2014 JMH International Essay Contest — SUMMARY ARTICLE

Introductory Thoughts

The essayists agreed that anger and violence are serious problems, for the people involved and on the level of society which it can undermine.

Strong anger is like a wild-fire; it destroys reason. People who get carried away by anger often say, later, that they don't know what came over them, and so, being taken over by anger, is like becoming unconscious.

Anger can lead to violence but not always. Violence can hurt others, including loved ones, and it can get us into trouble.

Prolonged and strong anger, affects the body and some research indicates it may be detrimental to health.

At the same time, anger is a natural emotion functioning to help us adapt to our environments. It propels us to protect ourselves and our loved ones from attack, abuse, and from social and political injustices. It shows others they can't step on us.

A quote given by one of the essayists from the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, sums up our issue with anger:

"Anyone can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way — that is not within everyone's power and that is not easy.”

An important distinction that was pointed out is that Anger and Violence are different. Anger is an emotion that may or may not lead to the violent behavior. And a person may act violently because they are angry, but they can act violently for other reasons, reasons that will be discussed below.

Types of Anger

A few essayists pointed out that psychological researchers distinguish between a person having episodes of anger and a person being an angry person. People who have a disposition to anger have, what psychologists call, high Trait Anger. People with high Trait Anger become angry much quicker and with slighter provocation than those with lower Trait Anger. It is probable that Trait Anger is genetic or, at least, has a genetic component. 

Manifestations of Anger in the Angry Person

Anger affects our bodies in many ways. It is not difficult to notice these effects in ourselves when we are angry. The effects are on our muscles, our breathing, our heart rate, and so on, and can lead to headaches. Essayists mentioned preliminary research that people with high Trait Anger may be more prone to develop heart problems, cancer, ulcers, and other physical illnesses.

It was pointed out that, psychologically, anger leads to cruel and retaliatory thoughts and that it takes over our thought processes and swamps our reason. It tends to make us oversimplify. For example, the cause of our problems may be many and complex, past and present, but when we are angry we tend to pick out one cause that is here and now, and our anger tells us that our problems will be removed if we remove this problem.. If we can't blame some person or group or particular thing for our problems, we tend not to get angry and are more likely to get depressed and hopeless feelings. 

Researchers speak of Implosion and Explosion, two ways of coping with ones anger. In Implosion, we bottle up our anger, perhaps to avoid trouble or perhaps because we are naturally gentle. We all know the danger of explosive anger, but some research, it was pointed out, suggests it can be dangerous to our health to try to bottle up our anger.

Causes of Anger

As mentioned, most of the essayists agreed that anger is a natural emotion and also that some get more angry easier than others (those with high Trait Anger). Anger is one of the natural reactions to not getting what you need or think you need; it is a reaction to being frustrated.

Roughly speaking, anger is a survival monitor: Anger increases the more our survival is threatened (or that we perceive it is threatened). It is a natural response to not being able to get enough food or clothing or housing or space, and so it grows in environments of poverty and overcrowding and political restriction. It goes without saying that physical brutality against us can cause anger.

Anger, as some of the essayists reminded us, can also grow from physical illnesses. The pain and suffering make us feel on edge and irritable. 

All the causes of anger just happened, we have in common with animals, but human anger has another form also. It can be caused by our thoughts, our imaginings, and our beliefs. We can begin to think about why we are angry and about why we should be angry, about insults and outrages (real or imagined), and our own thoughts and imaginings can make us angry and then make us angrier and angrier.

These thoughts and images come out of the our own minds, but they can also come to us from the outside. Other people's thoughts and imaginings — as they come out in words or even music or painting or political posters — can stimulate us to anger. Leaders can manipulate (even brainwash) us to be angry for their purposes. The media can fill us with images and ideas which are often intended to create strong emotions in us, including anger. The essayists seem to agree that the world's religions do not teach violence but some religious figures do: They stimulate anger and violence in their followers with passionate words.

Spontaneous, animal-like anger is expressed and then disappears. Anger from thoughts and imagination can grow and grown. It can be nursed for years. People convince themselves to harden their hearts, to do big and horrible things that, in the end, may not have any relation to the real causes of our problems.

