6 Weird Things Everyone Misunderstands About Anger
One of my favorite story tropes is when a normally calm and subdued hero explodes into a righteous fireball of dong-punching hyperfury. It's always so satisfying, because you've watched an entire movie/season/chapter of injustice, so once the breaking point is reached, "catharsis" doesn't even come close to describing the sensation. It's just perfection. Also, it never happens that way in real life, ever.
I don't think I'm the kind of guy that people think of as angry, but I do know I have one hell of a temper, and it's the worst fucking thing about me. Yes, even worse than my scraggly beard, general lack of hygiene, and the fact that I enjoyed and will stubbornly defend Pacific Rim as a masterful piece of filmmaking. Hopefully, this column will help us all look at our tempers with a little maturity, maybe understand our angry friends a bit better, and let us work together to ... oh, you're ... you're just writing an angry comment about Pacific Rim, aren't you? All right, let's get this motor running.
The Difference Between Letting Go of Anger and Suppressing It Isn't Clear
When we get mad, the absolute number one piece of advice we'll get is to "let it go." The problem is, for someone who's actually angry to the point of it messing up their life, you may as well have just asked them to take on a Balrog with nothing but a standard-issue phaser set on stun, which is not only insane but impossible because those don't even exist in the same universe, you goofballs.
The other problem is that we send mixed messages: you're supposed to let anger go, but at the same time, you're supposed to stand up for yourself. Well, standing up for yourself takes a lot of energy, so where does that energy come from, if not the anger welling up inside you, like a big angry Balrog?
As a side note, isn't it weird that Balrogs are an apt metaphor for everything that exists?
The idea is that you're supposed to let go of the things that you can't control and fight to control the things you can -- only that's insane, because most stuff doesn't clearly fall into one of those categories. What if you hate your job? What if you hate where you live? What if your cat won't stop meowing? You have to do a lot of investigating and careful thinking to figure out if those are problems that you can actually fix or if they're issues you just have to accept -- and that's damn near impossible when you're angry. So the real prerequisite to all this anger advice is that you need to learn to control your anger -- but what's the difference between that and suppressing it?
Look, this is even harder than it sounds. I thought I had this figured out a while back. I thought the lines were clearly demarcated in my head. But then I lost my temper at something stupid and realized I was wrong, because the truth is ...
Seemingly Small Things Can Become Enormous Through the Lens of Anger
Wanna hear a cringeworthy and depressing story? Obviously your answer is yes. When I was in high school, I was an outsider, due to the fact that I went to a high school full of jerks and also I was kind of awkward, standoffish, and dumb. This all came to a head one night when I was at a dinner with the rest of a sports team I belonged to, when suddenly (I don't remember how) the conversation just became a series of jokes the coach was making at the expense of my clothing, my personality, and my family. It seemed like it lasted an hour, and everyone -- including some parents, who were chaperoning -- was laughing so hard the table shook, all while staring at me, and I didn't say a word.
Why not? Well, the thing was, I was already kind of a huge dork (I knew not to make Star Trek/Lord of the Rings crossover jokes like the one above, but just barely), so there wasn't anything I could say back. If I stood up for myself, I probably would've lost my temper, and since nothing is easier to mock than any angry nerd, I just ... "let it go."
Only I didn't really! That's called foreshadowing!
Everyone reading this who's ever been bullied for real is furious right now, because what I just described is super lame. It's like the least traumatic bullying story ever. Not at all the kind of memory that you're supposed to carry with you into adulthood, let alone allow to dictate your entire life (more foreshadowing!), but it did, because I sat there and "let my anger go" all the way down to my stomach and the back of my brain, where it festered like a really patient xenomorph. And, weirdly enough, the fact that they were mocking me isn't even the thing that made me mad: it was the fact that I just sat there and took it, in an attempt to "let it go." But because of all this, I learned ...
