The Uses of Anger -- and the Manipulations

Do you get angry? How do you know when you’re angry? Do you decide to be angry? If you do, isn’t that a little calculating? And if you don’t decide to be angry, who does? If it isn’t you who decides to be angry, the who is it, really, who is angry?

Do you think about questions like these? Do you decide to think about them?

Back to anger. How do you feel about your own anger? Is it embarrassing? Do you wish you had less of it – that, however it arises or wherever it comes from, it would visit you less often?

Anger comes to visit us uninvited. Unless we’re stage-acting, it’s uninvited. Yes, we can decide to suppress it or not. And we can decide what to do with it if we don’t suppress it. Overall, we can decide to adopt practices to cultivate character traits that over time will make a visit from anger less, or more, likely. But we don’t decide in the moment whether anger will come knocking.

There’s a wiring built into us for getting angry, and there’s a correlating wiring built into us for when someone around us is angry – it grabs our attention. Whether they are angry AT you or angry FOR you (on your behalf), or expressing anger at a third party, it’s hard to focus on anything else when someone around you is angry. There are good reasons for both of those wirings: getting angry and paying attention to others’ anger. They have positive jobs to do. But they can be manipulated.

The spiritual task, as ever, is to grow closer to the better angels of our nature -- to appreciate the grace of anger when it is a grace -- and to have the wisdom to see through manipulations and be liberated from them. For that spiritual task, I hope this morning to offer some understandings that will help.

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Greenfield, MA, 1917
Back in 1977 – 42 years ago -- psychology professor James Averill mailed a questionnaire to every resident of Greenfield, Massachusetts, population 18,000. It was a questionnaire about anger. It asked, for instance: “Try to recall the number of times you became annoyed and/or angry during the past week.” And: “Describe the most angry of these experiences.”

The 14-page questionnaire asked about phases of anger, was there shouting, were punches thrown, was there a desire for vengeance, and afterward did you feel “triumphant, confident, and dominant,” or “ashamed, embarrassed, and guilty”? It asked about being the target of someone else’s anger, how did that feel, did it catch you by surprise, how did you react or respond?

In the late 70s, the prevailing feeling among psychologists, as it had been for at least a generation, was that anger was a base and instinctual vestige of our savage past that no longer served any useful purpose. Mature people and mature societies didn’t need anger. If anger did make an appearance, it was an embarrassment – a problem to be solved. Averill, however, suspected that anger was both more common and more useful than his colleagues generally assumed. So he set out to ask ordinary Americans – in an ordinary town, like Greenfield, Massachusetts – people who get upset at co-workers, who yell during rush hour.

Averill expected most people would throw the survey in the trash. He expected that most people would say they only infrequently lost their temper. He expected they would say they felt embarrassed afterwards. He expected they would say that their anger only made things worse. He was wrong on all four.

He was flooded with responses – the highest response rate for a mailed questionnaire he’d ever seen. People were delighted at the chance to tell someone what made them mad. Some of them attached thank you notes.

One woman described her fury when her husband bought a new car and drove it to his mistress’s house so she could admire the purchase. She wasn’t so mad about the mistress – she’d had suspicions for years – and frankly, she felt that any other woman willing to take her husband could have him. But how dare he show the car to her first?

Others were more mundane: arguments over taking out the trash, snappish tones at dinner. Overall, Averill found: “Most people report becoming mildly to moderately angry anywhere from several times a day to several times a week.” Angry episodes were usually short and restrained conversations. They rarely became blowout fights.

People didn’t feel embarrassed about anger but were pleased to talk about the indignities that provoked them. Moreover, anger did not make things worse. When an angry teenager shouted about his curfew, his parents agreed to modifications—as long as the teen promised to improve his grades.

Anger is a way of impressing upon others that there’s something here that needs to be worked out – and it orients them to then actually work it out rather than ignoring the issue or letting it slide. Anger gets our attention – as the producers of reality TV know. In our family and our community relationships, that can be a good thing. Averill found that,
“In the vast majority of cases, expressing anger resulted in all parties becoming more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly, more accommodating of each other’s complaints. People reported that they tended to be much happier after yelling at an offending party. They felt relieved, more optimistic about the future, more energized.... More than two-thirds of the recipients of anger ‘said they came to realize their own faults,’ Averill wrote. Their ‘relationship with the angry person was reportedly strengthened more often than it was weakened, and the targets more often gained rather than lost respect for the angry person.’”
And the enraged wife with the unfaithful husband who bought a new car? Even in that case, her anger “led to a productive conversation: he could keep the mistress as long as she was out of sight and as long as the wife always took priority.”

