My grandpa Emmett was a passionate fan of pro wrestling. He had no doubts about the integrity of the sport and would express indignation if anyone suggested that the matches were rigged.
One night at the Fargo Coliseum, he was so outraged by the referee’s failure to keep the “bad guys” from cheating, that he took matters into his own hands. He grabbed a cane from the old man sitting next to him, snuck up behind Larry “Pretty Boy” Hennig, and whacked him on the head.
In the furor that ensued, he managed to escape back to his seat without getting nabbed by the security guards. But I was not so fortunate. My dad read about the incident in the newspaper the next day and decided pro wrestling matches were unsuitable for 10-year-olds. I was banned for life.
Anger is a dangerous and unpredictable emotion. The old expression “to fly off the handle” refers to how an axe head sometimes comes loose from the shaft at the top of the swing, causing harm to anyone who happens to be in the path of the flying projectile.
Like guilt, shame, resentment, indignation and pride, anger is always accompanied by some kind of moral judgment. One cannot be angry at someone and also believe them to be in the right. But unlike the other moral emotions, its intensity is out of all proportion to the significance of the event that prompts it — and that makes it likely to be both personally and socially disruptive.
The Greek and Roman Stoics thought anger could be managed by learning how to control one’s thoughts. Epictetus said that “what upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.” This is useful advice because in our anger we can become obsessive and narrowly focused, neglecting to take into account relevant information and the broader context of a situation.
But sometimes anger is an appropriate response. All kinds of things happen in the world that we should feel angry about, such as racial discrimination, child exploitation, animal abuse, environmental degradation and political corruption. Yet unless we are closely involved or can imagine some personal connection, we tend not to feel angry despite our judgment about it.
Somebody inadvertently cutting me off on the interstate is more likely to provoke an angry response than a dictator who murders innocent children in a foreign country.
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Ralph Waldo Emerson calls this partiality — this inability to align our passion and our judgment with what is really going on in the world — the most “unhandsome part of our condition.”
If only we could manage to express outrage at the people who really deserve it, for what they have actually done wrong, the world would be a much better place. And our lives would have more integrity.
One of the reasons we find prophets like Nathan, Amos and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspiring is that they combine passion with a sense of justice. Their moral outrage is directed toward abuses of power that harm the innocent. When a person’s emotions are in line with sound judgment, their very presence causes us to feel viscerally connected to a purpose greater than mere self-interest. By sharing in their indignation, we find a measure of redemption.
But the prophets are exhausting. It takes a great deal of energy to sustain a genuine and passionate fight against injustice, so most of us settle for mild disapproval interrupted by the occasional outburst.
I don’t know the real sources of my grandpa’s rage, but I suspect it had little to do with Larry “Pretty Boy” Hennig — he just happened to be a convenient target. But I learned an important lesson that evening in the Fargo Coliseum. Anger is a powerful motivator, and it can lead one to take action when everyone else is content to sit along the sidelines jeering and complaining.
The great challenge is to make sure one’s anger is appropriately directed, aligned with sound judgment rather than self-regard or misperception. No matter how good it feels at the time, you just can’t go around hitting people over the head with a cane.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.