Tuesday, August 4, 2015

On So Much Anger

Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one's friends. If this is a proper definition of anger, it must always be felt towards some particular individual, e.g. Cleon, and not "man" in general. It must be felt because the other has done or intended to do something to him or one of his friends. It must always be attended by a certain pleasure -- that which arises from the expectation of revenge. - Aristotle

I'm just trying to figure out some things about anger here, so this will be long and rambling.

Aristotle wrote Rhetoric to teach the art of persuasion. The key to convincing others of your position is arousing emotions in them because emotions have the power to modify people's judgments to the point that we can persuade people to hate or desire that which was previously neutral. We're affected by this principle whenever we suddenly want something we've never considered after seeing an ad, or when we suddenly hate someone after hearing some gossip. He didn't want to get people to rise to action, but merely to be persuaded to agree with a position being offered. He was a very different sort than Socrates on that front. As influential as he was, some of us still think it's better to persuade with rational argumentation. Better? Maybe, in ethical terms at least, but effective? Not so much. Aristotle takes this one hands down. Lots of very rational discourse on environmental issues is doing squat to persuade the masses.

But my interest here is in that one statement: "It must always be felt towards some particular individual." Proper anger, useful anger, isn't tossed about in all directions. It's focused on someone specific who slighted you without justification. It appears we often do anger wrong.

A few posts back I mentioned the pain-aggression response - otherwise known as pain-induced aggression. When we feel pain, we attack. It's a very primitive instinct common to all mammals. Way back when, in a university psych class, we were shown a video of a raccoon and rat inside a cage together. The raccoon had a good 3-4 times the weight of the rat, easily, but the two prisoners just sniffed around largely ignoring each other. Then an experimenter gave the rat an electric shock, and it lunged at the raccoon's throat, attacking it violently. The video cut off before we saw the aftermath of the battle though, so we don't know who won.
the #1 endangered big cat

But that video stayed with me.

And, like Aristotle says, it's not just our own pain that causes anger. Because of mirror neurons, we feel pain when we see someone else experience pain - even people we've never met, or lions, or, less commonly, the many species going extinct because of our frivolousness. It pains us to see others harmed without justification, and that makes us angry. But we don't always get angry at the instigator of the pain the way Aristotle hopes we will.

This entire line of consideration was planted years ago, but it sprouted when some trolls visited here, and grew when Amanda Marcotte wrote an article on why men are so angry with women.  She discussed the recently viral study that shows a strong correlation between how well men succeed at video games and how much vitriol they spew at women: losers are haters. But she takes the researchers to task for their analysis of the situation wrapped in terms of evolutionary sexual advantage. Instead, she thinks that angry reaction has more to do with the pain caused by losing and the fact that women are an easy target:
"...some people who are feeling bad about themselves try to regain a sense of mastery by picking on someone they think is down the social pecking order from them. In other words, these guys are bullies. They pick on women not because of some elaborate hardwired mating game, but because men are socialized to think women are weaker and somehow inferior to men.... They pick on women for the same reason kids at school like to bully the nerdy kid or the fat kid or the gay kid: To feel bigger and better than someone else, to get that rush of power over someone else, to kill a perceived weakness inside of them, to trick other people into thinking they're big and tough.... 
People are going to feel low sometimes and are going to want a quick fix to feel powerful. What we need, as a society, is to discourage men from chasing that quick fix by picking on women in this way. Sure, maybe teach better coping mechanisms--get some therapy, learn a hobby, get some exercise--but more importantly, stop seeing women as ciphers that exist for them to dump on. Learn to see women as equals and people who, like men, are worthy of respect."
If that raccoon and rat also had a mouse in their cage, then I think it likely that the shocked rat would have taken on the easier prey, but both are clearly easier than the experimenter who's outside the cage free to provoke others at will. We feel pain and we attack, not what caused the pain, but whatever's easy. Whatever's convenient. Sometimes what causes our pain is impossible to attack. The person is too powerful for us or too elusive. Of course it would be best to attack the person who caused the harm in order to actually try to resolve the situation (assuming, as Aristotle does, that revenge can be necessary), but it's easiest to attack whomever's close at hand and unable to retaliate effectively.

So if that's the issue, then Marcotte's solution "learn to see women as equals" is unhelpful regardless its accuracy. The solution has to involve specifically making sure the unwitting victims are able to retaliate effectively (through some online means of finding perpetrators and holding them responsible for their words) AND finding ways for the first victims, the shocked rats, to resolve problems with the original aggressor or the perception of original harm. That "original aggressor" might just be some woman who said "no" to a date, so we do need to attack the perspective that is creating all that pain. Attacking a person is so much easier than attacking an ideology, so this will be a hard slog.

