Much of the political information we see today shares a common characteristic: it is intended to make you angry. As consumers, creators, and sharers of political information, what should we do about that? Like most good questions, this one invites further questions.
Why is there so much anger and hostility in American politics? Are we all just nasty people? Long-term political observers point to other factors at work. Jane Mansbridge of the Harvard Kennedy School associates the rise of partisan animosity with shifts in power in federal-level politics that have taken place over the course of the past 50 years. Now that there is essentially an even split between Democrats and Republicans in the nation’s capitol, the realistic possibility of either side gaining a majority incentivizes more competitive strategies in campaigning and legislative work.
In a 2011 “Peace in the Desert” lecture hosted by UNLV’s Saltman Center, NPR commentator Linda Wertheimer points to shady practices in congressional redistricting that favor more extreme, less compromising candidates who tend to run rancorous campaigns. She also notes that our attitudes about the economy following the 2008 recession — particularly a sense of uncertainty about the future and resentment over income-inequality — contribute to heightened levels of tension and distrust.
But Wertheimer made these observations in 2011. By some significant measures, the economy appeared to be recovering from the dark days following 2008. Then 2020 came, and along with it a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and social turmoil in the wake of highly publicized incidents of police brutality. How long will it take for our attitudes to recover from these divisive crises that seemed to happen all at once? How do we move past our animosity?
Perhaps the question isn’t how to extinguish our anger, but rather than if we even should? In Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice, Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that anger is never a good thing because the vindictiveness that accompanies anger draws energy away from constructive efforts to address the conditions that occasioned the anger in the first place. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Nelson Mandela are important examples in Nussbaum’s argument.
Amia Srinivasan disagrees, pointing out that getting angry is an indispensable part of truly perceiving and understanding injustice. Furthermore, Srinivasan holds that even well-meaning critiques of anger run the risk of delegitimizing and diminishing the voices of those who need to speak up for themselves most loudly.
Robert Solomon stakes out a more nuanced position: anger is best critiqued in light of the circumstances in which it occurs. “Good anger” fits the occasion and leads to positive outcomes, like getting your point across to those who previously had not considered your position seriously. Solomon points to Picasso’s Guernica as the product of refined, incisive anger.
Alas, we cannot all be Picasso. Owen Flanagan, another philosopher who advocates for contextual evaluations of anger, characterizes America’s anger practices as “excessive, sloppy, and permissive” and believes “we [Americans] are both too angry for our own good and largely complacent and thoughtless about how we might be and do better.”
But all of this is preliminary to the question, the point where the rubber meets the road: When I come across inflammatory political speech in the news or on social media or in conversation, how should I respond?
If possible, pause, reflect, and ask more questions. Is the discourse in question an expression of heartfelt anger, a matter of posturing to make the speaker appear smart and righteous, or a stratagem to effect a particular outcome by sowing outrage and discord?
Even more important are questions about the consequences of anger: If I let this person or campaign succeed in making me angry, what do they get out of my anger? In Michael Serazio’s 2015 interview study of high-level campaign operatives, his subjects emphasize strident messaging on wedge issues as a strategy for establishing an emotionally resonant brand for their candidates. How should voters feel about having their buttons pushed like this?
Weighing the consequences of our anger takes on additional importance when we think about the long-term results of our choices. The more deeply we buy into inflammatory political media, the more firmly it becomes entrenched as our primary way of discussing and learning about politics. Given the complexity of the problems we face, we need to think carefully about how anger stimulates learning and when anger shuts learning down. We need to become more intelligent stewards of our information ecosystem.
As consumers, we exert a powerful influence on the political aspects of the information ecosystem, as we hold the votes, the dollars, and the attention that the content providers need. If we demand better, we’ll get better.
Mark Lenker is a teaching and learning librarian and assistant professor at UNLV Libraries. His additional work on anger, politics, and information can be found in the collection Libraries Promoting Reflective Dialogue in a Time of Political Polarization, published by the Association of College and Research Libraries.