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Jun. 13, 2004
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Sunday, June 13, 2004

Knowing when to be mad as hell
There have always been - and sadly will always be - conditions in the world that can and should make a decent person angry.

Our complete graduation series.
Senior editorial writer,
The Orange County Register

Just being angry is almost always a negative in one's life, especially when it's the petty kind of anger - being upset at some real or imagined insult or slur on your precious perfection - or howling rage at some phenomenon a person of experience would recognize as a normal condition of life, like corruption in politics, or at something you can do absolutely nothing to ameliorate. An intelligent person who wants to accomplish things and contribute something of value to the world would do well to control his or her anger.

At the same time I would argue, however, that a certain kind or degree of controlled and channeled anger can not only contribute to one's success in reaching personal goals and in helping make the world a better place, it may be essential. There have always been - and sadly will probably always be - conditions and people in the world that can and should make a decent person angry.

The trick is to figure out what should make us angry enough to act (or in some cases to write) and what to do about it. It's not easy.

I would hope, for example, that had I lived in the era of slavery, it would have made me angry enough at least to speak and write against it. But what to do about it?

In the United States we fought a civil war (or War Between the States) that led to the deaths of about 578,000 people and almost 221,881 wounded. The war ended chattel slavery, but it also reinforced and expanded the power of the central government and made secession (a potential relatively peaceful check on tyranny) unthinkable.

In Great Britain, a largely Christian-based movement, after some decades, led to the abolition of slavery at a much lower price in blood. Could that have worked in the United States? We can't know.

Graduates who want to be useful human beings - both to themselves and to others - need to cultivate a certain indignation, but also the prudence and judgment to do something effective about the objects of one's anger.

Here are a few things I think are worth being angry about.

The forced subjection of any human being to the will of another mere human being should make any decent person angry. Some people willingly subject themselves to others, which may be pathetic. But forced subjection is outrageous.

Anybody who purposely humiliates another person, intellectually, physically or psychologically, should earn the righteous anger of decent people. You might not be able to stop it - although bullies, even physically imposing ones, are more often than not cowards at heart - but you shouldn't accept it.

Lies and the damned liars that tell them - left, right, middle, for political, business, religious, social or personal purposes - should make anybody angry. But recognize that truth can be elusive even in the face of honest search for it, and many people find lies more comfortable than the truth.

Intelligent, perceptive people who use their abilities to curry favor with the mighty or to explain why abuses of power really aren't abuses after all deserve contempt. But if you share that opinion, be prepared for frequent disillusionment. Most intellectuals through most of history have been more likely to dance attendance on the powerful - to flatter power - rather than to speak truth to power. And more often than not, at least in the short run, truth is no match for power.

The hard part is using your anger intelligently and shrewdly rather than settling for spluttering and ineffectual indignation. One shouldn't stoop to the distortion of facts many use to bolster their prejudices (and even considered opinions), tempting as it might be. One shouldn't demonize one's adversaries even if they have demonized you. Pointed and even harsh words are often appropriate, but they can be overdone and are no substitute for analysis and intellectual honesty.

Finally, don't let anger, however righteous and merited, turn you into a gloomy pessimist. There is plenty of injustice in the world, but you can find decent people trying to do the right things too, often in unexpected places. And despite all the exploiters and thugs, humankind has made remarkable progress and people have a stubborn capacity for nobility.

So don't be afraid of anger, but don't let it sour you or spoil your fun.

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