Monday, October 4, 2010

Anger Issues

Have you ever talked to someone who has an opinion you don't share and they get angry because you don’t share it? Let’s flip this scenario: Have you ever become angry because someone didn’t share your beliefs/ideals/opinions/perspective/etc.?

            When I look carefully at the times that I have been on the angry side of this scenario it is usually because I am losing the argument… and I really want to win it. I lose sight of what really matters – the truth behind the argument – and focus instead on winning the argument. I become emotionally invested to a fault and lose all sense of perspective. When I’m in an argument I really want to win, I get very passionate about it and that passion can quickly turn to anger if my interlocutor belittles, ignores, makes fun, or degrades my beliefs. If that anger grows unchecked what was a friendly argument can quickly turn into a quarrel.

            What do I mean by differentiating quarrel and argument? The distinction isn’t mine, I picked it up from some logician (I can’t remember who right now). What I mean by it, though, is this: when two or more sides are arguing over a point (whether it be philosophical, political, legal, etc.) they are trying to get at the truth. When two or more parties quarrel then they are not concerned with finding the truth of the issue but they simply wish to win the argument. That is the real danger. If your motive when you come to a debate, conversation, discourse, or whatever, is simply to win then you have undermined yourself by focusing on the argument qua argument rather than focusing on what exactly is being argued. This loss of perspective harms the argument itself as the argument will now be skewed towards “which side is right?” rather than “let us find the truth.” Do you see the problem? If you are constantly asking “whose side is right?” you may incidentally get at the truth but only incidentally. For example, let us say that two sides argue over the color of X; Side A says X is blue and Side B says X is green. Now, being emotionally involved in an argument is good; it tends to make for stronger arguments, but that will do you no good if you are wrong. If A and B quarrel until they are blue in the face they will not get any closer to the truth if X is turquoise. If, however, they come at the issue from a diplomatic stance they could possibly get to the truth: Side A says “I believe very strongly that X is blue but I’m willing to admit the slight possibility that I am wrong,” and Side B says “I know that X is green, there is no denying it! But I have been wrong in the past.” Then they may possibly come to conclusion that they are both right about some things (as turquoise is a combination of blue and green) but the truth lies somewhere else.

           Now this is great to know but the tricky part is catching yourself in the act. It is essential to have the humility and the discipline to constantly check yourself in an argument. You need to constantly ask yourself questions: Did I say that in a combative tone? Was that a fair statement? Did I respect his side or belittle it? That makes me angry, why? Am I concerned with the truth more than losing the argument? And, the most important question of all: Do I value this person that I’m arguing with as a human being? This is important because one of the telltale signs that you are losing your rationality is that you begin to hate the person you are arguing with. If you suddenly desire to hurt (physically or emotionally) your opponent, then you have lost the personal battle. You need to take some time and cool down, and come back to the argument at another time when you can think about it rationally and (dare I say it?) lovingly. If the person disappears and all you hear are words clanging violently against your ears then the argument is over and a quarrel has begun.

            Now don’t get the wrong opinion of me: I am not the master of rationality; genially meeting every opponent and taking criticism and abuse with grace and serenity. That is not me. I’m not there yet. I’m writing this because I know this is something I struggle with and this is something I see other people struggling with as well. This is something we all must face to grow as human beings. We must look at our irrational selves and subdue them, gently.

I say gently because there are those who would take this too far and demand strict, militant rationality; a society where emotional displays are looked down upon, art isn’t valued, and feelings don’t matter. This is not what I’m preaching. I am calling for moderation and like any personal correction we can take the issue too far and end up worse off than we were at the beginning. Your rational mind will only take you so far. Without feelings and emotions you will become a cold, cynical, skeptical, prude. Feelings are important but they must not master our rationality. This has all been said before; by Plato and C.S. Lewis, and thousands in between but I feel like it needs to be said again. Our society seems to have forgotten its past and now it oscillates wildly from position to position.  We rebound from extreme to extreme like ricocheting bullets in a room with no air. What we all have to realize is that we all have our inherent weaknesses and strengths (often they are one and the same). We must constantly examine ourselves to be sure we are not favoring our strengths too much or our weaknesses too little.

