Outrage nation: Can America overcome its addiction to anger?

Twenty years ago, observers worried that apathy was the biggest threat to the American psyche. Today, that seems quaint. How can Americans turn off the outrage machine that urges them to get angry about . . . well, everything?

Ben Bergquam, left, who supported Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, argues Oct. 4 with protesters who opposed the nomination after allegations of sexual misconduct emerged. Half of Democrats say the Republican Party makes them ‘afraid,’ a Pew Survey reported. Nearly as many Republicans say the same of the Democratic Party.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP

Anger has long been seen as a particularly dangerous emotion.  

Poets and theologians in the West have long warned of anger’s social devastations. Homer sang of a rage “black and murderous, that cost the Greeks incalculable pain” in “The Iliad.” The Roman Stoic Seneca called anger a “hideous and wild” emotion that “drags the avenger to ruin with itself.” Roman Catholics have considered it one of the seven deadliest of sins.

Such traditional warnings are part of the reasons many Americans today feel a deep sense of unease, perceiving that the nation is now descending deeper into what many call a politics of rage. It threatens what observers have for centuries seen as America’s boundless optimism, its particular civic faith that the future can be better and that Americans have a duty to make it that way.

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“For all her material comforts and ubiquitous technological devices, America is a profoundly uneasy place today,” says Jeff Deist, president of the Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank in Auburn, Ala. “This results directly from what we can only call the politicization of everything – from where you live and what kind of work you do to whom you date to whether you get married.”

Such a “politicization of everything” is a malady creating self-segregating, politically homogenous communities throughout the country, where even neighborhoods are becoming red or blue.

Politics has been straining more friendships and marriages, surveys say. Republican pollster Frank Luntz was troubled to find in one of his surveys exploring political dialogue that about a third of the 1,000 voters surveyed said they stopped talking to a friend or family member after the 2016 election. More than half of Democrats say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” a Pew Survey reported in 2016. Nearly as many Republicans say the same of the Democratic Party.

Just two decades ago, the conservative thinker William Bennett wrote a cri de coeur about “The Death of Outrage” over President Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions. He argued that a culture of apathy and irony that ignores such immoral behavior would cut to the very fabric of democracy, a delicate political system that requires citizens with a sense of civic virtue.

It sounds almost quaint today, even as crime has now reached historic lows and the US economy remains the most stable and wealthy in the world.

So how have we come to this moment? One answer may lie in the difference between what could be called righteous anger and its self-righteous counterpart. Psychologists identify “narcissistic anger,” a response in which which every perceived slight or indignity is an outrage and an assault on an individual’s oversized sense of identity. 

Rough-and-tumble history

This is not to say that Americans before the 21st century were shy and slow to wrath. 

Historians note that America’s rough-and-tumble political traditions have long been replete with expressions of rage. Eruptions of political violence, too, are nothing new, being a feature of the American political experiment from the start.

Anger is a great motivator for all group movements, in fact. “We could talk about the beginning of the country and the anger that the early revolutionaries from Thomas Paine to even George Washington – who, at certain moments, mustered up, stirred up, and brought to the surface the anger simmering in the colonies,” says Nancy Koehn, a historian at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass. 

Though complex and volatile, the human emotion of anger has been relatively easy to foment and exploit by those with political power, experts say. “But the politics of rage ultimately outstrips its instigators’ ability to control it,” says Professor Koehn. “Anger has been used across the political spectrum throughout history, but I think it’s been stirred up particularly vehemently in our present moment.”

And this present moment is in the midst of a digital revolution that has not only transformed human communications and the availability of information; it has also had a particular impact on the public nature of human rage. 

“What I think exacerbates anger, or at least is part of the heart of the problem and part of the complexity of the problem, is social media,” says Mark Smaller, past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association and an expert who studies online bullying and the rise of incivility. “People can respond through social media online on the one hand in a way that is sort of anonymous, and people can behave online in a way that they would not necessarily behave if they’re face to face with somebody.”

“And I think social media promotes a certain kind of group psychology that can easily promote or facilitate divisiveness,” Mr. Smaller says. 

Without the natural regulating effects of face-to-face encounters, the physical rush of unmediated fury can also easily become addictive, scholars say, drowning out the more demanding emotional responses of empathy and moral reflection.

Social media as ‘lighter fluid’

Anger has thus in many ways become an emotional contagion, polluting what is now a key part of the democratic public sphere, experts say. 

“We never had that particular lighter fluid of social media available as a conduit, as a flame creator, in the history of global politics,” says Koehn, author of “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.” “We’ve never seen that before, so it can spread so quickly, and the boundaries of decorum and acceptability are becoming so nonexistent.”