Subsequent studies have found that
“we’re more likely to perceive people who express anger as competent, powerful, and the kinds of leaders who will overcome challenges.... We’re often more creative when we’re angry.”
That’s good news about anger at the level of our relationships. It gets our attention so that issues can be addressed that need to be addressed to repair and sustain relationships.

There’s also good news about anger at the social level. When anger morphs into moral outrage, it drives movements for social change. Peter Starobin asks,
“Where would America be without its anger? Perhaps still under Colonial rule, if those rowdy upstarts had never tossed British tea into Boston Harbor. Perhaps still mired in a slave-based economy, if not for the prodding of yes, vitriolic abolitionists.” (Atlantic, 2004 Jan/Feb)
Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez channeled moral outrage about injustice and oppression into positive change. More recently, there’s the anger and outrage of the Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo movement.

W. Va. Teachers, 2018
In fact, we are in the midst of a upsurge of socially directed anger that writers began noticing at least 15 years ago and which shows no sign of cresting. It’s been less than a year and half since women, mostly, blew a Harvey-sized hole in the news cycle. (As of Sun Feb 24:) It was a year and 10 days ago that the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School led to the righteous anger of Parkland, Florida teenagers that got the nation’s attention on gun violence when it seemed that nothing, no matter the scale of the tragedy, ever would. It was a year and two days ago that the teacher strike in West Virginia began – which has been followed by strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Colorado – in Los Angeles, and in Virginia – and there may be more to come. These strikes are driven by moral outrage from years of neglect of teachers and the schools they serve.

Anger is powerful, and not just for men. Last fall, Rebecca Traister’s book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, was much discussed for its case that women are ready to express the anger they have long suppressed, and this can propel a “potentially revolutionary movement.” And a brand new book by Brittany Cooper – released four days ago – is titled Eloquent Rage.
“I’m not really into self-help books, so I don’t have one of those catchy three-step plans for changing the world. What I have is anger. Rage, actually. And that’s the place where more women should begin – with the things that make us angry.” (Brittany Cooper, Eloquent Rage)
For this sentiment, the Dixie Chicks provide the anthem: “Not Ready to Make Nice”
“I'm not ready to make nice,
I'm not ready to back down,
I'm still mad as hell,...
Can't bring myself to do what it is
You think I should.”

So there’s two things that anger does – two positive functions of anger: signal a need for, and bring attention to, relationship repair; and, when it morphs into moral outrage, drive movements for social change.

The anger response – and our response to anger from others – is part of our wiring today because these responses were helpfully adaptive for our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived in small bands where everyone could know everyone else. Anger gets our attention – makes us notice. That’s what it needs to do, so we can address the issue. But television shows manipulate that wiring not so we can repair a relationship, but just to increase their ratings.

It started over 30 years ago on Geraldo Rivera’s daytime talk show. When he invited white supremacists and black and Jewish activists, a brawl broke out, Geraldo’s nose was broken – and the ratings were great. Daytime shout-fests began making their way onto cable news in 1996 – the year that both Fox News and MSNBC got started. On one station Bill O’Reilly and later Sean Hannity, and on another station, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow, found ratings success by playing on their viewers’ discontent. Hearing one’s own indignations given voice by a bombastic host proved even more irresistible than watching people shout at each other. These commentators aren’t organizing marches, demonstrations, campaigns, boycotts, sit-ins, or strikes. They just want you to keep tuning in. It’s all about viewership.

Then came social media. Social media sometimes does organize movements: Black Lives Matter and MeToo started as hashtags.The 2017 Women’s March originated and was organized on Facebook. At the same time, our wiring makes anger feel good when it gets a response, and on social media the reward of likes, shares, and retweets encourages us to a continual flow of angry posts. The wiring we have for repairing important relationships is hijacked into rewarding us for “likes” from strangers – and is manipulated for TV ratings.

Our anger impulse can also be manipulated in other ways. After James Averill’s questionnaire in 1977, a raft of publications and studies began to appear investigating anger. And businesses were reading them to figure out how to profit. Most striking is the case of a debt-collection agency that trained its callers in strategic use of anger.
“Even when the debtors on the other end of the line sounded friendly, the collectors were trained to pretend they were angry at them.... Callers needed to hear a ‘hostile tone,’ something that said, ‘I want the payment today!’”
This might prompt conciliatory assurances, or it might prompt the debtor to start screaming back, in which case the caller would then
“become soothing and accommodating.... The idea was, once you get them angry and aroused, you [then] deliver catharsis, a sense of relief. That’s going to make them more likely to pay up.”
The caller would affect a sympathetic tone:
“Look, I know you’ve got a problem. I hope nothing I did set you off, because neither of us is going to benefit if we don’t resolve this thing. It was incredibly effective.... People would be so charged up from getting mad and then so relieved you weren’t blaming them anymore, and so they’d agree to nearly anything.”
That’s exactly how anger needs to work in addressing and repairing relationships – and it is here manipulated where there is no relationship.
Nor are bill collectors alone. Businesses schools have courses in how to display and intentionally provoke anger in negotiations and in dealing with a certain kind of customer.

