Outrage and the Speech of Freedom

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By David Shankbone – David Shankbone CC BY – SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3554956

“Why are we so angry?”

That’s a question I’ve been musing on of late.

My Facebook friends are a curious phenomena of my life. I find some expressing outrage against anything that might be associated with the political left. And then there are others equally outraged with anything associated with the political right. It makes me kind of glad that they only meet on my newsfeed! It also makes me wonder what it says about me that I have friends at both these extremes.

Some suggest that outrage with the political establishment explains the attraction of people to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Whether or not these are the best candidates for president, it concerns me that outrage might outweigh more measured judgments of who should serve in this important office.

I come back to my question of “why are we so angry?”

Outrage is defined as “an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation.” I wonder what feeds the anger that shows up in road rage, gun violence, and the vitriolic discourse that increasingly seems to be the social and popular media norm.

I do wonder at time about the capacity of our media to ratchet up our anger as one angry voice augments another, with media personalities egging this on because it means more views to a blog, a talk show, or “news” program. One study suggests that “anger is the internet’s most powerful emotion.”

Could this be one reason why we are so angry?

While expressions of outrage may well be protected free speech, I do wonder whether any of this promotes what I call the speech of freedom–the speech whose aim is to promote the common good of both speaker and those with whom they disagree. It seems to me that all outrage does is solidify my bond with those who share my anger while alienating me further from any who see things differently.

Maybe that’s what some of us want. But I kind of wonder how healthy a community is that is formed around anger. And I think we have to ask ourselves whether we really want to keep fostering the antagonisms that our media seem bent on ratcheting up. Do we really want a world that is divided into winners and losers, a zero sum game? There are many parts of the world that operate like that. By and large, they are brutal, vengeful places where victory and tragedy are never far apart.

Can anger ever be useful? The apostle Paul once wrote, “be angry but do not sin, do not let the sun set on your anger.” I’ve come to realize that anger is a sign, and to ask what that is a sign of, and to act quickly to address the source of my anger. Sometimes, it is simply that a selfish desire has been frustrated, and it may be useful to hold up the mirror and see what this is showing me about myself.

Sometimes, we are angry because of some injustice or grievance that breaks a relationship. I can stew and build resentment, or I can go, before the sun sets, and say, “we need to talk, because this endangers our relationship.” It’s not always possible to work out differences in a day–the issue is not letting them fester. There is an incredible freedom that comes when anger turns to forgiveness and reconciliation.

What about social media and other things that ratchet up anger? I wonder if it is really worthwhile giving attention to these things. What if we took the time we spent posting and reading angry rants to writing a letter to our political representatives on something we care about? What about spending the time volunteering in something we care about? What about having a conversation with a living person with a different point of view–face to face! And for people of faith, what about taking the time we would spend reading and writing things against a person to pray for them. Praying for those in public leadership is commanded in the Bible–attacking them in social media is not!

All these may be ways to turn anger into the speech of freedom.

I began this post with the question of “why are we so angry?” There is a slight twist to that question in the story of Jonah, when Jonah is pouting because God spared the powerful city of Nineveh. God asks Jonah, “do you do well to be angry?”

Do do well to be angry? Do you?

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