You Are What You Want #3:
I’d fully intended to talk about gluttony today. (With an intro like that, you know I’m not going to). As I considered the time of year, though, I realized there was something else on my mind: wrath. No, I’m not talking about my feelings regarding Daylight Saving Time. Instead, I’m going to do the unthinkable and talk about politics.
That’s not quite right. I’m going to talk about talking about politics.
For many people, I think the initial reaction to hearing the word “anger” is a negative one. It evokes images of violence and abuse. There’s little that’s endearing about red-faced, spittle-shooting, full-on-screaming rage. This is the anger that we all instinctively shy from. It’s ugly and impolite and we recognize it as the enemy.
It’s rarely the obvious pitfalls that snare me, though. Raging fury rarely seduces me (though I’ll talk next week about times it has). Rather, it’s the subtler forms that slither past my defenses. You see, anger can be fun.
The struggle here is that within each of the deadly sins is the kernel of something worthwhile. Pride is destructive, but a solid sense of self is necessary to withstand peer pressure. Lust can poison a relationship, but sex is an important part of a deep and romantic connection. For anger, that beneficial spark is the surge of righteous indignation.
Righteous indignation incites us to action when action is needed. After all, there are clearly times for anger. We always think of Jesus driving the money lenders out of the temple. It’s probably the most commonly cited example, but Hollywood is more than willing to expand our options.
We love to see the wronged individual take up arms and kill his enemies in a satisfying torrent of violence (“My name is Inigo Montoya…”). It’s thrilling to see the bullied guy finally find the strength to fight his tormentor (Biff in Back to the Future). There’s a sense of satisfaction in seeing a self-absorbed manipulator receive her comeuppance (Regina getting hit by a bus in Mean Girls).
I don’t believe that these depictions make us more likely to act out the violence we’re seeing on screen. I do believe, however, that it tells us it is okay to be righteously angry at our enemies rather than love them. In this environment, it’s no wonder that I care more about being RIGHT than I do about people.
I think this is the point where I was supposed to ask my rhetorical question: “What does that have to do with politics?” That’d be silly, though, because you already know.
If you’re on Facebook, you’ve seen it. You’ve probably had to block some of it. The rage and fury is creeping in from all sides. We’re not even having conversations anymore. We’re sharing memes and photos that paint the other side as either unspeakably evil or just idiots.
And you know what? My first reaction is to join in. I see these empty arguments as targets, and all I want to do is unleash a wealth of wit and logic upon these unsuspecting purveyors of straw men. The surge of joy that comes with righteous indignation makes me want to fight back. Someone is WRONG…and I have to stop them!
In the past, I’d take the bait. It made sense. I figured this was my chance to do something RIGHT. To illuminate truth and change minds!
Now I know better.
In 2016, I found myself in an odd position. My values are traditionally in line with the Republican Party, but I had issues with Trump that I just couldn’t overlook. As I didn’t like Hillary either, I voted for Gary Johnson.
This put me out of sync with both parties. Republicans wanted to know why I didn’t support the party’s nominee. Democrats wanted to know why my distaste for Trump didn’t lead me to vote for Hillary. Neither side understood me, but my ambivalence meant I was exactly the kind of voter that both sides should court. A little empathy from either side could have reaped rewards.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, in the days after the election I watched as the left side of my Facebook feed devolved into non-stop attacks on Trump and the people who voted for him. I didn’t really like Trump, but I still had lots of friends and family who voted for him. These attacks were vicious and the assumptions they made about Trump voters didn’t resemble those that I loved.
On the other side, I was greeted by a constant stream of people who believed that Trump could do no wrong. They happily crowed that anyone who disagreed with him was stupid. There were even the occasional implications that people who dislike Trump would be better off dead.
As you may have guessed, neither of these approaches resonated with me.
That’s the problem. Righteous indignation may fill YOU with a sense of purpose, but it does nothing to convert others. It’s taken years, but I finally understand. Anger empowers those who agree with you. Compassion endears those who don’t.
I’m not here to comment on the politics. Rather, what I’ve learned is that changing people’s hearts and being loudly correct are pretty much mutually exclusive. After all, I don’t know anyone more passionately angry than Westboro Baptist Church. They don’t seem to be growing much, though.
That’s a hard thing to remember as we approach election day. I have a lot more practice being angry than I do being kind, and I feel better being right than humble. At the end of the day, though, if I let my righteous indignation rule, I’ll isolate rather than unite.
And so, I’ve finally found the question that I struggle to answer: Do I want to be right today…or do I want to be heard?