Why do humans get angry? What good does it do? Sometimes an irate person can intimidate us into bending to their will. But nobody likes that behavior, and the resentment lingers, poisoning the air around the angry one. Somehow anger backfires, even when used tactically. Yet we keep meting it out.
I’ve found that anger almost never gets me what I want, and it always damages my relations with others. So why do I have this big, powerful emotional response if it’s counter-productive?
Apparently it’s a deep-seated genetic need that has, or once had, survival value. But maybe something changed in society, something that makes anger, if not obsolete, at least harder to use — something that takes the power out of anger, or, worse, makes it boomerang back against the sender.
I’m not talking about small mistakes of behavior, like stepping on someone’s toes. (“Ouch! Hey!” … “Oh! Sorry. I didn’t mean—” … “Ah well, it’s okay.”) What ticks me off is acts that are deliberate, like cutting me off in traffic, or insulting me, or lying to me. Yet when I express my umbrage, the offending party nearly always will defend the action, and then they’ll take offense at my outrage. That’s weird, the more so because it’s become very common.
I have a theory about this. (It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t.) My theory is that anger is chiefly about clashes of moral codes, and that nearly everyone we meet nowadays, in our diverse urban societies, has a different set of rules to live by. Today our codes of conduct aren’t so much handed down as collected by each of us — individual mashups of family lore, random religious teachings, behaviors of favorite TV characters, and so on. By the time someone has decided to do something that’s likely to offend us, that person already believes he or she is doing the right thing by their own code of behavior. (That this code is unique to them doesn’t enter their mind.) When we get angry, to them it is we who are in the wrong.
This explains why, when I’ve expressed my outrage, the offender usually expects me to apologize! And it doesn’t matter if I’m shouting or merely cranky or carefully diplomatic: any indignation is too much.
When someone wants to do something that might offend another, you’d think they would be careful before courting rage. If they go ahead and do it anyway, it’s clear the deed is vital to them. So by the time I’ve received the ill treatment, the offender is fully committed to the importance and the rightness of the action. At that point, getting angry at them is like walking into a gale. I’ll be blown back by their vilification, excoriation, and condemnation.
What can I do? Back down? Escalate into physical violence? Since I don’t want to slug them and then fill out all the paperwork that would ensue (pardon the pun), I retreat and determine to avoid that person.
This brings me to my second theory. (It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have one of those, too.) As humans have urbanized, brute conflicts increasingly have been settled with arrests, courtrooms, and jails, while the most violent among us have ended up dead, thereby removing themselves from the gene pool. Studies show that violence has declined greatly in Western countries over the past hundred years; maybe it’s because the worst offenders were killed off or imprisoned, either of which would seriously suppress their ability to reproduce. Maybe we’re genetically a more peaceful species — at least, in face-to-face conflicts — because the more violent among us are becoming extinct.
On top of that, these days it’s uncool to express anger in public, especially in an important social setting like an office, where shouting — no matter how justified — can seriously damage a career.
For all these reasons, perhaps anger is no longer useful in daily life. How, then, will we deal with people who don’t share our values and violate ours and then have the temerity to expect us to accept it without protest? The simplest answer, of course, is to ostracize them. With luck, nobody else will deal with them, either, and they’ll suffer from isolation.
But sometimes being sensible just doesn’t get it. Sometimes being civilized simply won’t scratch the itch. Which brings me to my third theory about anger:
Always have a better lawyer.