Shifting Gears / What's the source of anger in too-spirited debate?
Fireworks was the name of the game this past Fourth of July week. Beautiful, an over-the-top celebration, like choreographed stars. A brief moment of awe and wonder, and then each panoply disappears, to be replaced by another and then another. Much like life.
There were other fireworks, too, that week. And they, also, had to do with our amazing, though flawed, country. These were not so beautiful or awe-inspiring. They were not celebratory. They, also, were much like a part of life. These fireworks were rude and angry words, misusing a forum that was designed for communication and respect of differing viewpoints and needs.
This was a town hall meeting with our district's Congressman, Jim Himes.
What a shame. He did his part, listening respectfully, knowledgeably explaining -- an example of "grace under pressure." Town hall meetings, the bedrock of representative government, bring out concerned citizens as well as angry ones. Lately, lots of angry people have been turning out. Is there more to be angry about? Are there more angry people? Are angry people just less able to express themselves respectfully? Or are they indulging in displaced anger?
What is that? Displacement is what people do with anger when it might be unsafe to express it to the person they are really angry at. If the person who made them angry is more powerful -- a boss, policeman, parent, teacher or spouse -- the anger gets bottled up for awhile and then explodes, usually too vehemently, at someone who has less power over them. Some people have held in or misdirected their anger for years, never figuring out what's really eating at them. We label them "angry people" or as having an "anger problem." No matter how often or how intensely they get angry, it doesn't seem to make their anger go away. Only briefly do they feel better after their attack. Then something else provokes their wrath.
Because expressing anger is often a kind of scary thing, there is power in numbers if you want to get ticked off. Being with lots of angry people feels safer if you're angry than just expressing it one-on-one. Anger is contagious that way. Angry birds of a feather seem to flock together. And politics has become this wonderful power-in-numbers way to express anger in a displaced way.
Anger is really a cover-up emotion. The real feelings underlying it are fear and hurt. But those emotions make us feel vulnerable. Anger makes us feel powerful. Nothing's wrong with power. It's good, if it's not displaced upon someone undeserving of it. Now, here's an interesting imbroglio. More likely than not, the people who make us feel fear or hurt are displacing their misunderstood anger on us. Then, of course, if we follow suit, we pass the experience on to someone else. A vicious cycle it is.
Anger is not always displaced. Many people (those without "anger problems") recognize when they are angry and at whom. If you are comfortable with and trust yourself and your anger, you have good options in expressing it directly and appropriately to the person who has hurt or threatened you. You can just tell them. No intimidation or attack, no guilt trip, no yelling or name-calling. Just a clean statement of fact. ("That really hurt my feelings." or "It scared me when you did that.") This leaves lots of room for understanding, repair and apology.
Of course, that's not what's been going on at town hall meetings. However, it could be, and it should be. Jim Himes has not threatened or hurt us. He's not our punching bag. He's our representative in Congress. If we can't make that distinction, then no one of any quality will want to represent us. We will get what we deserve.
Carol Swenson is a counseling psychologist with a practice in Westport. Her "Shifting Gears" appears monthly, and she may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.