There’s a charismatic con artist in my neighborhood who’s fooled all of us once. He’s a remarkably good actor with a winning smile and effortless charm. After a warm “Hello, how are you?” he proceeds to give you an impeccably well-scripted sob-story about his dear little sister, who’s dying in a Toronto hospital right now. He desperately wants to get on a bus to Toronto forthwith, but can’t seem to do so because his bank cards have all been frozen, for reasons which remain a mystery to him. Alas, he fooled me once. But he didn’t fool me twice. Probably hasn’t fooled anyone twice, because we’re quite good at remembering strangers who screw us over. My guess is that he’d be out of business in a week if it weren’t for the steady stream of tourists and students who come to this neighborhood to party.
A bonhomme who didn’t know how to remember slights would be an easy mark for our friendly neighborhood con artist. In fact, we’d rightly refer to him as a sucker. Our local con artist could fool this Forrest Gump day after day after day. So it seems fair to assume that in a state of nature, vengeful folk, with a well-developed capacity for holding grudges, will always prevail, sooner or later, over suckers who lack this capacity. And since we’re all descendants of the ones who made it, the human groups that survived, it should come as no surprise to discover that a heart of darkness beats within many a breast.
Like a dangerous but well-trained guard dog, our capacity for hatefulness isn’t really much of a threat to our day-to-day health and well-being when it’s directed at outsiders and enemies—since, as Rousseau rightly observes in Émile (1762), most of us spend very little time interacting with outsiders and enemies, and the “essential thing is to be good to the people with whom one lives.”
The vengeance drive is, like the sex drive, necessary and normal; without it, we would have gone extinct long ago. But the sex drive and the vengeance drive are also extremely dangerous. They can rip human groups apart if they’re not highly regulated by taboo boundaries. The part of the brain responsible for the regulation of these powerful drives is known as the frontal cortex. When it’s damaged by accident or disease, an ugliness emerges from the human heart which is often quite shocking.
Jonathan Haidt discusses such a case in The Happiness Hypothesis (2006): “A schoolteacher in his forties had, fairly suddenly, begun to visit prostitutes, surf child pornography Web sites, and proposition young girls. He was soon arrested and convicted of child molestation. The day before his sentencing, he went to the hospital emergency room because he had a pounding headache and was experiencing a constant urge to rape his landlady. (His wife had thrown him out of the house months earlier.) Even while he was talking to the doctor, he asked passing nurses to sleep with him. A brain scan found that an enormous tumor in his frontal cortex was squeezing everything else, preventing the frontal cortex from doing its job of inhibiting inappropriate behavior and thinking about consequences. (Who in his right mind would put on such a show the day before his sentencing?) When the tumor was removed, the hypersexuality vanished. Moreover, when the tumor grew back the following year, the symptoms returned; and when the tumor was removed again, the symptoms disappeared again.”
Just as damage to the frontal cortex can cause people to focus their sex drive on children and insiders, who ought to be off limits and thus subject to taboo boundaries, I suspect that damage to the frontal cortex may also cause people to focus their vengeance drive on friends and family. My reasoning is based, in part, on the following observation: excessive abuse of alcohol and certain drugs, especially speed and meth, severely impairs the functioning of the frontal cortex, and drunks, speed-freaks, and meth-heads are notoriously vengeful. They can’t seem to let anything go. When the sex drive is allowed to run free, it often destroys families and rips communities apart. The same is true of the vengeance drive.
Anger and Aristotle
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle maintains that there’s nothing wrong with getting angry. All to the contrary, there are, he argues, some very good reasons for getting angry, especially in defense of people and things that you care about. You just have to make sure that you’re getting angry “in the right way at the right time toward the right people in the right degree” (1125b35-1126a1). For instance, Aristotle would say that this is decidedly not cool: going off on your kid when you get home from work, for some trivial infraction of the house rules, when you’re really pissed off at your abusive boss for treating you like shit all day.
But this is entirely kosher: going off on the sexist asshole at the dinner party who keeps saying stupid shit about women and rape. In fact, failure to get angry at a time like this is deeply problematic: “those who do not get angry at the people at whom they should get angry seem dense . . . . to allow oneself and one’s loved ones to be trampled underfoot and overlook it is slavish” (1126a3-8). It’s slavish because slaves are forced to repress their anger; expressing it freely could, after all, result in severe punishment (maybe even death). Free men are, by contrast, free to spontaneously express the full range of human emotions, including, when appropriate, anger.
Failure to get angry at a time when you ought to get angry is, then, in the final analysis, for Aristotle, a sign of moral weakness or slavishness: you’re not as free (or honorable or courageous) as you imagine yourself to be, nor is your commitment to the people and things you claim to care about particularly trustworthy, dependable, or strong. Even so, at one and the same time, he argues that being a hothead who flies off the handle at the slightest provocation is at least as vicious, if not more vicious, than being a spineless pushover.
“Aristotle clearly believes,” writes the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in The Therapy of Desire (1994), “that many people get angry too much and for insufficient reasons. His choice of the name ‘mildness’ . . . for the appropriate virtuous disposition in this area reflects his conscious decision to pitch things rather toward the unangry than toward the angry end of the spectrum (1125b26-29).” So it would appear that we have here, yet another example of Aristotle’s famous celebration of moderation. Indulging in anger is fine, so long as you do so in a reasonable and moderate manner. But is this realistic? Seneca thought not.
In his treatise on the subject, On Anger, Seneca maintains that Aristotle’s attitude towards anger is remarkably naïve. Anger cannot be moderated by reason precisely because anger actively impairs our capacity for reason. The angrier you get, the more unreasonable you become. Only the mildest forms of anger can be controlled by reason. It’s much like getting drunk: if you’re a little buzzed, or even moderately messed up, you can realize you’re drunk, remember that you’ve got an important meeting in the morning, pay your tab, and head home. But there’s a point at which you’re too drunk to realize you’re drunk.