            In the case of arguments, everyone has their anger issues. Anger issues are those opinions, debates, beliefs, positions, doctrines or dogma that we easily get into quarrels over. If you are talking to someone about something and they have the opposite opinion and this makes you angry; you have discovered your anger issue. Most of us have many, for some of us every issue becomes an anger issue. When you become obsessed with winning arguments and defeating opponents then you have probably turned everything into an anger issue. The key is admitting you have anger issues and discovering what they are. If you don’t believe you have anger issues then you probably just haven’t been pushed hard enough. Parents often bring out the anger issues in us as they will talk about anything and everything with us. Next time your Mom or Dad makes you mad ask yourself why you are mad. If your answer is simply “Well Mom said this” or “Dad did that” then you need to go deeper: “Why did I get so angry when Mom said that?” or “Why did I get so angry when Dad did that thing?” Perhaps your parents just proved to you that they are, like you, human and therefore prone to errors. On the other hand, you may have just discovered an anger issue.

            What I’ve noticed, (and what made me want to write this), is that there are a lot of anger issues out there in the public. You can go to politics and see anger issues all over the place. Also, you can see politicians forgetting their rationality so that they can win an argument: Politicians are constantly dividing issues of ‘left’ and ‘right’ when many of their constituents are ‘center’.  However, you need not stop at politicians. Social and cultural issues tend to be the hot-button issues when it comes to what sets people off. For example: I am fairly aware of what is going on in the abortion debate in Canada. I keep up with it as a concerned citizen and because it just happens to be one of my anger issues. When I argue around the topic of abortion I often struggle to subordinate my passions to my reason and, as I’ve seen from witnessing the debate, I’m not the only one who struggles to maintain rationality. People on both sides of the debate get furious over what the other side has to say. Pro-life people are furious at the use of euphemism to describe what they call murder and Pro-choice people are furious at any attempt to limit a woman’s rights over her own body. However, the sides are not arguing; they are quarreling. They haven’t even come to talk about the same thing. Pro-life people want to talk about the potential of a fetus and a “baby’s” right to live while Pro-choice people want to talk about women’s health and her right to decide what happens to and in her body. The sides of this argument are talking about two different (although related) things. And whenever someone voices a strong opinion on one side they are likely to be met with hostility, anger and even threats by the other side. Neither side has established common ground, or even admitted the possibility that their side could have it wrong. And perhaps, in this case, one side is absolutely right while the other side is absolutely wrong, but those debates – debates where there is no room for compromise – are always anger issues.

Anger issues are everywhere today. Perhaps, people are more prone to anger now than they have ever been before – if so that is very telling about our society – or perhaps we have always been exposed to anger’s control. And control is the right word; we have all heard the phrase ‘to be consumed with anger’. Anger is something that grows like a fire and, like fire, the larger it gets the harder it is to control. Maybe there are more anger issues now because we are less willing to compromise. (I find it interesting that the word compromise usually has a negative connotation in western society.)

Whether it has gotten worse in modern times or has always been this way, anger is something we all need to deal with. Far too often people allow their irrational selves to control them and it is evident in how they argue over issues that matter to them. You begin to lose your rationality where you stop caring about finding truth and start caring about other things: “I hope I win this argument; he just made me look stupid; I can’t believe she would have the nerve to say that; She is wrong and I’m right; How can I turn his argument on its head?; What from his personal life can I use to undermine his position?; How can I make her look bad?; He just insulted all I hold dear;” when you focus on these things you have begun to lose your grip on rationality, where you end up is in anger and confusion. Anger issues should always be dealt with carefully, politely and with constant self-questioning. If you go into a debate knowing that you have already won – then you have lost. If you do not stop to question yourself how will you be able to answer a question from one who is not yourself?

Fyodor Lewis


  1. Jeepers this was long and took me a few sittings to read, but it seems well worth it. One of the main things I gleaned from this piece is the struggle to "catch oneself in the act". Oh how difficult this task is . . .

    It seems that we commit so many logical fallacy's (begging the question, circular reasoning, appeal to authority, etc...) when debating that we turn it into a free-for-all with little logic and copious amounts of emotion. I see where you draw your conclusion; that these emotions lead to things such as anger. I would agree.

    Something that I took away from is this:
    It seems that in a world that is constantly being called "apathetic" we are becoming more and more angry and/or emotionally involved with what we believe in (or just being right).


  2. I'm glad you liked it Lena.
    I just want to restate that I don't have a problem with people getting emotionally involved in debates and arguments; that is necessary. The debate is stronger and people will have to struggle to get to the truth if their is emotional resistance on both sides. And, when you struggle to get to the truth you value it more than if it is simply handed to you as: "look here is the truth"

    My problem is when the emotional side of the debate dominates or takes over from the rational. When this happens people tend to lose sight of the truth in all the emotion.

    What I want to see more of is: Emotion subjected to - but not absent from - reason. It is a very fine distinction that we all have to work on.

    Thanks for you comments, they are always appreciated.


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