The proliferation of blogs and emails may be partially responsible for the increase in anger of recent years. We can learn a lot about the emotions that motivate many blogs and emails, as well as reactions to them, from, believe it or not, a few observations of animals.

Anger, for instance, is the fight part of the primitive fight/flight/freeze response common to all mammals. It functions primarily to protect self and juvenile offspring from harm. Activation of the fight/flight/freeze response requires a dual perception of threat and vulnerability. Animals respond to lesser threats with greater anger, fear, or submission (freeze) when they are wounded, starving, sick, or recently traumatized.

The activation of fight over flight/freeze is determined by the annihilation potential of the threat. A raccoon will ferociously fight a rat to defend her newborn kits but not a cougar. Thus more anger is observed in powerful animals, which tend to be predatory. Powerful animals use anger to defend and acquire territory and resources, thereby reducing threats to the survival of self and juvenile offspring.

Social animals have to make choices about where to go, who gets to eat what and mate with whom, and when all these things happen. They must develop some kind of executive function to make necessary choices as a group. Most social animals, including humans, answer this challenge by organizing into a hierarchy, in which individuals achieve rank. Ascending up the hierarchy increases status, along with access to resources, with most of both bestowed on a chief executive, i.e., alpha males or matriarchs. (Really, this is leading to blogs and emails!)

To establish rank and executive power without the benefit of language, social animals cleverly invoke the old fight/flight/freeze response. The threat of annihilation is lowest for the more powerful animals, which gives them the advantage of anger in competition for top of the hierarchy. For the less powerful, submission or fleeing makes more sense. In social animals, anger goes to the powerful, fear and shame to the less powerful. We know that the central nervous systems of all animals seek equilibrium - they can take just so much anger, fear, and shame. Solitary animals achieve equilibrium by isolation, social animals by acceptance - if not honor - of the hierarchy.

With human neo-cortical development came self-consciousness and the incorporation of status into the emerging sense of self or ego. At that point humans became creators of value - the ability to regard something as important, above and beyond survival considerations, deserving investments of time, energy, effort, appreciation, and sacrifice. Status was no longer merely a means of access to resources, it became a separate entity, a kind of value of the self that carried an entitlement to receive value from others in the form of social approval. Thus the grand human contradiction emerged - the struggle for individual value with the need to be part of a larger, hierarchical social organization. Inflate the ego too much, and the social organization suffers. Inflate the hierarchy too much, and the ego suffers.

Throughout the vast majority of human history, individual ego was oppressed by powerful members of the hierarchy through use of force, dogma, and tradition. Only chiefs, kings, noblemen, priests, husbands, parents, and Caucasian males could have big egos and express rudeness, entitlement, and anger.

The pendulum began a slow move the other way a few hundred years ago. But in the past 45 years the swing has accelerated sharply toward a more enlightened, egalitarian culture. We now recognize that everyone's ego has value - children are as valuable as parents, wives are equal to husbands; dark-skinned and light-skinned, patients and doctors, lesser educated and educated, unpublished and published writers - are equally valuable. The Internet has accelerated the movement toward egalitarian culture even more. Blogs and emails make everyone's opinions equally important.

Unfortunately, status was incorporated into the development of ego so long ago that it is difficult for us to imagine value in terms of equality, except in a reflective, abstract sense. On automatic pilot, we tend to search for ways in which we are better than some and not as good as others. Consequently, blogs and emails have increased perceptions of status-embedded ego vulnerability and threat, thereby stimulating more anger, resentment, petulance, and rudeness. When the vulnerable ego feels threatened, the expression of opinions become opinionated and analysis of evidence and concepts gives way to dogma.

I doubt that humans will ever decouple status from ego and achieve a truly egalitarian culture or a less rude Internet. But we can come closer by seeing the grand human contradiction (the need for individual ego and connection to a social hierarchy) not as a struggle for dominance between two forces but as a delicate balance worth preserving.

We can begin by drawing self-value from fidelity to our deepest values, including a sense of basic humanity. We will then require less status-embedded value from others in the form of respect, deference, and the obeisance of agreement with what we say. Our egos will become less vulnerable and protecting them less necessary. This will allow us to learn from other perspectives and enjoy the development of knowledge inherent in disagreements about evidence, concepts, and use of language. It will help us escape the endless iterations of dogma that cause us to make the same rude, tiresome, and - in many cases - harmful mistakes over and over.


You are reading

Anger in the Age of Entitlement

Crimes Against the Self

How can I be me while they're being them?

How We Commit

Being there for each other, and understanding when you need your space.

Struggle for a Sense of Humanity

Compassion isn't what it used to be.