I’ve been thinking a lot about anger over the past month and a half. Ever since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO way back in 2014 I’ve been increasingly political with my online presence — and the candidacy and ultimate inauguration of Donald Trump has pushed that side of my digital identity much more to the forefront. Politics, and the anger it generates, has crept into every aspect of my existence here. Largely, this has been due to social media and the breakneck speed with which outrageous news is being circulated there. There have been entire days spent tweeting and retweeting about the latest controversy in the furry fandom, in sci-fi and fantasy publishing, in Washington; agreeing with or challenging comments from folks about them; trying to find just the right point to make that might win hearts and minds. But now, four years later, I’ve hit outrage exhaustion: what’s left in its wake is a weary, frightened resignation. This can’t continue the way it has. We need to seriously think about how our current Internet culture is encouraging, even normalizing, constant and unreasoning anger.
First, let me say that we have a lot to be angry about. The police brutality we’ve seen through Brown and a parade of other victims hasn’t abated. The Trump Administration has been openly corrupt, incompetent, and vicious in its attacks on marginalized populations of just about every stripe — and it’s been largely aided by the Republican Party. Our ability to solve problems with even bipartisan support has become impossible. Meanwhile, authoritarianism, xenophobia, anti-social and anti-environment behavior has spread through the United States and the rest of the world in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible even back four years ago. There are far too many people who think we’re going in the right direction — or, at least, that there aren’t actually any problems with what’s going down right now.
This is an incredibly scary time, and it can be incredibly frustrating to see just how many things are going wrong and how few people care. In light of what’s happening to our country and the world, I think anger is a completely acceptable response. We’re right to be angry. But we’re not doing the right things with our anger, and that’s the problem.
One of the best things I learned from my group class for Anxiety Disorder is thinking about emotions like the lights on your dashboard. We don’t chastise our cars for telling us that our oil is low, that we need a new battery, or that we need gas. Those alerts are telling us that we need to attend to something in order to keep our cars running smoothly. Emotions are the same way; they’re our mind’s way of telling us that something within us needs attending to. In my case, the ‘anxiety’ dashboard light is way too sensitive but that’s another story. If we shift our thinking about our emotions to this framework, categorizing them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ no longer makes sense. They’re simply calls for action.
Anger, in particular, can be a very difficult emotion to allow mostly because it’s so immediate and powerful. It drives us to do things at the moment we later regret, and I’m no different. Last year alone I can immediately think of three or four different occasions where my anger got the better of me and caused a difficult situation to become that much worse. When this happens again and again, we begin to mistrust that emotion. We see it as a problem, as something that we must ignore or excise in order to be healthy. But that’s just as damaging as flying off the handle.
It is important to allow yourself to be angry. It is important to understand that anger, like any other emotion, is a call to pay attention to something inside yourself. Exactly what that is might be different from person to person, but for me it’s a sign that one of my values has been offended or, as Tara Brach so wonderfully put it, a deep need is not being met. When we feel ourselves getting angry, if we sit with the feeling and follow it towards its source, we can learn surprising things about what we value and what we need. Once we’ve made that discovery, we can frame our reaction around that instead of making sure whoever angered us is ‘punished’. That impulse to punish is what happens when our desire to make the world a better place is carried through thoughtlessly.
I know that I have a problem with anger; it flares up fast but dies just as quickly. Over time, I’ve learned to wait out the emotion without taking action through it. Most of the time, whatever angered me won’t seem like such a big deal once I’ve calmed down. These past few years, though, I’ve been getting angry over things that are very much a big deal. These offenses to my values aren’t easy to get over, and when there are new offenses every day — sometimes multiple times in one day — it feels impossible to take a step back and calm down. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all seem to be designed for stoking that anger, keeping the coals hot, because we pay attention to the things that anger us. Algorithms designed to keep us on websites for longer have hijacked our focus and severely eroded our ability to deal with anger constructively.
It’s very important to take a beat when we find ourselves getting angry, if only to ask ourselves a few basic questions. Why does this make me so angry? Who benefits from my anger? What can I do to really address what’s causing this response? Tara Brach calls this “the u-turn”, a necessary and conscious choice to direct our attention inwards instead of outwards, to sit with our anger and learn what it’s asking us to attend to. Sometimes, before we can even do that, we have to forgive ourselves for being angry, or give ourselves permission, or just reckon with the unpleasant physical and mental sensations that come with it. Either way, none of that happens without taking a pause.
This can be very difficult on social media. Twitter moves so fast, and often taking a moment to consider our responses can mean that the conversation moves on without us. But this isn’t a bad thing; that can teach us that not every exchange or idea needs our input. Sometimes, it’s better for everyone involved to let the moment go.
Once we understand the mechanisms that trigger our anger, we can do better about expressing that anger in a way that fosters connection and collaboration. Tara Brach believes that anger, at its source, is about us — what we need, what we care about, how we express ourselves. I agree with that, but up to a point. While there are so many things in the world that should not be, we also have greater control over our personal experience than we think. Anger might be a completely justified response to an external stimulus, but how we handle our anger can be brought under our control. It’s not easy, and it’s not always possible to know the best way to express it, but with time, effort, practice and patience we can get better at it.
This has all been brought up through a few different things. One, Tara Brach’s wonderful talk on “Anger: Responding, Not Reacting“; two, an episode of the “Where There’s Smoke” podcast that explores how social media has become a Skinner box for impulsive, expressive rage. I highly encourage you to take a listen to both of these whenever you have a chance — and let me know what you think. How can we express our anger more productively? How can we change our behavior on social media to tackle the things we find most important without contributing to the ‘noise’ of outrage culture?