The same goes for anger: if you’re a little angry, or even moderately pissed off, you can realize you’re angry, remember that you don’t want to say or do anything you’ll later on regret, get up, leave the house, take a walk, and calm down. But there’s a point at which you’re too anger-drunk to realize you’re anger-drunk. Most of the activists you meet in Social Media Land have long since passed this point. Telling them to calm down is sorta like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
The Anger Drunk
Losing your temper once in a blue moon is like drinking whiskey for the first time: it burns on the way down, you do and say a bunch of stuff you regret, and you feel sick the next day. Conversely, losing your temper on a regular basis is like drinking whiskey daily: the burning gives way to pleasure, and you no longer regret the stuff you say and do.
Trying to explain the pleasures of outrage to someone who rarely loses it is like trying to explain the pleasures of whiskey to a ten-year-old: they just don’t get it. Because getting really angry is, for them, profoundly upsetting. The even-tempered fail to see how thoroughly enjoyable anger is for the perpetually pissed. For the anger addict, outrage really is its own reward (to borrow Aaron Haspel’s phrase).
Shut Up and Join the Party
As a healthy white guy with a good job, living in one of the wealthiest countries on Planet Earth (indeed, in human history), I find it surprisingly easy to be optimistic and cheerful about life, the universe, and, well, pretty much everything. In fact, I’m tempted, at times, to conclude that everything’s great and wonderful and the whiners should all just shut up and join the party.
But then I remember the true identity of The Tempter, and I remember what became of Odysseus’s men in The Land of the Lotus Eaters, and I feel my blissful yoga-retreat ignorance giving way to something a little more grown-up, something akin to Buddha’s joyful participation in the sufferings of the world.
We all need to achieve some sort of balance between responsibility to pleasure and responsibility to pain. But we get to it from different directions. People on the front lines of the struggle have to keep their heads from going up in flames. People like me have to keep their heads out of the sand.
Pink and purple brush, every bumblebee’s crush: burdock bloom, magical, miniature mauve broom. François, from Friends of the Mountain, says you’re nothing but an invasive species, nothing but an Old World weed, first found in France. Maybe that’s why you always make me think about the meaning of the French Revolution. It’s good to look in the mirror and ask yourself: Would I have been one of those heartless monsters who blithely said “Let them eat cake”? But it’s also good to ask yourself: Would I have been one of those heartless monsters who gleefully chanted “Off with his head”?
Ruined for the Real
Idealism always ruins us for the real. For instance, the idea of the perfect, uniformly green, dandelion-free lawn has given rise to a mania for mono-culture that’s made many a suburban homeowner miserable. Think of all the children and pets who’ve been exposed to toxic chemicals since the 1950s because of our idiotic lawn ideal. But think, too, of all the great good and social justice wrought by the egalitarian ideal of the 1960s. So idealism’s not all bad (far from it), and much that’s real can and should change; but to change, it must first be seen as problematic. We must be ruined for the real before we can be sold on the new deal. And being ruined, in practice, too often means being made miserable.
The Perpetually Pissed
Ideologues put on colored glasses of some sort that force the world to appear the way they want it to appear (e.g., rose-colored glasses to make everything seem lovely, dark sunglasses to make everything seem bleak, etc.). Realists accept the world as it happens to be at the moment, and refuse to acknowledge any alternatives. Only idealists have the moral courage to deal with the world as it is and strive for the better world of their dreams. They are more existentially torn than realists and ideologues. But they’re also more honest, more humane, and more sane.
Ideologues may hate other ideologues. But they don’t fear them. Because, on some level, they always get them. They do, however, fear the non-ideological. Because they don’t get them. They can’t place the non-ideological person in a neat and tidy category. And this freaks them out. Big time. Because, you see, like children of a certain age, ideologues desperately crave the comfort of predictable structure and clearly defined limits. They have a very low tolerance for ambiguity. This is precisely why they so often nervously claim that we’re all just as ideological as they are, whether we realize it or not—and that anyone who says otherwise is either stupid, lying, or in denial. You might be tempted to point out how absurdly circular this argument is, but I’d caution you against doing so.
People who live by heuristics and interdicts, people like your grandparents, are sometimes mistaken for ideologues. As such, it’s important to note the key difference between these two human types. People who live by heuristics and interdicts do so for the sake of convenience, the way I might follow the directions to your party that my friend Jean-Louis scrawled onto a napkin at Else’s. If that map brings me to the edge of a cliff, I’m not going to jump off the cliff. People who live by heuristics and interdicts never mistake a map of the world for the world. Alas, the same cannot be said of ideologues. They jump off the cliff every time.
You can’t see the blood when you’re looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. And we need to see the blood. So I’d never advocate rose-colored glasses. That being said, the opposite extreme seems equally unwise. For instance, I’ve met people on the far left, progressives like Chris Hedges, and the far right, fundamentalists like David Wilkerson, who seem to believe that there’s something inherently wrong with being in a good mood, who seem to think that smiling is a sign of moral depravity.
There are plenty of good reasons to be pissed off. But being perpetually pissed off does not, in and of itself, make you a good person. Likewise, being in a good mood does not, in and of itself, make you a bad person. It’s what we do that matters, at the end of the day, not how serious or sullen or cynical we are. Regardless, this puritanical approach to activism is decidedly unwise for purely pragmatic reasons, as it invariably leads to burnout, depression, and despair.
There’s nothing inherently wrong or sinful about enjoying life, appreciating beauty, and feeling joy. Besides, how can you save a world you don’t really love? And why would anyone else want to embrace your worldview when it seems to be making you so miserable?
—John Faithful Hamer, Welcome to Likeville (2018)