Hedges talks about this male rage in Empire of Illusionin an interview with a male porn star who explained,
"My whole reason for being in the industry is to satisfy the desire of the men in the world who basically don't much care for women and want to see the men in my industry getting even with the women they couldn't have when they were growing up....We're getting even for their lost dreams....All I know is that large segments around the world like to watch young girls being tortured."
Hedges links the anger to the pain of rejection - not just actual rejection, but also the thought of being rejected by women who might say 'no' to them.

This is our whole mindset in a consumerist society. We are led to believe that, if we work hard, we should be able to have whatever we want. I can be a great athlete if I try hard enough - except I couldn't hit the side of a barn with a beach ball. I can buy a house without saving up for a down payment - except then I'll have insurmountable debt. I should be able to have whatever I see, just because I want it, without any negative consequences, dammit!! The career, the house, and the wife and kids. It's our birthright.

I wrote about the problems with that attitude a couple years ago. It's a bugger. It's invasive, and it's making us miserable.

Another peg in this board is that sharing anger helps it dissipate. I know if I'm in a snit, and I get mad at anyone for anything, I feel much better immediately - better enough to apologize profusely for my outburst. It's as if I've given the anger away to whomever I yelled at. I know how good this feels, but I try to prevent it, and it can be prevented. Ranting about the enraging situation to a supportive friend or the interwebs can do wonders for diminishing that build up of rage, even when the trigger is still there *coughHarpercough*.  We can't always immediately stop what's causing the pain, so we create support groups to help us deal with it so we don't inadvertently lash out at our loved ones nearby.

But that's exactly what some really angry men have done online, sort of. They've found each other. But instead of dissipating their anger through ranting, they've exacerbated it for one another. And instead of targeting the real cause of the pain in their lives - feeling crappy because of a losing streak on a game or a bad relationship - they verbally attack random women they've never met and ask other men to spread the word about them. To see how warp this is, an analogy would be an anti-Harper site with people suggesting we DESTROY ALL CONSERVATIVES, and posting this message on random con blogs everywhere. It's different than attack ads because the message doesn't question the policies or the person, but instead implies a straight route to a violent end to the actual existence of the people within the targeted group, or at least a silencing of them through a terror campaign. A lot of people are really, really upset with what's happened politically in the last few years, but there aren't many who wish actual harm to come to specific conservatives. We're not threatening them with a bombardment of heinous descriptions of sexual assaults.

That's a different level of anger that's scary and, it feels, growing exponentially.

From Maricotte's explanation, clearly it's not just about pain. It's about fear. Pain just tells us that there's something nearby that we should be afraid of, something that needs to be taken down. So we react aggressively until we feel safe again. We react aggressively when in pain, but the pain is often due to a perception that causes us to be afraid.

So why are some men so afraid?

Sometimes fear is from feeling like we have no say in anything. Being scared and trapped, without any means of controlling the situation, might necessitate aggressive action. But when we're not actually caged, we have to see that we're not as trapped as we think.

What's worked for me in my encounters with angry people is to give them control over the situation to alleviate their fears enough to find common ground and a viable solution. Freaking out because you don't want to do that assignment (likely because you're struggling)? Then feel free to choose another way you can show you understand the ideas. Upset because you don't have the kids tonight and you've got nothing else to do? How about you choose the nights you'd prefer them. It's not enough to give an illusion of control - like some politicians do. People feeling fearful have to be allowed to call the shots - but usually just until they feel more stabilized. It can be surprisingly effective at immediately alleviating rage.

Except we don't really have all that much control in the first place. It would work better if we could just let go of that need to run the show. We can do everything in our power to head towards a goal and still not make it. Shit happens. And so much is outside of our directly influence.

What's worked for me when I'm angry, is to do a quick 'stop and think' about what I'm afraid of.  Typically I start pitching a fit if I'm in a hurry - I'm afraid of being late, except that I'm never actually late for anything, and if I were, I could survive the inconvenience. A quick reminder of that can go a long way.

Except, anger actually feels good. It definitely feels much better than fear, but it can even feel much better than contentment. It's exciting and energizing. Sometimes people work hard to keep it going in order to keep up that rush of adrenaline. It can be hard to give that up - hard to see the more permanent rewards of stable relationships and world peace over the immediate reward of having power over others.

