The Physics of Anger
There are not many “universal truths.” By that I mean an observation that is practically an axiom of reality, something that says, “This is how things work!” The most common example, used for both good and ill, is gravity. If you are holding an object in your hand and you release it, barring any other influences, it will fall to the ground.
In the realm of apologetics, there are many things that are almost axiomatic to the process of thought and rhetoric. For example, the laws of logic, who bears the burden of proof, or what is required for two statements to actually contradict, are necessary concepts for any thoughtful person. The centrality of a person’s worldview is another pivotal concept. Being able and willing to address how elements of a worldview impact one’s thinking is crucial to understanding yourself and others.
In this post I want to address another realization about how debate happens in the public square today. Imagine nearly any topic that is hotly debated today. Whether the topic is abortion, same-sex marriage, teaching neo-Darwinian evolution, or even health care, all of the discussions on these topics have one thing in common: anger. It is a source of passion. It motivates people to contend for and against different ideas. It can also consume rather than inspire. It can destroy the very public discourse that is needed to address conflicting ideas.
Recently, a close friend had an encounter on a social media platform regarding same-sex marriage. This friend engaged in a brief discussion with a very animated and prolific writer not to debate the larger topic, but to merely point out that “to disagree” is not the same thing as “to hate,” it is not immoral per se to disagree with someone. During the encounter, my friend was struck by two, almost overwhelming observations. First, there was tremendous anger, even hatred, expressed toward those who disagreed with same-sex marriage. There was a literal tone of “we (same-sex marriage advocates) are coming to get you!” Second, my friend realized the need to respond, in love, to the painful and unhelpful use of labels. This was not a debate about the meta-cultural issue, it was simply an assertion that to disagree does not make someone “a hater.” Using a tremendous amount of restraint (and presses of the “delete” key) my friend managed to defuse the conversation to a simple “agree to disagree” on this topic. Despite the fact that my friend’s position on the topic was never mentioned it was merely assumed.
Anger is defined by Merriam-Webster as: “a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism.” For the moment, let’s not concern ourselves with the causes or expressions of anger. Instead, let’s merely consider it as it is defined as an emotional state. For this discussion I think it is relevant to describe it as a negative emotional state. It is unpleasant to experience, whether internally or from others.
To put anger into the context of public discourse, consider the following analogy. What is gasoline? It is a liquid made up of complex hydrocarbon molecules. When combined with oxygen and an ignition source under appropriate temperature and pressure, it explodes. The size of these explosions and the number that occur per second determine how fast a car will travel. The capacity for gasoline to combust must be precisely controlled for the performance of the engine and the safety of everyone nearby.
Does exploding gasoline steer a car? Can it control when to start and stop the car? Of course not, but it is essential to the operation of the car. In the same way, I believe that anger is a necessary and primal force in the debate and discussion of any topic where at least two points of view contend.
Anger is necessary because it elicits a response against something. When I am confronted by an idea that is false, harmful or even threatening to me, I become angry. There are many false ideas in the world today that have dire consequences. Some consequences are temporal, some are eternal, but they are all, in my opinion avoidable. The anger that I experience towards some ideas has motivated me, has given me a passion, to become informed and equipped to go into the public square and contend for the truth.
Did anyone notice what is missing from the above paragraph? People. To the best of my ability, I direct my anger toward ideas, not people. It may come as shock to some readers that the word tolerance used to mean treating people fairly when you disagreed with them. Today, it has come to mean acceptance of all ideas as being legitimate (except of course the idea that some ideas are wrong).
What is common today, what was on display in abundance in the social media encounter described above, is anger directed at individuals. We have a tremendous amount of combustion that is not guided or controlled. Of course, now I need to broaden what I mean by anger. I still think the word is relevant as a source of the passion that drives people to disagree with certain ideas, but what is ultimately expressed publicly takes on many different forms. In the case of my friend, it was simple hatred and threats. “If you disagree with us, we will hurt you.” In other venues, it is more subtle. For example, if you believe that modern evolutionary theory has weaknesses or even believe it is completely false, you are dismissed as being “ignorant, stupid, or insane.”
When disagreement is directed at individuals rather than ideas it has dangerous effect on public discourse. It is stifled. We are redefining an institution, marriage, that has served mankind for millennia because a small percentage of angry and emotional people have terrorized everyone else into silence or feigned agreement.
In closing, I would like to offer two questions. First, what do you do with your anger? Do you re-read your tweets or Facebook posts? Do you pause for a moment and ask, “What am I attacking or responding to?” Second, what should you do if you are attacked personally? When someone labels you as a hater or ignorant, what should you do? I believe you should challenge them. Not fight back, not lash out, but simply challenge what is said. Ask questions, like “What did you mean by that?” and “How did you come to the conclusion that I hate homosexuals?” It is possible, as my friend did, to push back in a respectful and loving manner. It is possible, to even be forceful, as long as you address what is said and not attack the person. Remember when Jesus was struck during his trial? He did not merely “turn the other cheek,” he asked what he did to warrant the blow.
The highest expression of the Christian ethic is to love people. Not necessarily their ideas.
Ken Mann is a graduate student in Biola’s Science and Religion program. Ken is a software engineer by way of vocation, a physicist by way of education, and a devout follower of Jesus Christ, in his words, by necessity. Ken is the Chapter Director of Ratio Christi at the University of Colorado, Boulder. You can also connect with Ratio Christi at CU on Facebook and follow him on Twitter at @gadgetmann.