Anger has come to define all too many facets of our daily life. It is in our news. It is in our social media. It is in our politics. It is in our workplace. It is in our homes and marriages. It is the symptom of an increasingly crippled society, incapable of confronting those around us on reasonable grounds. We are fed up, outraged, upended, sick and tired – of nearly everything. This is not by accident. It is the result of deliberate tactics among the public relations managers of our politics, the ad sells of our media, and the marketing strategies of many corporations.
- In 2012 a study at Emory University found that less than half of voters were deeply angry at the other political party’s presidential nominee. In 2016 that number grew to 70%.
- In 2001 only 8% of Americans told the Pew Research Center they were angry at the federal government. This number tripled in 2013.
- A 2018 survey found that “Nearly three-quarters of the country believes that the media is “dividing Americans” along political, racial, and gender lines.”
We are angry because we feel silenced, oppressed, unjustified, deceived. Rage somehow breaks us free of the confines that injustice and political correctness have bound us to. This is what we tell ourselves at least, and there may be some level of truth to it. Anger is effective even if too much anger can be devastating. The trick is finding the balance.
The pathway of anger has become easier to follow. The semi-anonymous nature of social media allows us to retaliate unmercifully against our enemies while at the same time we insulate ourselves from negative feedback and disagreeable perspectives. The echo chambers of the media have confirmed our point of view that we are not only right, but the other side is dead wrong.
The media has learned that outrage is far more marketable to their audience than facts. As a result, the organizations who once informed us of the facts and state of our world have become a funnel to fuel the outrage and anger of the various sides of the political spectrum.
- In 2009 a Tufts University study found that 100% of TV episodes and 98.8% of talk radio programs contained outrage. The highest rated shows on Fox and MSNBC tapped into this outrage and grew upon it.
- In 2012 the Pew Research Center found that 85% of MSNBC programming was devoted to opinion, while only 15% to news. The Fox split on this was 55/45.
- After the election of Donald Trump CNN made a deliberate shift in their programming so that opinion and outrage came to dominate their coverage. Opinion has been abundant on CNN for some time, but things shifted in 2016 as the media giant focused on mastering the outrage phenomena.
- Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has noted how the media, including her former newspaper, has become too anti-Trump and biased in its reporting opinion as if it is fact.
All of this works to not only delegitimize the media but also to heighten levels of anger and outrage among media consumers in America.
Some in the media contend that the stakes are too high for them to NOT express opinion and outrage. After the election of Donald Trump, many of the media giants changed their taglines and slogans to express their noble intent to stand for the truth.
- The Washington Post changed their slogan to: “Democracy Dies in Darkness”
- The New York Times began running ads with the new slogan: “The truth is more important now than ever.”
These were idealistic statements but make no mistake, these were not idealistic moves. This was pure business. It was part of the wider corporatizing of American anger. The media has gone farther left or right because America has gone farther left or right, and like a never-ending cycle the two feed one another.
American Anger and the Covington Kids
Two weeks ago much of the nation was mesmerized by a strange scene at the end of the March for Life in Washington D.C.
A group of high schoolers from Covington, KY were reportedly waiting for their bus and caught between dueling protests in D.C. (apparently, not an uncommon event). An image of what transpired quickly flashed across the web and social media triggering immediate outrage. The image held all of the signals and codes to suit the narratives which everyone seemed to need to fuel their anger. White boys. MAGA hats. Native Americans. Taunting, laughing. Hello anger and outrage!
Across the political spectrum, outrage was voiced. Conservatives voiced disappointment that Catholic schools and organizations were part of such a disrespectful scene and wondered where the parents were. Liberals were a bit more blatant and outrageous.
- A writer for Slate wrote: “But I think the real reason the clip has spread is simpler: It’s the kid’s face. The face of self-satisfaction and certitude, of edginess expressed as cruelty. The face remains almost completely still as his peers hoot in awed delight at his bravado. The face is both punchable and untouchable. The face is in this photo of a clutch of white young men crowding around a single black man at a lunch counter sit-in in Virginia in the 1960s, and in many other images of jeering white men from that era. . . .Anyone who knew the popular white boys in high school recognized it: the confident gaze, the eyes twinkling with menace, the smirk. The face of a boy who is not as smart as he thinks he is, but is exactly as powerful. The face that sneers, “What? I’m just standing here,” if you flinch or cry or lash out. The face knows that no matter how you react, it wins.”
- Reza Aslan, one time CNN contributor, tweeted “Honest question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”
Multiple other celebrities and left-wing commentators tweeted or broadcast comments that are too vulgar for me to write here but fit the general consensus suggesting the smiling teen in the MAGA hat should be crucified.
Then something happened. Someone took the audacious step to watch more than the 45 seconds of video that was included on Twitter and the original Washington Post article. The longer video revealed a far different scene. It showed the Native American protester approaching the boy and facing off with him. The story of the scene changed with fuller and more complete context. This was not a scene of dastardly white kids in MAGA hats surrounding an elderly Native American and taunting him. It was a Native American protester deliberately marching up to a bunch of white Catholic teenagers and awkwardly banging his drum in their face.