And social media companies and content providers, experts note, have created platforms in which outrage is good for business

“Social media systems – they gauge success simply by time-on-site,” says Tim Weninger, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, who studies disinformation and fake news. “Their metrics don’t gauge time-on-site being happy or being altruistic or sharing only factual information; they just gauge time on site.”

Professor Weninger strongly disagrees that any of his friends or colleagues who work at social media companies would ever design a system that explicitly takes advantage of the addicting properties of outrage. 

“A site is supposed to be value neutral,” Weninger continues. “Or at least, the values here are ad revenues and time on site. So if a social media company is making a change in their platform, it’s most likely because they found out, hey, we can get another 30 seconds on the site from users, which means this much more revenue. That’s all they really care about.”

Social psychologists and political scientists make subtle distinctions in the ways human beings express anger. “Narcissistic rage” can be both addicting and all-consuming for an individual, and on social media, expressions of such rage can spread like a contagion. 

Still, when people can regulate and better control their expressions of anger, a “righteous anger” can be an appropriate response of an individual encountering injustice – the idea behind “Evil only triumphs when righteous people do nothing.” Such an anger is also both politically useful and often necessary to motivate a group with shared values and goals, scholars say.

The ancient thinker Aristotle, in fact, saw a place for anger in politics. “Anybody can become angry, that is easy,” he wrote in “The Art of Rhetoric.” “But to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.”

“Anger is a really interesting emotion,” says Alan Lambert, professor of psychology and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, who studies anger in politics.

Unlike most other negative emotions, such as fear or sadness, which are part of the “avoidance center” in the brain, anger is an “approach” emotion that actually motivates people to act on and to try to fix perceived problems in their environments.

“A major finding across several decades of research in social science is that the most common and robust trigger of anger is perceived injustice,” says Professor Lambert. “It can sometimes trigger other emotions, but anger is always central to that kind of perception.”

Which makes it an effective “action-oriented” emotion, he says.

But the issue isn’t necessarily the kind of anger rooted in righteous indignation against injustice, but the explosive expression of “narcissistic rage,” experts say.

"In a certain way, narcissistic rage is anger that is deregulated from a social context,” says Smaller, now a practicing therapist. “Now it’s personal, and transformed into a personal injury, which we call in our business a narcissistic injury.”

“And it’s often hard to solve that injury,” he continues. “So what we’re seeing today in political discourse, and in discourse amongst family members during Thanksgiving or over the holidays, is not just a different point of view, but how can you have that point of view and still value me?

“If you’re in the middle of a narcissistic rage kind of reaction, sometimes it feels like the only way I can express this rage is to make somebody feel the way I feel,” Smaller says. “In other words, the narcissistically injured person may want somebody else to feel that kind of pain or injury, too. And with the availability and access to guns, that rage can easily get transformed into potentially violent behavior. And, yeah, we’re living in very scary times because of that.”

Signs of optimism

Part of the solution, some observers say, is to re-cultivate the civic virtues that foster democratic debate, and a civility that tempers righteous anger and makes the addictive properties of narcissistic rage less acceptable in online public discourse.

“I think Trump’s election dealt a blow to American optimism, especially among baby boomers, ’60s veterans, and people who have attained influential positions in academia and the media, but it has not killed it among young people,” says Mark Naison, professor of African American studies and history at Fordham University.

“Many young activists, filled with a belief their generation can make a difference, have won electoral victories no one thought possible,” says Professor Naison, founder of the Bronx African American History Project, one of the largest community-based oral history projects in the US.  

True, there are many adult liberals who are filled with outrage. “But in New York City, the election victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Max Rose for Congress, and [others] – all of whom people thought were 100-to-1 shots against established candidates – shows a level of passion and energy among young people that can only be attributed to their optimism.” 

Naison also points to the energy and passion of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who have been active in national gun control movements. And although anger played a large role in motivating voters in the 2018 election, as a record number of 126 women will take their seats in Congress next year, many of the movements behind them are filled with a sense of purpose and good old-fashioned American optimism. 

Others, however, worry that in the midst of such a moment of rage in American politics, the most successful public figures are those who most artfully can express and evoke human rage. Today there’s no one playing the role of a public “countervailing force” who provides a leadership rooted in optimism, says Koehn, the professor at Harvard Business School.

“In the past, there were people who were really preaching, literally preaching, about the dangers of anger, and offering another way to approach positive change,” she says, citing the ethos of the civil rights movement and the message of Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders throughout history.  

“And from my vantage point,” Koehn says, “who is the force arguing now for calm, reason, forgiveness, nonviolence – you know, against the dangers of anger and mass outrage?”