Moral Landscapes

Living the life that is good for one to live

Tantrum Morality: TEA Party and Glenn Beck

Blind and dumb, Bunker Morality leads us astray

Ever watch a child have a tantrum? I don't mean the kind when a child is so distressed they need adult help to calm down. I mean the appearance of a "little Nero" who wants control at any cost. You know, the yelling and screaming, the endless demands and attempts at manipulation.

Hmm, this all sounds so familiar....right, I am talking about Glenn Beck ...and leaders in the TEA party...but I'm also talking about you and me.

Tantrum morality (a type of Bunker Security) is about raging against anything that you consider a threat to your power and privilege. So the TEA partiers, sponsored by the wealthy and promoted by Fox News, who earn more than average Americans, are concerned for their own well being, not necessarily that of anyone else. For example, they are more likely to think that the Obama administration favors the poor and blacks over others. You can see they want to continue tilting the social table towards the wealthy (see David Cay Johnston's books).

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When you are raised and immersed in a culture that promotes insecurity (as our culture does), you are likely to be attracted to the rhetoric of blaming (discounted) others for any problem you have. Hence, Glenn Beck's success. The Bunker Security world view is that you have to be aggressive to keep a sense of control. Witness the tragic bullying of Phoebe Prince (which became vicious morality).

Glen Beck's Tantrum Morality is highly destructive because he appears on a news network and the naïve viewer thinks he is only telling them what is true (after all, it is on TV and on a news channel). Find someone convenient to blame for your troubles and have at it. People who look or act differently are especially attractive (e.g., Obama, immigrants).

So when you are mad for not getting your way, you point to the "difference" in your opponent (race, sex, origin) or their area of vulnerability. You pull out the zinger that you know will strike at the heart. "I always knew you were weak." "My mother warned me about you people." You throw emotional Molotov cocktails to try to get your way.

Tantrum Morality is centered on one's own emotions and perspective.Fueled by panic and rage, a person can't consider alternative perspectives. These emotions overcome neocortical thinking and positive emotions.

Tantrum Morality is reckless. It has little sense of the future or consequences.

Tantrum Morality is harmful to cooperation and community because it cuts off dialogue. It is difficult to have a dialogue when one side keeps yelling and shouting insults.

Tantrum Morality is not grounded in reality but reactive to fantasy (Obama as foreigner, Obama as Nazi, Obama as socialist).

Tantrum Morality is truthy. You go with your feelings or intuitions, regardless of whether they are true or where they came from (and if they come from Glenn Beck, beware!)

It's harmful to the self (the tantrumer) because it gives the illusion of doing "something constructive" when it is only destructive.

Ultimately, Tantrum Morality is blind and dumb. It does not see how the individual's actions are connected to everyone else. It cannot move beyond its own narrow perspective which is partially fantasy. It cannot access capacities for thoughtful, rational thinking because the activated reptilian brain is in charge.

Any way you slice it, Tantrum Morality is harmful.

There are at least two ways to deal with Tantrum Morality in others-- you can approach or avoid.

Approach: Stay calm and rational in the broad sense (logic based in real-world context, aware of interconnections). Try not to be patronizing. Try to evoke in them softer emotions like sadness or gratitude. These are right brain, open-hearted emotions that seem to not coexist with the hard-hearted emotions of hate and rage.

In the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout greets a man she recognizes in a mob that is threatening her father, Atticus Finch. Her attempt at connection breaks the trance of the mob feverish with Bunker Security. The mob then disperses.

Avoid: Don't give the crazy tantrum attention (woops, media!). Be firm and do not give in. Move away if things get too hot.

If the tantrumer gets his or her way, it does long-term damage because the lesson learned is that screaming pays off. You have to nip bullying in the bud, just like you have to nip domestic abuse in the bud. Once a bully/abuser/tantrumer gets his or her way, it is much more difficult to prevent the same thing in the future. They have tasted power and want to keep it.

Remember, we all can be little Neros. We can all fall into Tantrum Morality. When I get obsessed about My Way (or the highway) and try to jam it down people's throats, I am having a morality tantrum (turning into vicious morality over the long term).

How to get out of your own Moral Tantrum:

Pause. Breathe. Step back and look at yourself (often this is triggered when someone questions what you are doing). Pay attention to where you are and what is around you (right brain). Be self-reflective: Why am I trying to coerce? What am I afraid of? Is there a better way to persuade? How can I stay in a respectful relationship with this person?

The road to virtue is filled with regression. But we can do better. Let's stop encouraging moral tantrums in ourselves and others and aim for grown up morality.

Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.

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