Anger Influences Your Decisions Without You Knowing It
Pop culture loves to represent morality with a shoulder angel and a shoulder devil. I'm going to make a bet right now that future-me can find a shoulder angel/devil stock photo to put here and illustrate my point, when I'm picking out the pictures for this article later. Can you rise to the challenge, future-me?
You know goddamn well that I can, past-me!
Which is weird because isn't "hearing voices" the stereotype for crazy? But if we follow through with the metaphor and think of it as urges, it's pretty clear that that's not really how it works, right? First off, there are way more voices, and they don't wait politely for one to finish talking, they're just cutting each other off. And not only does Anger keep moving around and shouting from different directions, it's really good at imitating the voices of Righteousness, Pride, Love, Lust, Fear, Hunger, and a bunch of other emotions that aren't interesting, like Ennui and Xbox.
This is the inside of my brain.
Which means once this shit is bottled up, you're going to do something out of anger and not even know it.
Let's use me as an example again, because I am a great example of someone who is just a disaster of a person. The overwhelming majority of my first drafts of articles are really, really cruel, and when I go back and revise them, I have no idea why. The other day I wrote a rant about what a shithead Quentin Tarantino is, even though I love his movies and in interviews he actually seems like the kind of cocky geek I would get along with. This is the thing that every bully and every Internet harasser needs to do for their own good: they need to look at themselves and find out what they're really, actually mad about.
There's an important nuance here. Of course standing up for things is important, and anger motivates a lot of people to do that, and if they stopped, society would collapse. And if you're really angry about an injustice, then there's no reason not to look at yourself honestly, right? When I did that, I discovered that not standing up for myself as a kid turned me into a bit of a bully later in life, particularly in college, particularly that time I kicked a kid out of my dorm room just because he had less social capital than me, or that time I made an underclassman cry in the library because I disagreed with his politics. I was never really mad at them, I was mad at how little respect I had shown myself in the past and was trying to make up for it. It was a stupid thing that shouldn't have been remembered by anyone and is probably forgotten by everyone but me, but because I reacted to it poorly, I ended up hurting myself and other people a lot more than makes sense.
And this is where we get to the really uncomfortable stuff ...
No One Cares That You're Angry, They Only Care Why
No one is less important than the person who just lost their temper. Oh, sure: they can hit someone, they can break stuff, they can make themselves very important in the short term, but in the long term all that gets remembered as just a stupid tantrum. The only reason any angry person ever got listened to is because of the reason they were angry. A guy ranting and throwing things in the street because of lizard people is going to get ignored -- that same guy doing the same thing about financial planning gets his own TV show.
This is a particularly important point for Internet activism, because it's the thing that the Internet activist is most likely to forget. If they're anti-feminists, for example, they might see a feminist writing an article in which she admits she's angry, and they think, "Oh, well, we'll just get angrier!" They don't realize that the reason anyone cares about an angry feminist is because feminism has already clearly and intelligently explained the reasons for its supporters to be angry. Whether or not you agree with their points, it's clear that the philosophy is not limited to people angrily ranting on Twitter and Tumblr, right? There are several decades of books and articles and philosophical arguments to justify that anger. Social media is great for sharing breaking news or promoting or goofing off, but as a forum for discussion of decades-old concepts, it's about as useful as a fart in a long-jump competition.
That is: less useful than we all wish.
This is exactly why Internet controversies (like Twitter's #GamerGate, which I'm about to explain) are always finding conspiracies: because then their anger will matter to other people. That's fine, because sometimes the bigger, broader problem exists. But it can also ruin your life, because if you manufacture a conspiracy in your own mind and gather a bunch of like-minded folks to exact revenge like a horde -- then brother, you didn't just create the problem, you fused yourself with it, like a big, dumb Borg. And now, only Captain Picard can stop you. And he's not even real, so how does that help?
