Anger and the post-truth era


Anger is a strange emotion. It is a reaction to what we perceive as a wrong done to us or to someone for whom we care. Anger wants to inflict some sort of payback, revenge. That this is not always possible or even desirable is something which we have to learn as children and probably then again as adults. Some people are more inclined to feel or show anger than others. Some make a virtue of its control. Others are proud of their unwillingness to control it. Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, argues that anger makes little sense. She says:

  The central puzzle is this: the payback idea does not make sense. Whatever the wrongful act was – a murder, a rape, a betrayal – inflicting pain on the wrongdoer does not help restore the thing that was lost. We think about payback all the time, and it is a deeply human tendency to think that proportionality between punishment and offence somehow makes good the offence. Only it doesn’t. Let’s say my friend has been raped. I urgently want the offender to be arrested, convicted, and punished. But really, what good will that do? Looking to the future, I might want many things: to restore my friend’s life, to prevent and deter future similar acts. But harsh treatment of this particular wrongdoer might or might not achieve the latter goal. It’s an empirical matter. And usually people do not treat it as an empirical matter: they are in the grip of an idea of cosmic fitness that makes them think that blood for blood, pain for pain is the right way to go. The payback idea is deeply human, but fatally flawed as a way of making sense of the world.

And her argument is right as far as it goes. After the event, payback does not put things right. It cannot. But I think that she misses the point. After all, here we are with a significant emotion for which we must presume evolution has selected. Why would it do so if it had no benefit for the individuals involved or for the society of which that person is a member? Rightly or wrongly, we may justify our anger as a fair response to a provocation. But whilst that may be what we see as producing the anger, the evolutionary benefit comes from the fact that anger exists and not the intellectualisation of its raison d’etre. Surely the point is that if we are thinking of doing something unfair or damaging to someone-else, we will have to take into account their probable angry response, whether rational or irrational. In the days before the state took over administration of payback, there was a very real likelihood that the person damaged or his family and friends would react violently towards the perpetrator even for a small offence. And of course for the upper classes there was the duel. So then, we may see anger as a long-standing deterrent to the unjustified action in the first place, even if incapable of rational justification once the wrong has actually taken place and even if it was always a blunt instrument – sometimes literally..

Of course, these things tend to get out of control, with vengeance leading to counter-reprisals. Which is why, in most democratic societies, we have decided to hand the whole thing over to the state to exact a suitable punishment, one which can indeed be more empirically directed for the benefit of society than the vengeance of old. That is not to say that low-level wrongs, ones falling short of criminality, have been outsourced to the State. We retain the right to ostracise people who have done us wrong and encourage our friends to do the same. And, of course, there is the delight of spreading malicious gossip about them. Or so I am told.

But it seems that anger is making a comeback. Despite the fact that we are living in what would only 50 years ago have been seen as a paradise, some politicians are doing their best to stir up anger about every aspect of our lives. The other day, I heard part of Any Questions on the radio. One of the participants was a Corbynista who was determined that the country was in a dreadful state, with teachers leaving the profession in droves, the imminent collapse of the NHS, half the population dependent on food banks and unfairness everywhere. She wanted us to feel her anger that there was nothing which was good in this Tory led UK, except perhaps the willingness of the Labour Party to put everything right. One may perhaps argue that there can be a rational benefit to anger – that it can generate a wish to put right the problems that some people suffer in our less than perfect society. There are though other emotions which can drive us forward which are more controllable and less potentially destructive. Concern for someone-else does not have to entail anger. The blatant use of anger to whip up support for a political project is always worrying as it inevitably glosses over the facts in favour of arousing what is basically an irrational emotion. It goes with intemperate language – for example the hard left’s characterisation of all Tories as ‘Tory scum’ - and a corresponding willingness to distort the truth.

It is the almost complete parting of the ways between truth and politics exemplified in the Trump campaign which is both deeply worrying and deeply dispiriting. There is simply no attempt to verify any of the malicious ‘facts’ spread by Trump or to correct obvious errors even when pointed out. As long as they whip up anger, that is seen as sufficient. And of course we saw something very similar in connection with the Brexit campaign. We were told that £350 million per week was actually paid to the EU when the amount handed over was substantially less than that and the net figure even smaller. And then there was the suggestion that it could all instead be paid to to support the NHS if we “took back control”. It was obviously deceitful. But not obviously enough. For those who already wanted to leave the EU, any justification, whether real or imaginary or a downright lie was enough. Why? Because many studies have shown that we have a great tendency to accept as true what we want to believe. We will go out of our way to find reasons to believe what we want to believe. Religious leaders have played on this for aeons when telling us how to achieve eternal life

Political leaders in democratic societies though have mostly assumed that telling obvious lies will come back to bite them, because they will be discovered by their opponents and their erstwhile supporters will inevitably turn against them. But the internet has shown us how scant is the regard for truth. The comment sections of any web site will be full of complete rubbish, all held very strongly to be true and showing a degree of anger which we do not normally encounter in normal life. And I think that the Trumps and Boris Johnsons of this world have realised that lies do not, at least straight away, come back to haunt them. They have come to see that a significant section of the population welcomes having their views pandered to by their demagoguery and will refuse to listen to truth even when it hits them between the eyes. Instead, the claim that a cherished view is untrue is seen as being all part of an establishment plot, a conspiracy, to keep them in their place. Their leaders tell them so. And they don't even realise that they are being conned. But the result is that an unholy alliance of savvy demagogues and their credulous, angry conspiracy theorist followers, is making real progress towards ruling the post-truth world.

Paul Buckingham

September 2016

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