When Anger Rules

Apr 26, 2007 |Matt Kaufman

It's one thing to feel righteous indignation over an injustice. It's another thing entirely to let anger take control over you.

"It is the research finding every man suspected, and every woman will vehemently disagree with," the article began. "Women are the angrier sex."

On the whole, according to a study funded by the British government, they're more persistently upset and frustrated. And they don't deal with it as constructively, the study says, nursing grudges more than men and getting passive-aggressive instead of confronting issues head-on.

So is all this true? I suspect there's something to it. (And not just because I'm a guy; I know several women who'll say the same thing.) Just how much there is to it is another story. The study finds a substantial but not huge difference between men and women, and there seems to be plenty of anger to go around. No doubt someone could write a fascinating article on the subject, but that someone won't be me. Far too many people know far more about the subject than I do, and I'd rather leave it to one of them.

There's an angle to this story, though, that's more up my alley: The reasons some people have cooked up to explain why women are said to be angry.

Though the study itself didn't offer answers, the authors didn't mind making suggestions to the media. They pointed fingers at that old bugaboo, discrimination. University of London psychologist Windy Dryden "said anger is often prompted by feelings of powerlessness, which in women may be a response to entrenched sexism in modern society," the story reported. "My guess is further research will relate higher levels of anger to larger inequality issues facing women today," added study co-author Heather Joshi.

That sort of thing hardly seems the most likely culprit. The study's own results suggest better candidates. Women without "partners" (i.e., generally, "men"), it said, are "far more likely" to be angry. It's safe to say most women care a lot more about personal relationships than "inequality issues."

But if indignation over "sexism" doesn't explain how most women feel, it was just about inevitable that someone would raise the claim. It's just another reflection of something we see a lot: What might be called politicized anger.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there are lots of people who are mad about lots of things: always have been, always will be, this side of the Second Coming. But politicized anger, as I'm using the words, is a special category. That's when you see self-proclaimed representatives of some group — whether the group's defined by race or gender or sexual practice or what have you — become consumed with accusing others of a venomous bias against them.

The accusation comes under different names: racism, sexism, homophobia, among the more common. These days it's often just called "hate." Whatever the name, though, a common thread behind the wave of accusation is anger: persistent, burning, even obsessive anger.

Sometimes, of course, there's a good reason for the anger; it can be sparked or fed by real injustices, real abuses. Other times there's very little basis for it, if any at all; it can be pure paranoia.

What's disturbing, though, is that the politicized type of anger doesn't bother making distinctions. Serious moral convictions (e.g., homosexuality is wrong) are lumped in with ethnic loathing: It's all bigotry, we're told. And making harsh claims about others' motives becomes sheer reflex. In this climate, ordinary and decent people are routinely smeared as bigots (so routinely that real bigots can be harder to pick out). Even the most innocent statements and traditions turn into poisonous controversies.

I can think of many examples, and you can probably think of a few too. But the example that's uppermost on my mind at the moment, because it's recent and close to home for me, is the demise of Chief Illiniwek, the longtime symbol of my alma mater and hometown school, the University of Illinois.

I've written about the Chief a couple times before, so I'll keep the recap brief. In a nutshell, the Chief was a much beloved and honored figure in these parts. He wasn't one of those clownish caricatures who goofs around with cheerleaders or does tomahawk chops. He put on a dignified and dramatic performance, wore authentic Indian garb, did a dance based on an authentic Indian dance style. Most fans loved the Chief and treated him with respect, even reverence.

But the Chief made a few people angry. They called him a racist mockery and waged a campaign against him for nearly 20 years. They never convinced very many folk, but they convinced some in high places: A while back the NCAA labeled the Chief (and other Indian symbols at universities everywhere) "hostile and abusive," and a couple months ago the UI — under NCAA sanctions — finally retired the Chief for good.

As I say, this case is just one of many. But it strikes me as a perfect example of how politicized anger can distort perspectives. An objective observer isn't likely to mistake the Chief for Sheriff Bull Connor, or even for Don Imus. At worst, he was like a family tradition: Outsiders didn't have to care about him, but they hardly had any reason to begrudge those who do. As I said in an earlier column, "you don't have to be a fan to recognize that you're watching a tribute, a lovingly preserved ritual. You may not share the love, but you can hardly fail to notice it." Even if you find the Chief an excessively romanticized, sentimental figure for your tastes, you can hardly complain that he's a mockery: Idealizing is the opposite of disparaging.

But those in the grip of politicized anger just can't see that. In their eyes, even something intended as a tribute is seen as an insult. This isn't just a misunderstanding on the part of angry people. It's a prejudice. It's a foregone conclusion that they'll see "hostility" and "bigotry" all around them.

We all know people with a chip on their shoulder; at one time or another most of us are like that ourselves. That kind of anger, though, is often restrained by a mixture of common sense and healthy social pressure. No one likes someone who's always griping about everyone else, much less someone who acts like all his personal conflicts are a result of everyone else's sins against him. Many (I'd like to think most) of us would be embarrassed if we caught ourselves acting like that.

Politicized anger, however, has no such restraints: It's got a built-in tendency to go to extremes. It's always purportedly about some noble cause — some vital matter of Social Justice. And its pose is always unselfish. If I'm mad, I'm not mad chiefly on my own behalf. I'm mad on behalf of all the other people who've been mistreated. Even if I'm not part of that group, I may enjoy taking up their cause. (Most anti-Chief protesters weren't Indians; they were more likely to come from Chicago suburbs.) After all, if I'm outraged by injustices I've never personally felt, that can be seen as a testimony to how caring and sensitive I am.

The more you think about it, the more you can see what a dangerous combination it is. Even if it starts with indignation over genuine injustices, it can all too easily turn into a self-sustaining rage. And when that happens, all the normal rules of charity and civility that we've been taught can be swept away by the intoxicating sense of righteous anger.

Anger, it should go without saying, really can be righteous: There's something wrong with you if you've never experienced it. But as Scripture warns, "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold" (Ephesians 4:26). Anger has to be experienced briefly, then dispelled or channeled into positive directions. Those who let it take up long-term residence in their souls are liable to find themselves under the devil's mastery. And if that happens, then the original cause won't even matter any more.

Copyright 2007 Matt Kaufman. All rights reserved..

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