On the other hand, thinking and its side-kick imagination, can alert us to real problems that we would have overlooked without them, and they may help us head off future dangers. So, as with all anger, there is a good and a bad side.

A related point, mentioned by one writer, is how suspicions and misunderstandings can cause fear and anger. Different customs can cause fear and offense and lead to anger and outrage even if these customs are not intended in an offensive way. And we are always imagining things that aren't real: We can just as easily get furious about an imagined insult as a real one.

Causes of Violence

Again, a person can be angry and not become violent. Violence can come out of anger, as a spontaneous, instinctive reaction. On the other hand it can be a thoughtful, planned out strategy to achieve a goal. Essayists mentioned researchers who think of expressions of anger and violence as "an effective manipulation strategy" for change (Hochschild) or as a way of inspiring fear and respect in others (Tiedens). 

In this sense it can be a tool for getting what we want. It is a tool, as some pointed out, that is often used by politicians to intimidate. They create fear in order to gain and keep power.

On the other hand, violent behavior can be used to defend yourself and others, so it is a tool that can be used for good as well as bad, a double-edged sword, as it were.

It was pointed out that humans use violence, not just to protect themselves and to get what they need, but also to get things that they think they need but that may only have symbolic meaning such as gold and vast territories.

We mentioned spontaneous outburst of violence. We also just discussed how violence can be learned and practiced as a means to an end. Essayists pointed out that there is another pathway to violence: We learn violent behavior from others through modeling. If we are raised in a family or neighborhood (or even a society or country) where violence is all around us and normal, without even thinking about it we can begin to use violence ourselves. The situation can be complex and confusing, because the same people who are telling us to be good and kind and gentle and non-violent can be punishing and violent to us and others. We wind up modeling their actions and not their words. And, when we ourselves come to act violently, we may not see it as violence or as bad: It is our norm, just how things are.

An example used was how many societies, even while discouraging violence, encourage men to be manly, to stand up for themselves, and to be independent.

Another factor that allows violence is what this same author called the factor of distance, both physical and emotional. Even non-violent people may be untroubled by their country's use of long-range missiles or what their soldiers might be doing hundreds of miles away.

And there is also an emotional distance that deadens us to the suffering of others: We can become convinced that we are superior to a person or to a group of people. We can feel so far above them that killing one causes us as little pain as swatting a mosquito.

Cures to the Problems of Anger and Violence

Cures for the problems caused by anger and violence was not meant to be the subject of this year's essays, but most of the essayists could not resist the temptation to offer a cure. These suggested cures fell, roughly, into two types: 1) changing the world and 2) changing ones own attitude.

1) It was pointed out that the more that is done to solve the problems of poverty and overcrowding and lack of essential resources and lack of equal opportunity, the less anger and the less violence there will be. Democracy, it was stated, can reduce anger. The same goes for physical health, in that illness can lead to anger. The more that can be done to help people become and stay healthy, the less anger and violence there will be in the world.

2) On the other hand, given the world as it is, many of the essayists suggested that is important to change ourselves, as individuals. Not that we can get rid of our anger entirely (any more than we can get rid of the sexual urge), but, it was stated, there are things we can do to lessen it and its negative effects. A few gave examples from their own lives, sometimes moving, about the affects of anger, and how it led to them changing. These writer's suggestions were based on their own experience and felt like more than words.

Broadly, there were two suggested ways for changing oneself.

a) One was that we need to cultivate new attitudes and behaviors in ourselves. For example, it was suggested that we can "tame" our anger with reason and love and tolerance. Or that we can practice relaxation techniques and self-suggestion when we are angry. Or that we can teach ourselves to walk away from situations where we think we might explode.

b) A second type of suggestion for changing ourselves is that we should try to develop a different way of understanding things. Here we are not trying to change our feelings or our behavior. We are still trying to change ourselves, but here we are trying to change our cognition: our thinking and our understanding. The goal is to try to keep rational and to use reason when angry, in spite of the tendency for anger to overwhelm and swamp our reasoning. 

