Answering My Hate Mail: Democracy, Anger, and the Goldilocks Dilemma

Posted in: Politics

In my last essay, I described the tendency, among politicians and the media on both sides of the aisle, to express all social problems as existential tribal grievances. The tribal blame machine produces exceedingly high levels of personal stress and social distortion. Among other things, it stokes anger, deepens divisions, reinforces partisanship, and fogs the mind.

The essay struck a chord in at least one person, who found it sufficiently infuriating that within minutes of when it posted online, they had tracked down my email and fired off one of the angriest messages I have ever received (and I’ve gotten a lot of hate mail over the years, especially in connection with my defense of prisoners at Guantanamo).

I will spare you the worst of the profanity, but suffice it to say this person, who declined to identify themselves, was none too pleased that I cast aspersions on the political left (“bullsh*t both-sides-ism”) when “Republicans are advocating for people’s LITERAL F***ING DEATHS.” Emphasis in original.

I responded to my new friend by inviting them to reread my essay (particularly the paragraphs about the distorting effect of anger), check the links, and ask themselves whether any of my assertions were unsupported by the evidence. But I also explained that I do not trade emails with people who are rude and refuse to identify themselves. I told them I would happily carry on a civilized conversation about these very serious issues, but if that were not possible, I wished them all the best and gave them the last word, which they took:

You’re all about ‘civility’ when it comes to my email, but when it comes to Dems and Republicans, somehow they’re perfectly equal despite one party trying to protect rights and the other trying to literally control and enslave people.

Just because I’m angry at your bullsh*t arguments doesn’t mean I’m wrong. You’re right angry people are less likely to compromise, and that is not always a bad thing. … I’m angry at white supremacy, not f***ing brainwashing myself into thinking it’s somehow equally bad as the Dems having the f***ing balls to call out bad behavior.

I am most grateful to my friend because they make an excellent and important point.

* * *

Though some people disagree, I think anger is a natural and healthy emotion. We couldn’t get rid of it even if we wanted to, and we shouldn’t even if we could. When someone wrongs you, your anger at them preserves self-respect and promotes equality in your relationship. As the philosopher Paul Bloom once wrote, the person who lets themselves get walked on without getting angry is, “in a word, a chump.”

As importantly, anger also serves a vital social purpose. As someone who has been angry for the best part of four decades, I consider it a very good thing to be angry at injustice. Anger can clear the mind, clarify priorities, and inspire action. I would go so far as to say that anger is essential to democracy. One popular way to tell the story of American history is as a gradually widening circle of civil and political rights. But the circle doesn’t grow by itself. Power is conservative with a small c; it is always content with the way things are and will use its considerable resources to keep it that way. Power only relinquishes its grip when angry people take to the street.

And nowadays, there’s a lot to be angry about. The Supreme Court decision in Dobbs has stripped millions of women of the right to control their bodies. The open threat contained in Justice Clarence Thomas’s separate opinion in Dobbs threatens to deprive everyone in the country of privacy rights they have enjoyed for nearly two generations and imperils the fragile equality only recently extended to same-sex couples. The decision in West Virginia v. EPA cripples our ability to regulate fossil fuels by throwing the climate fight into a terminally dysfunctional Congress, and next term’s decision in Moore v. Harper creates the risk that gerrymandered state legislatures will have the exclusive power to create voting maps. And that’s just in the last two weeks and focuses only on the Supreme Court. If you’re not angry in the United States right now, you’re probably not paying attention.

On the other hand, we all know or know of people who have been destroyed by their anger. They grow bitter and vengeful, ruminating obsessively on the wrong they have suffered or the slight they have endured. Their thoughts are filled with fantasies of disproportionate retaliation. And this anger may be equally intense when the injury is not to a person but to the real or symbolic interests of a group. This is the anger stoked by the tribal blame machine, and those with the strongest attachment to the tribe and the most active engagement with the news spend their days swimming in a toxic stream of terrifying and infuriating coverage. This leads to the distortions, biases, and misjudgments I described in my last essay. At the extreme, under the right combination of personal susceptibility and environmental pressure, it can lead any of us to a paroxysm of lethal violence, a process brilliantly described by the criminologist Matthew Williams in his new book, The Science of Hate.

Therein lies the Goldilocks dilemma. Anger is part of human nature and some anger—the right amount directed at the right target for the right reason—does a world of good, for the individual and society. But too much anger tears the world apart. Philosophers have puzzled over this conundrum for years, but of course to no avail; it is not a matter that admits of rational resolution. I’m sure my new friend feels their anger is proper in every respect; others might suspect it threatens to consume them, if it hasn’t already.

And that is just one of the puzzles raised by the Goldilocks dilemma. We look back now and agree that everyone should have been angry at Jim Crow, though of course for much of its long and infamous existence, most people weren’t. Today, many people—myself included—think the carceral state is the new Jim Crow and that saturation policing and overlong prison sentences are a moral obscenity. But many others—including many people of color who live in distressed neighborhoods with rising crime—want more policing and carceral control. They may also want better policing and rehabilitative prisons, but they are emphatically not police or prison abolitionists.

On both sides of the issue, there is anger aplenty. Whose anger is righteous? And who gets to decide? Though I know my own position, I do not feel I have the moral wisdom to impose it on others. And if I lament the tendency on all sides to reduce painful and complex issues to oversimplified, tribal sound bites, does that make me guilty of “bullsh*t both-sides-ism”?

Likewise, I am furious at the recent Supreme Court decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, which will lead predictably and inevitably to thousands of preventable deaths. The thought that municipalities cannot provide for the welfare of their citizens by closely regulating firearms strikes me as the mark of a failed state. Yet I know that tens of millions of Americans are responsible gun owners who have never misused a firearm in their life. I also know that despite what some of my friends and colleagues on the political left might say, both the origin and the operation of the Second Amendment provide more than enough ammunition for both sides (there’s that term again) of the gun rights debate. Does acknowledging all this mean I am a brainwashed, white supremacist?

It seems to me a fool’s game to argue over whose anger is better. Instead, we need something that strides above the arguments, a set of ideals against which we can measure whether a particular species of anger is one that society should honor and encourage. The conventional response to this challenge is to give pride of place to anger that promotes the ideals of a constitutional democracy: tolerance; defense of the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority; freedom of expression, thought, and religion; and equality under the rule of law.

By this reasoning, for example, anger at attempts to prevent lawful voters from exercising the franchise, expressed as mass protest or boycotts that cause no physical injury, is more ethically defensible than anger at either a mythical attempt to “steal” an election, expressed as a violent assault on the Capitol, or a fact-free fear of “replacement,” expressed as lethal violence against Blacks and Jews.

In practice, however, this hierarchy turns out to be less useful than we hope. Nowadays, any fear-monger or tin hat conspiracy theorist worth his salt can cast their pet fantasy as a dire threat to democratic ideals. I wrote a whole book on the way elites in the post-9/11 era twisted and distorted the meaning of “our most cherished values” to justify exactly their opposite. In the end, therefore, the injunction to place one’s anger in the service of constitutional democracy reduces to the anodyne admonition that you can get as angry as you want as long as you don’t hurt anybody.

So, if truth, justice, and the American way turns out to be an empty vessel into which a demagogue can pour almost any content, how do we resolve our Goldilocks dilemma?

That’s the subject of my next essay.

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