Not to worry. For the next week, we had outrage and anger emitting from the right, demanding apologies from the left for their harsh and misguided judgments.
We have become so addicted to anger and outrage that we cannot believe our own eyes any longer. We depend upon narratives to be pro or con toward because we have been trained to constantly respond in anger and outrage.
The Anger Con Game
The cover story from the January Atlantic Magazine, The Real Roots of American Rage, tells the story of how researchers discovered the enormous power that anger holds to provoke people to appointed ends. Bill collectors tapped into this research first and found great success. But now politicians and the media have learned to use it. It is too easy not to! As the article itself states, “Anger is one of the densest forms of communication. It conveys more information, more quickly than almost any other type of emotion.”
The rise of a constant state of anger and outrage in America is a deliberate outcome by political, corporate and media channels to direct “We the people” to their own desired ends.
In other words, the abundant presence of anger in our life and discourse is the result of a deliberate effort to manipulate us.
This is not a left or right issue. This is both. Republicans and Democrats, CNN and Fox. If you spend a lot of your time angry, outraged or dismayed you are likely experiencing the effects of a deliberate strategy from our politics, our media, and our corporations. This is the danger of anger in America.
The problem, of course, is that while researchers have found it is easy to stir and boil up anger and outrage; it is far more difficult to manage and cool it down. The sentiment can quickly move to anger at not being heard to a desire to hurt those who are not letting us be heard. We have seen this in Charlottesville, Ferguson and beyond. Our concern should be the frequency with which we are beginning to witness this transition.
Beneath the Anger Is Fear
Years ago a teacher once informed me how in many instances anger is merely a defensive posture. It is not the real issue. The real issue lies hidden behind the protective and reactive mechanism of anger. This is not universal but in my experience, this consideration usually sheds light upon situations I am witnessing in myself or in those around me. If anger is not the real issue, then what is?
A sense of injustice pervades our modern culture to such an extent that we barely realize it is there. The game is rigged. From business to politics the tables are tilted toward a few and against the many. When we vote we don’t believe our vote really matters. The winners are already picked. Increasingly our ballot is cast for the lesser of two evils not because we think our candidate will win but because we simply don’t believe the other candidate should win. The power belongs to others.
The surge toward left-leaning political correctness within popular culture in recent years has accelerated this sense of injustice felt by more traditional groups and members of American society. As individuals who define themselves on the basis of their minority status, gender, gender orientation or sexual preference find their voices amplified in the modern world, older and more traditional groups find a sense of injustice transforming to a sense of threat to their own way of life. In turn, they grow louder and angrier triggering a sense of threat to the small groups they were originally threatened by. And again the feedback loop repeats and escalates. Injustice drives anger but so does a growing sense of threat to that which we value and hold dear.
Last, there is the modern phenomenon of widespread narcissistic rage. (I touched on this in my podcast episode Lovers of Self.) In a culture increasingly built upon catering to the self and the individual, narcissism grows abundant. This very unhealthy state of being is increasingly evident all around us and was one of the motivations for Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s bestselling book Coddling of the American Mind. The rage being displayed on college campuses today is not always simple protest. It is increasingly about a refusal to be wrong, to see a different perspective, to be negotiated with, to release control, to feel remorse. It is a self-centered paradigm that sees the world as a threat if it does not maintain an even-glide of rotation around the individual. And it is very dangerous!
Living Right at the End End of History
Scripture does not classify anger as a sin, in and of itself. Jesus Himself moved with zealous anger (John 2:13-22) as He cleared the temple of those who had made the house of God into a den of thieves. The righteous anger, or zeal, of Phinehas in Numbers 25 saved the children of Israel from judgment.
Anger is a delicate thing, however, and too much of it is definitely a bad thing. That is why repeatedly we are warned about anger.
If you cannot control your anger, you are as helpless as a city without walls, open to attack. Proverbs 25:28 (Good News Translation)
We are seeing the outworking of this scriptural reality in society today. Anger is dangerous to us not only because of what it causes us to become but also because of what it opens us up to. Angry people are vulnerable people. Angry people are easily deceived people. Angry people are blind people.
The New Testament goes on to warn of anger as a premier symptom of an unholy life. That is to say, a life that is cutting itself off from the benefits of godliness such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. James 1:19, 20
As the world around us continues to grow darker, anger is the bait. If we take the bait we become vulnerable to forces that are not in line with our own values or our own desires for truth and righteousness. The Kingdom of God is not built upon human anger but upon hearts given over to submission to Christ.
This is why in the face of injustice, in the face of threats, in the face of the wrongs all around us, believers should rise above the forces at work in the world. We don’t have to be the loudest. We don’t have to always be heard. We don’t have to always win.
We have to hold the standard of truth and light in our own hearts. This is a key attribute of living as a believer at the End of History.