Here are some of the suggestions about what we should tell ourselves or remind ourselves when we start getting angry at someone.

  • Tell yourself, when you get angry, that anger makes you exaggerate little irritations into catastrophes and that what you are angry about is probably not as big a problem as it seems.
  • When you feel yourself getting angry at someone, try to remember that the person is having problems and try to understand what the person is going through. He may have lost a job or got some other very bad news, and he can't help feeling irritable. He may even be considering suicide. Remembering this may do more than help you control your own anger. It might help you help him to control his —as one essayist explained in a compelling way, regarding his brother.
  • When angry, stop and examine if this is your own feeling or if you are being brainwashed into anger. If you have been influenced to side with side, remember that the other side has its point of view also and that, probably, neither side has a perfect answer.
  • If you get angry at a person or group, remember to ask yourself if these are people with other customs than yours and that maybe you are not understanding them correctly. If you are going to be in contact with another culture (maybe you will be moving into their neighborhood or they into yours), take time to learn about their customs in advance.
  • If you are a man and are feeling like doing something violent, try to stop and ask yourself if you are just trying to be manly and to appear manly to others and that maybe this value is not what you, yourself, really believe should make you hurt someone..
  • When you are angry at everyone, it is useful to remind yourself that we are part of a society and that we all have to get along, for all of our goods. Most people control themselves, and we should try to also. What would it be like if everyone became violent whenever they were angry? It is also useful to remember that we want to be respected and that we should respect others. 
  • When you feel angry, try to understand yourself and if there are any deeper causes to why you are angry that whatever just provoked you.

Most essayists agreed that anger and violence can not be gotten rid of completely (nor should we want to, because it has a good side). They thought, however, that through methods such as the above, it can be reduced.

[A Comment on the above Cures from the point of view of a skeptical reader]

The essayists seemed optimistic about the possibility of handling angry feelings and destructive violent behavior — not that it can be controlled completely, but that it is possible to reduce it significantly.

There are readers who will not be as optimistic, and I think it would be useful to try to remind us all that there is another side. If a reader played the Devil's advocate, he (or she) could make a number of points.

