Reply to my hate mail: | Joseph Margulies | Verdict
In my last essay, I described the tendency among politicians and the media on both sides of the aisle to voice all social issues as existential tribal grievances. The tribe blaming machine produces extremely high levels of personal stress and social distortion. Among other things, it stokes anger, deepens divisions, reinforces partisanship and clouds the mind.
The essay struck a chord with at least one person, who found it infuriating enough that within minutes of posting it online they tracked down my email and sent one of the most annoying messages I’ve ever had. ever received (and I have received a lot of hate mail over the years, especially in relation to my defense of Guantanamo prisoners).
I’ll spare you the worst of the profanity, but suffice it to say that this person, who declined to identify himself, wasn’t too happy that I was speaking out against the political left (“bullsh*t both-sides-ism” ) when “Republicans Advocate for People’s F***ING DEATHS. Underline in original.
I replied to my new friend, inviting him to re-read my essay (especially the paragraphs on the distorting effect of anger), check the links, and wonder if some of my claims weren’t right. supported by evidence. But I also explained that I don’t exchange e-mails with people who are rude and refuse to identify themselves. I told them I would be happy to have a civilized conversation about these very serious issues, but if that wasn’t possible, I wished them all the best and gave them the last word, which they took:
You are all about ‘civility’ when it comes to my email but when it comes to Democrats and Republicans they are somehow perfectly equal despite one side trying to protect the rights and the another is literally trying to control and enslave people.
Just because I’m mad at your bullshit doesn’t mean I’m wrong. You’re right, angry people are less likely to compromise, and that’s not always a bad thing. …I’m mad at white supremacy, not brainwashing myself into thinking it’s somehow as bad as Dems who have the fucking balls to call out bad behavior.
I am very grateful to my friend because he raises an excellent and important point.
* * *
Although some people disagree, I think anger is a natural and healthy emotion. We couldn’t get rid of it even if we wanted to, and we shouldn’t even if we could. When someone wrongs you, your anger towards them maintains self-respect and promotes equality in your relationship. As the philosopher Paul Bloom once wrote, the person who lets himself be walked on without getting angry is:in a word a con.”
Equally important, anger also serves a vital social purpose. As someone who has been angry for the better part of four decades, I consider it a very good thing to be angry at injustice. Anger can clear the mind, clarify priorities and inspire action. I would go so far as to say that anger is essential to democracy. A popular way to tell the story of American history is to gradually expand the circle of civil and political rights. But the circle does not grow by itself. Power is conservative with a small c; he is always content with the way things are and will use his considerable resources to make it so. Power only gives up its grip when angry people take to the streets.
And nowadays, there is reason to be angry. The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs deprived millions of women of the right to control their bodies. The open threat contained in the separate opinion of Judge Clarence Thomas in Dobbs threatens to deprive everyone in the country of the right to privacy they have enjoyed for nearly two generations and jeopardizes the fragile equality that has only recently been extended to same-sex couples. The decision in West Virginia vs. EPA cripples our ability to regulate fossil fuels by throwing the climate fight into a terminally dysfunctional Congress, and the decision of the next term in Moore v. Harper creates the risk that gerrymandered state legislatures will have exclusive power to create ballot cards. And that’s just the last couple of weeks and it’s just focused on the Supreme Court. If you’re not angry in the United States right now, you’re probably not paying attention.
On the other hand, we all know or know people who have been destroyed by their anger. They become bitter and vengeful, ruminating obsessively over the harm they have suffered or the insult they have endured. Their thoughts are filled with fantasies of disproportionate retaliation. And this anger can be just as intense when the attack is not on a person but on the real or symbolic interests of a group. It is the anger stirred up by the blame machine of the tribes, and those who have the strongest attachment to the tribe and most active engagement with the news spend their days swimming in a toxic stream of terrifying and infuriating coverage. This leads to the distortions, prejudices and errors of judgment I described in my last essay. At the extreme, under the right combination of personal susceptibility and environmental pressure, it can drive any of us to a paroxysm of lethal violence, a process brilliantly described by criminologist Matthew Williams in his new book, The science of hate.
Therein lies the Goldilocks dilemma. Anger is part of human nature and some anger – the right amount directed at the right target for the right reason – does a world of good, for the individual and for society. But too much anger tears the world apart. Philosophers have pondered this riddle for years, but of course to no avail; it is not a question which admits of a rational resolution. I’m sure my new friend thinks his anger is justified in every way. others might suspect he is threatening to consume them, if he hasn’t already.
And that’s just one of the puzzles raised by the Goldilocks dilemma. We look back now and agree that everyone should have been mad at Jim Crow, although of course for much of his long and infamous existence most people weren’t. Today, many people – myself included – believe that the prison state is the new Jim Crow and that saturation policing and overly long prison sentences are moral obscenity. But many others, including many people of color who live in troubled neighborhoods with rising crime, want After police and prison control. They may also want better policing and rehabilitating prisons, but they are absolutely not police or prison abolitionists.
On both sides of the issue, there is a lot of anger. What anger is right? And who decides? Although I know my own position, I don’t think I have the moral wisdom to impose it on others. And if I lament the tendency on all sides to reduce painful and complex issues to oversimplified tribal soundbites, does that make me guilty of “bullsh*t both-sides-ism”?
Likewise, I am furious with the recent Supreme Court decision in New York State Rifles and Pistols Association vs. Bruen, which will predictably and inevitably lead to thousands of preventable deaths. The idea that municipalities cannot ensure the well-being of their citizens by tightly regulating guns strikes me as the hallmark of a failed state. Yet I know that tens of millions of Americans are responsible gun owners who have never abused a gun in their lives. I also know that despite what some of my friends and colleagues on the political left might say, the origin and operation of the Second Amendment provides more than enough ammunition for both sides (there’s that term again) of the debate. on gun rights. Does recognizing all of this mean I’m a brainwashed white supremacist?
It seems like a fool’s game to me to argue about which anger is better. Instead, we need something beyond arguments, a set of ideals against which we can measure whether a particular kind of anger is one that society should honor and encourage. The conventional response to this challenge is to embrace the anger that promotes the ideals of constitutional democracy: tolerance; defense of the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority; freedom of expression, thought and religion; and equality under the rule of law.
According to this reasoning, for example, anger at attempts to prevent legitimate voters from exercising the right to vote, expressed in the form of mass protests or boycotts that cause no physical harm, is more ethically defensible. whether anger over a mythical attempt to “steal” an election, expressed as a violent assault on the Capitol, or a factless fear of “replacement”, expressed as deadly violence against blacks and Jews.
In practice, however, this hierarchy turns out to be less useful than we hoped. These days, any fearmonger or conspiracy theorist worth their salt can present their favorite fantasy as a grave threat to democratic ideals. I wrote a whole book about how elites in the post-9/11 era have twisted and twisted the meaning of “our most cherished values” to justify the exact opposite. In the end, therefore, the injunction to put one’s anger at the service of constitutional democracy is reduced to the innocuous admonition that one can get angry as long as one wants as long as one does not harm anyone.
So if truth, justice, and the American way turn out to be an empty vessel into which a demagogue can pour almost any content, how do we solve our Goldilocks dilemma?
This is the subject of my next essay.