Human Beings Are Batteries for Hurt
Cruelty is like electricity. When you're a dick to someone, they absorb it, and if they don't retaliate or know how to let it go, it just gets stored inside them like their guts are a battery. Also like electricity, cruelty wants to escape through the path of least resistance: people weaker than you, a significant other that you know won't leave you, pets, or people on the Internet. It's just so easy to be an asshole, you guys. So much easier than being nice.
Again, this has a weird upside, because you can channel this energy into awesome stuff. I'm pretty sure I got the job I have purely because I don't mind beating my head against a wall until it's bloody, provided there's something behind that wall that will prove the kids who said I wasn't funny in high school wrong. The caveat to this upside is, obviously, the debilitating head injury, since so many walls are concrete these days.
The downside is everything else about it. All the years that came before that, where my anger got channeled into destructive impulses and nothingness. I've hurt people, and maybe they'll carry it around for a long time and take it out on the people least able to retaliate, continuing the big dumb cycle of stupid. But that's the best-case scenario -- things can easily get way, way worse ...
The Angry Are Easily Exploited
Anger is a dangerous emotion that changes the way you think and act, that inhibits your reasoning skills and self-control when it's bad enough. And when you lose control of yourself -- well, that's when someone else takes control of you. For example, look at #GamerGate, the latest fad Internet controversy. It started as a harassment campaign against an indie game developer, but was later rebranded as outrage against irresponsible journalism in the video game industry. But the amazing thing is that, in reality, it's even dumber than that.
It actually started when people decided to exploit the rampant anger and misogyny in gaming culture in order to peddle their weird, anti-woman views. And yes, there is a lot of anger and misogyny floating around in gaming culture -- the topic generates a disproportionate amount of hate-mail whenever I write about it, and I play video games online, motherfucker. I know from experience. Heroes of Newerth, Team Fortress 2, even signing into StarCraft -- which was once mocked by a pro-gamer essentially for not having enough sexual harassment, I fucking kid you not -- involves getting threatened and hated. It sucks, because the vocal assholes are actually a very small minority of gamers, but for the same reason I remember every angry comment about my work I've ever read and forget the nice ones, they're the people who get the most attention from the non-gaming world. And that's why those fuck-weasels on 4chan knew to target a woman.
Number of groups exploiting this angry group for their own agenda: 1.
And once the movement got going, these guys stepped in to spin it to be about their careers. First, we have an admitted racist (he also made a video called "Why Blacks Fail," but it was removed for violating YouTube's hate-speech guidelines, obviously) who made a Patreon to fund a documentary about "The Social Justice Warrior Movement," as if that's an actual thing (I'm not linking to it -- they already have too much money).
Number of groups exploiting this angry group for their own agenda: 2.
Finally, we have this guy, who wrote rambling articles telling the #GamerGate people exactly what they wanted to hear (the women you're harassing are evil and also bad at making video games) and successfully spread misleading information that he knew would get both those women harassed more and, more importantly, would build his following. It worked.
As long as they don't try to expose harassment. Or make games he doesn't like.
Number of groups exploiting this angry group's lack of organization and overabundance of energy for their own goals: everyone.
I picked #GamerGate because it's an obvious recent example, but really this can happen to anyone, with any cause. Here's a great analysis of how anti-bullying is being co-opted by a system that doesn't actually care about it. Hell, this is why wars are historically fought with young men: it's easier to get them angry. The most dangerous part of an angry mob isn't that it's directionless, it's that someone else might give it direction without the mob ever realizing it. Hopefully we can all agree that sucks a big old barrel of floppy donkey dicks.
The bottom line here is that anger will fucking kill you, even if it's justified. So no matter what you're pissed off about, it's generally a pretty good idea to take some time to get your mind off it, have fun, do something to improve your brain or your health. And then when you come back, see if you can still remember what made you so mad in the first place.
For more from Sarge, check out 5 Sexual Fears That Science Says Are Bullshit and 5 Uncomfortable Truths Behind the Men's Rights Movement.