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The Unitarian Universalist conception of the religious and spiritual quest, as I’ve noted before, places connection at the center. Anger is a part of how we connect. People who are angry want to be heard. They’ll usually say they want something done, but first – and what often turns out to be sufficient – is they want to be heard. Anger is pretty effective at getting attention so they can be heard. If you show them a sympathetic hearing, reflecting back what they’re saying, the anger dissipates.

Sometimes they begin thinking about whether they were being unreasonable. Saying “be reasonable,” rarely helps – but demonstratively understanding what they are angry about will often shift them into a concern to appear reasonable. They see they don’t need to push their point. They can now open up to consider other points. That’s the dynamic that the bill collectors were manipulating and exploiting.

It can also be used in positive ways. A few years ago, some Israeli social scientists conducted an experiment disguised as an advertising campaign. They created a campaign of online ads, brochures, and billboards targeted at the Giv’at Shmuel suburb of Tel Aviv. This was a heavily religious, hardline right-wing, anti-Palestinian area. These were angry people. It seemed unlikely that anything could persuade them to shift in the direction of favoring a freeze on construction of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.

Instead of trying to make the case that the Giv’at Shmuel residents were wrong, the ad campaign told them they were right. The ads intimated that a perpetual war with Israel’s neighbors was a good thing. They extolled the virtues of fighting for fighting’s sake. They showed iconic photos of Israeli war heroes with text that said,
“Without [war] we wouldn’t have had heroes. For the heroes, we probably need the conflict.”
The online ad had audio from Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”
“Another ad featured footage of a soldier with a machine gun petting a kitten and an infantryman helping an old man cross the street.”
‘What a Wonderful World’ played in the background. Its tagline read,
“Without [war] we would never be moral. For morality, we probably need the conflict.”
The ads exaggerated actual attitudes only in that the ads made explicit what was implicit in the attitudes. The study determined that over six weeks nearly all the suburb’s 25,000 residents saw the ads. They found that,
“The percentage of right-leaning residents who said that Arabs were solely responsible for Israel’s past wars decreased by 23 percent. The number of conservatives who said Israel should be more aggressive toward Palestinians fell by 17 percent.
Incredibly, even though the advertisements never mentioned settlements, 78 percent more people said that Israel should consider freezing construction in the West Bank and Gaza. (Residents in nearby towns who hadn’t seen the ads were surveyed as a control; they showed no such evolution in their views over the same period.)”
An L.A. Times piece explained how this worked:
"The idea is to exaggerate a person's core belief in such a way that it leads the believer to see his or her stance as irrational. For example, imagine if a friend with a two-pack-a-day habit said to you, 'All those studies that say smoking causes cancer don't prove anything.' Using the paradoxical thinking technique, you might respond, 'Totally! Lung cancer obviously has nothing to do with smoking.' That statement would probably sound extreme and illogical, even to your friend, and it might cause her to wonder if her own statement sounded kind of extreme too. In turn, she might reevaluate how she thinks about smoking and its relationship to lung cancer — at least a little." (Deborah Netburn, "How to Counter People with Extreme Views: Try Agreeing with Them," LA Times, 2016 Oct 14)
When your position is heard, you don’t have to keep pushing for it. When the implications of your position are brought out – not in a way that seems intended to challenge you, but in apparent sympathy with those implications – it holds up a mirror that lets you see yourself.

Just as with the bill collectors, it’s a kind of conciliation to the anger, which then makes the angry person more agreeable. What both cases illustrate is that when people are assured that they have been sympathetically heard, they step into a different space. They give themselves the freedom to think again about their own position.

We want to build connections. It’s hard to remember that we can’t change other people’s minds – they can only change their own minds. The most we can do is give them some space in which they might re-think – and we do that by hearing them – slowing down, taking time to demonstrate in detail the understanding we have for them and what they’re saying.

And be aware that opinion writers, news channels, salesfolk, and businesses in various ways have a monetary interest in your anger. You get to decide whether to give it to them.

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