an outburst (and still does, occasionally). As I get older I am more likely to become taciturn, clam up and disengage, and/or just get depressed. Whenever I have lashed out, I have always regretted it. I have learned, at least intellectually, that displaying one’s temper is a handicap to achieving one’s life goals. When you blow up, you always look bad, no matter how justified the outburst is.
Consider how bad Cheney looked when he swore at Leahy — his snarl made him look ridiculous, childish, vindictive, out of control, untrustworthy. Consider how Howard Dean’s outburst probably cost him the Democratic nomination. Think about temper tantrums you have witnessed, and how they reflect badly on, and hurt the credibility of, the ones that throw them. Even sneering, snorting, snickering and rolling of eyes and other subtler indications of anger and disdain are considered to be anti-social behaviours, unseemly, inappropriate and reprehensible even as a response to someone else’s ludicrous or antagonistic behaviour. And think about how instances of great restraint in the face of provocation are seen not as cowardice, but as signs of great moral, intellectual, and emotional strength.
I think Democrats were secretly hoping that, during the debates, either Bush or Cheney would lose their temper. Both men are notorious for their bad tempers, but the machine has been expert at keeping them from public view, most remarkably by making this pair the least visible in press conferences and other stressful public appearances of any administration in decades. Bush has looked doped up in most of his public appearances when he wasn’t strictly reading a script, maybe because his backers would rather he be seen babbling incoherently than venting his spleen.
What about rants? We all love a good rant, complete with expletives, a venting of anger against injustice or stupidity or callousness or meanness or other morally repugnant behaviour. What’s different about rants is that they are controlled anger, clever and articulate and rehearsed and measured.
Violent anger in the movies and on television is glorified, but again, ‘good guy’ anger is always controlled, and either slightly excessive (in which case it always ends up being punished), or ridiculously justified (a purely emotional response to the kind of absurdly extreme bad-guy straw man caricatures with no redeeming human qualities who only exist in fiction). They’re both examples of poor writing, designed to manipulate the emotions of unthinking viewers. Most of us realize that Jason, Aliens, Wile E. Coyote and the swarthy terrorists of vigilante films don’t exist in the real world, and that guns-a’blazin’ knee-jerk acting out of violence, anger and rage doesn’t solve problems in the real world — it only makes things worse, hurts innocent bystanders, and discredits everyone involved.
But if you just walk away, and take no action against deplorable behaviour, it can just eat you up inside — and flare up quickly again the next time you meet the perpetrator, or even think about the incident in question.
So what is the appropriate behaviour, the right response, in the face of (a) provocation, (b) unfair, unreasonable or immoral behaviour, and (c) adversity? We’ve all heard the old saying “Don’t get mad, get even”, but sometimes getting even is not possible. Let’s look at a specific example of each:
(a) Somebody beats you at something — a game, a bet, an election — and then rubs your face in it.
If you’re like me, just thinking about these situations gets your blood pressure rising. There is absolutely no point, no benefit in getting angry, or violent, or indignant, or otherwise stressed out about these situations. But that doesn’t stop you. We are brought up, and brainwashed, to believe that if you fight back hard enough against injustice and cruelty, you will ultimately win, accompanied by fireworks and the adulation of millions. And when god is on your side, so how can you lose?
Back to reality. The good guy doesn’t always win, bad behaviour doesn’t always get punished, and anger rarely accomplishes anything positive. So what should we do in these situations. My answer falls in the “don’t do what I do, do what I say” category: I need to learn to practice what I preach here:
There’s one possible exception to this rule, and that’s when the parties involved are loving, equal partners. Some couples seem to be able to sort out differences and wrongs, real and perceived, by arguing, even shouting at each other. It’s never worked for me, but I know people who say a vehement argument with their personal or business partner is the quickest and best way to resolve an issue. I’m skeptical, since I can’t see how any such argument can be non-manipulative or end in anything other than the stronger person imposing their solution on the weaker. But in matters of the heart, I claim no expertise.
What do you think? How do you deal with situations which provoke your anger, and are there situations where the principles above don’t apply? Or is this just one more area where conservatives and liberals will never agree on the appropriate course of action?