So why are they scared, scared and in pain enough to cause a crazy kind of anger that's only relieved by terrorizing women online?

If they don't get that girl, or win that game, or succeed at life, then they don't measure up. To be a man means to WIN, which is an impossible definition to live up to. Even men who have made it in many areas feel they're still not up to par. How could it not inspire some - if not many - to feel upset and, subsequently, very angry with the world? And the reality of our legal system right now is that women online are very easy targets for attack. The law has not yet caught up to technology, but it's also the case that descriptions of rape and torture cause pain in a way that's deeper than descriptions of unadorned murder threats. They don't have to actually carry out the threat to have an effect. This is a power too easily won, it might be hard to resist, the anger too satisfactorily relieved.

Okay, I'm no MRA apologist, so bear with me here.

When women have body image issues, and we understand that one root cause is the media that plants false expectations of reality in the culture's minds, we don't take it out on the women starving themselves (ok, some people do). The empathetic among us take it out on the media portrays: all the photoshopping and the very narrow version of beauty we see everywhere we look.

But when men have anger issues, and we understand that one root cause is the media that plants false expectations of reality in the culture's minds, we completely take it out on the men. I think we need to be more angry with the media portrays: all the storylines that have men walking away from an explosion unscathed (literally or metaphorically), and the very narrow version of masculinity we see everywhere we look that offers women as trophies for success.

Yup, women get hit from both side - unable to live up to the beauty standards of the day AND, if they do, being relegated to trophy status.

And yes, those men need to grow up and rise above those unrealistic portrayals of men everywhere, but would we ever say women need to just stop being affected by the media?  I mean, it's a great idea in theory, but it's hard to expect people to be completely untainted by all persuasive ideology surrounding us. One significant difference between the two is body image issue may cause self-harm, but aggression might harm others, and there needs to be some expectation of responsibility taken for any harm that's caused by our behaviour. Absolutely. But as much as we rally around changing the norms for women, we must rally around changing the norms for men. Saying "he's just a bully" is far less effective than saying "he's been too affected by the dominant norms portrayed in media." His behaviour is bullying, but that's not who he is, necessarily, it's how's he's reacting to the cognitive dissonance perpetuated from seeing the world's expectations of him compared to his own unfulfilled reality.

We have much more complex brains than common rats, so we can override our basic instincts. We need to get people to 'stop and think' and recognize the bullshit presented to them at every turn. And we also need to put more out there that challenges the crap we're ALL swimming in.

Something like that.   ETA:


ETA: Martha Nussbaum wrote about anger a year after I this, drawing on Aristotle as well. He's the one, AND THEN, went on PEL to discuss when anger makes sense and when it's really stupid.


Anonymous said...

"Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."


Marie Snyder said...

It took me a while to click on "Comment from Anonymous" in my inbox what with the comments I've been getting lately. But this is a great quotation that nicely reinforces the point that anger isn't, in itself, a bad thing. It's often necessary. But we don't always do it well.

JD said...

So much text. I'll just say that your assumption that anger is caused by fear is a bit of a stretch. After all, did that capuchin monkey lash out because he/she was afraid? Of course not. He/she got pissed off because the other monkey got a grape and they were only given a bullshit cucumber. So instead of "so why are some men so afraid?" a better question is "what kind bullshit cucumbers are some men being given?"


As far as that study is concerned it probably has to do with the fact that they were women voices and more to do with the fact that women voices are so unique in that environment. I happen to play a competitive game for a living and I see this all the time. The worse players that put the most time into the game are the ones who do this most often. They blame a new dealer, a new player, a bad player for not playing correctly. Whatever they see as a new variable is what they will direct their anger towards.

Marie Snyder said...

With the cucumber/grape analogy, are you suggesting that men get mad enough during video games to threaten sexual violence and harass women online because female players get something they don't get? Or is it because women in their lives get something they don't? What is it that women have that is somehow ripping men off enough to spur this level of rage? As I suggested above with the Hedges quote, is it that women have themselves - they have the power of sexual rejection? I'm not entirely clear what grape women have that are so much more preferable than men's cucumber. Well...

But the part about blaming a new player fits with the pain-aggression response. We look for whomever we can most easily attack when we're mad. Often it's someone who won't have any backing - like someone new to the scene. Or, as you suggestion, it's about a changing variable - a superstitious believe that that change tipped their luck in the wrong direction.