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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Legitimizing Anger

In the aftermath of the election pundits will offer up their analysis of why voters acted as they did and no doubt some of that will provide useful hindsight. Watching and reading about the reactions of those who believe the election was stolen or that vote counting—even in states with administrations governed by the losing party—was in some way rigged begs a larger question. Why would people believe something for which there is neither evidence nor reason?

A close read of exit polls offers insight into the issues voters said were their chief reasons for voting as they did—and if reliable, suggest that the economy, handling of the pandemic, pro-life and pro-choice were among the most critical. I suggest that there was another, unspoken but powerful motivator at play.

Over the past decade and much more intensely the last four years we have seen a sharp increase in palpable anger and the vilification of opponents in our political process. It comes as no surprise that politicians of both parties have engaged in a rhetoric that borders on and sometimes overtly endorses such views. While the tenor of the highest officer in the land is one that demonizes the opposition—engages in scorched earth tactics and is fully prepared to invalidate or even destroy legitimate institutions and trust in our government and our governance, lesser voices echo that refrain. We hear the same as fundamentalist preachers stray from the separation of Church and State to voice in fire and brimstone their conjured reading of scripture that licenses hatred while claiming a spiritual legacy from the Prince of Peace.

I was talking with a neighbor the other day—someone who proudly announced their support of the current administration with a large flag hung on their fence. He asked what I thought of the outcome of the election and we had a good exchange—never hostile and while we had supported different candidates, I came away with new-found respect for him—if not his choice. At one point in the conversation we discussed the divisiveness we see around us and while we both agreed it was reprehensible, my neighbor suggested something more. He said that we had moved beyond racism and prejudice in this country to hate-ism. He went on to say that underlying every expression of bigotry was a fundamental hatred for anyone that was—in his words, “not like me”.

There is a great deal of truth in what he said. I believe that a grave crime against humanity has been perpetrated by politicians and their allies by legitimizing anger. To be human is to be dissatisfied—and there is little doubt that in our country and throughout the world there is much about which to be profoundly unhappy. A free-floating sense of existential bitterness- a deeply held belief that we have been dealt a raw deal is at the heart of a seething anger just below the surface of so many people’s lives.

It is this anger –at life—at our station—at the people and things we believe are acting against our interests that is at the heart of the issues dividing us. Our President and those like him have given voice to this emotion, legitimizing anger by offering up political opponents, countries and many of our most trusted individuals, institutions and professions as a focus for that anger. Who are these demons? The Media, the Press, Scientists, Physicians, China, and of course anyone who does not believe in our God, attend our church, vote for our party, or look and act like us.

I’d like to say I can see how we move beyond this—and while I hope a more unifying conciliatory voice from a new administration will help, I doubt that alone will undo the damage. The lesson for me following my conversation with my neighbor is first to listen. Listen especially when the other person is saying things that infuriate or that you know to be just plain wrong. Remember that underneath what you hear is a human, probably scared and angry but regardless of their motivations, hear them out. Look for points of agreement—even if they are modest. Ask questions rather than offer contentions—and try to remain focused on things that are positive in the world around us. I cannot attribute the quote but remember reading that people will not remember the things we said or did but how we made them feel. That seems a good place to start –to turn off the flame that simmers away heating the anger and dissatisfaction which divide us.

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