  1. Even the best technique for controlling ones anger works only at times for most of us. And if it works at all it may work incompletely. In most cases, for most of us, it is impossible to remove deep seated anger no matter what we tell ourselves. Worse, there is a danger in thinking we have gotten rid of our anger when we haven't. It can still there, but now it has moved into the unconscious. Unconscious anger will slip out, even if indirectly, and angry words and subtly angry body expressions can, in some situations, cause just as much damage (if not more) than open expressions. Also, unconscious anger can linger and fester and can hurt others and ourself. Finally, there is such a thing as Passive Aggression, where an angry person can do damage by not doing something they should be doing.
  2. There can be physical causes to anger and violence such as brain tumors or Senile Dementia. People suffering from these problems can not use techniques or self-help methods to understand and/or control themselves. People who care for them, no matter how much they might love them, begin to realize that the only solution is physical restraint and/or a strong psychiatric drug. (About 20-30 years ago Mellaril was being used and sometimes frontal lobe lobotomies. I'm not sure what is being used now.)
  3. All of the above techniques for managing our own anger and violence assume that, when we are angry, we can stop and pull back from our emotion in order to deal with it in some way. However, it could be argued, that it is the nature of strong anger that it can come on suddenly and out of the blue, and that the violent behavior it causes happens so quickly that there is no way to get a grip on it. It is over before it starts. It is like a keg of dynamite: Everything is fine, and there is no problem, until there is, and then it is sudden and out of control. If a flashpoint is hit, a person can kill someone, even a loved one in a second, before there is time for a thought to enter his head.
  4. Even if we do stop and think, we don't always think properly. Especially if we are loners and used to counseling ourselves, many things can appear true that aren't. Anger, as pointed out by the essayists, clouds our reason, and it makes us think even more incorrectly then usual. When we are in the grip of a conviction that so and so did bad things to us and deserve to be hurt, it is the nature of our psychologies that we can't necessarily argue ourselves out of it, because the anger is doing the arguing. Each of the rational cures from the last section seem irrational. If we are delusional, the delusions may be deeply entrenched and all but unassailable. In addition, we have to add what depth psychologists Projection. Projection is an unconscious mechanism in which there is something in us we don't like and, instead of seeing it in ourselves, we see it in others and get angry at it in others. We can project bad thoughts or feelings that we have onto others and then get angry at them and try to hurt them. This is all unconscious. We don't think it is our problems; it is theirs. We can project our greed and anger and all kinds of things onto whole nations or religions or peoples and hate them and want to eradicate them, because they are evil, when, all the time, what we are hating in them is something inside ourselves also. And all this is unconscious. We can't control it, because we don't know it is going on. We may not even see ourselves as angry at all but only as trying to do good and rid the world of evil.
  5. It can be said that, even if we can learn to foresee that our angry, violent actions will inevitably cause pain to our loved ones and ourselves, we don't learn this out of the blue. We have to act badly long enough to learn the lesson. We have to be bad to see that we shouldn't be bad. But we can, and will, do damage in the meantime, and how could this be prevented? The argument here is that to become truly good, to see the real reasons why we should be good, we have to be bad first. It fits that some of the greatest moral reformers (as described in writings from different religions) started out as very bad. But we don't want to recommend to people that they become bad.
  6. A devil's advocate could also say that it may be good to resist brainwashing and intimidation, but most people can't hold out for long. This is part of our psychologies, part of our nature. If we are in situations where there is persistent brainwashing, we tend to absorb it and begin to feel the ideas are our own. This is especially true if "everyone" is thinking the same thing. And the same goes for intimidation. It is very hard for most of us to stand up to intimidation, and this is especially true if we are standing alone. Psychologically, it is much harder to resist intimidation than we might think. Many of us are heroes in our own imaginations, but reality is different. Further, for those who believe we should try to fit in with our societies and to obey the rules and follow the norms: What if the society and its leaders is an angry, aggressive society? What if the majority do not want to get along with us unless we join them in their violence?
  7. The devil's advocate is not finished. People who are into power and fame and conquest are often proud of themselves and think those of us working to control our anger and violence are weak. The German philosopher/psychologist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) talked like this in his On the Genealogy of Morality: He argued that there is a morality of the strong and a morality of the weak. The whole goal of this essay contest would be considered weakness by those whose goal is power at any cost. (It should be added that most people who seek power probably think of themselves as doing it for the overall good. We on the outside may or may not agree).
  8. Even if you believe in rules, because you want a safe society, the devil's advocate can think that they don't  have to follow the rules. They can see themselves as above the Law. Or they can say that it won't make any difference, overall, if they do what they want, because everyone else is obeying. What a single person does doesn't matter, especially if no one is looking.
  9. Finally, the devil's advocates amongst us would say we think we know ourselves, but we don't. Any of us are capable of anything. Were the Germans in the early 1940's anything different than ordinary people? Any of us could, under certain conditions, steal or worse.

[Conclusions about the above Comment]

It seems to me that there is a psychology of the conscious mind, but there is also a psychology of the unconscious mind. The existence of the individual unconscious and the collective unconscious (the emotions and thoughts and imaginings we share with others) means that we are always a step away from being swept away. We are, to use the phrase of Somerset Maugham, walking on a razor's edge. It is possible for a country that has been peaceful for decades to suddenly erupt and become a cauldron of mass killings in which perfectly normal people are the ones who commit the atrocities. If it is a desirable goal to tame our anger and contain our violence, as those of us involved in this contest agree, and if it is possible to do so, there will be no easy fix. It is said that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. It seems to me true with anger also: Eternal vigilance is the price for staying a step up on our violent impulses and for remaining relatively free from their control.

A "Thank you!" to the 2014 contest essayists

Again, I and the judges and the sponsors of this contest would like to thank all those who submitted essays to this year's contest. We think the main ideas can be of use to readers. We are contemplating trying the contest for a second year in order to continue the "discussion" that has been started.