As I write this, most major networks have called the 2020 election for Joe Biden and the unusually divisive presidency of Donald Trump is coming to an end. President-elect Biden has called for national unity, a welcome change in narrative. However, not everyone has gotten the memo. Although many Republicans, to their credit, are supportive of the transition of power, others led by Trump himself have implied the election is a fraud. On the left, some advocate keeping blacklists of Trump supporters to be kept out of jobs or socially shamed. Although, as of yet, none of the feared violence has occurred following the election, the country remains deeply divided and often angry.
Anger is a natural emotion. With some reflection, it can be channeled positively for, as Sex Pistols front man John Lydon has said, “Anger is an energy.” But do people make the best decisions when they are angry? Is a country awash in angry individuals likely to progress forward coherently?
Research on the impact of anger in decision making is complex and attempting to sum it up here is beyond the scope of this essay. However, putting it briefly, evidence suggests that anger results in more consistent goal-directed decision making. At the same time, anger may reduce our perception of the costs of a decision, leading to risky decision making. There are certainly some nuances in these observations. However, painting with a bit of a broad brush, we can say that anger, particularly anger unmitigated by any attempt at rational evaluation of evidence, often leads people to become more invested in their decisions even as those decisions are stupider.
Where does anger come from? We have a fair amount of clarity on this. We can definitively say where it does not come from: The idea that it comes from crude learning by watching fictional media is scientifically untenable. Like most emotions, the origins of anger are complex. Not surprisingly, as with most things human, a strong genetic element predicts a tendency toward anger, though environmental influences are important as well. A leading theory of anger relates to the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis which has been around for almost literally ever. Put briefly, this theory suggests that we tend to get angry at those who get in the way of our goals. Put in the political realm, those who oppose our vision for the United States, and thwart that toward some other vision, can quickly seem like dire enemies if we indulge such emotions.
The mechanisms of social media hardly help, insofar as some platforms use anger as a means to increase engagement and, by extension, profits. This is particularly true for a platform such as Twitter which, with 280 character limits, is by nature reductive and hardly conducive to sophisticated and nuanced dialogue. Such platforms can increase the influence of moral grandstanding in the pursuit of cultural power and dominance, and provide amplification for society’s most angry and partisan voices. The relationship between social media use and political anger is complicated and nuanced, but evidence suggests that exposure to partisanship online tends to increase political anger among individuals already prone to it.
So, it might not be such a bad idea to work to reduce the amount of anger in our society and look for ways to find common ground among people with divergent worldviews. Each of us making individual decisions to do so can have an important cumulative impact.
Academia, by this point, is often viewed (fairly or unfairly) as a core source of anger, given an increased focus on left-wing advocacy and what some refer to as grievance studies. This extends down to K-12, where, in response to increased politicization of education, some scholars have advocated for teaching youth how to navigate political divides without increasing polarization. At the university level, the liberal bias in many fields, particularly the humanities, education and social science has been recognized for many decades. It’s not clear that universities are the indoctrination farms many conservatives fear, but it is conceivable that at least some university students are not exposed to diversity of viewpoints on the nuances and complexities of issues ranging from sex and gender, to race, to criminal justice to media effects, at least not in ways that would conflict with a leftist worldview.
This can create conflicts at universities. In a recent climate survey at our university, among other issues were conflicts between the liberal academic community and the more conservative surrounding town (the classic “town and gown” struggle), as well as between conservatives and liberals on campus. This appears to reflect widespread concerns across many university campuses, not a local phenomenon. Although it’s not clear that ideological divisions between professors and students results in reduced grades, the lack of ideological diversity may result in more conservative students being regularly exposed to narratives they perceive as hostile to their own worldviews. As a consequence, many students, particularly (but not at all limited to) conservatives, self-censor when difficult topics arise. Administrators often do not support heterodox ideas, leading to a culture of intimidation against any challenge to left or far-left orthodoxy. In an atmosphere ostensibly dedicated to open inquiry and critical thinking, this should alarm us all.
I’ll note here that I am a staunch supporter of free speech and academic freedom. My thoughts to follow should not be interpreted as support for administrative mandates. The last thing we need is more administration of any kind. If a professor decides they wish to go on a long rant about how their political opponents are irredeemable Nazis, Communists, snowflakes, and racists, well, I’ll support their free speech right to do so. However, I do wonder if we should give more thought to our comments, one-off jokes and political rants. Are we truly helping our students to think, or only adding to the anger in the world?
As I write this, I think it is important that I make no claim to innocence. I have been a staunch liberal for years. Without question, this has at times reflected in the way I have taught. Confirmation bias being what it is, it is easier to repudiate ideas on the right that are anti-science, such as denial of global warming. Confronting unscientific ideas on the left, such as the beliefs that gender is a social construct and important gender differences are largely nonexistent, may be more fraught given the prevailing social pressures in academia. Over 23 years of teaching, I suspect I have leaned as left as most professors.
As professors, though our job is to profess to be sure, one of our most important roles is to help guide students to confront difficult topics using, not anger, but good data and civil debate. We have the freedom to express ourselves how we want (in theory at least), but we should be mindful that, in our classrooms or online, our students are watching and taking cues from us on what is considered appropriate behaviour. Given that I suspect that many of our issues in academia stem not just from a liberal bias but from an angry liberal bias, what are we to do? Below, I offer a few thoughts, with full recognition that I, myself, do not always practice as I preach.
Assume Good Faith: Likely, much of our rancor comes from the assumption that others hold different views from us because they are acting in bad faith. They are racists, or want to destroy America, hate women or men or trans individuals, veterans, conservatives, etc. And sure, there are some truly despicable people in the world. But if we’ve come to assume that applies to half the country, it’s probably time to reassess. If we begin with a belief that most people who disagree, even if horribly wrong, came to their opinions (even, say, anti-vaxxers, QAnon, cancel culture warriors, etc.) through some personal journey that isn’t intentionally destructive, that can help us remained focused on good-faith arguments of our own.
Argue from Data, Not Emotion: One recent trend I’ve noticed is that, in any contentious debate, the most upset person often gets the upper hand (particularly if upset by an alleged moral transgression.) Although we should be generous toward those who are angry or sad, we probably shouldn’t award debate points to emotional outbursts. Instead, we should ourselves strive to provide data to support our arguments and expect the same in return.
Offer Space for Debate & Discussion: In any debate, it is a natural inclination to try to shut down disagreement. This is, by nature, a strategy of aggression. By implying any disagreement with our own perceptions must indicate a moral failing on the part of our opponent, we become authoritarian and censorious. Instead, let us find it in ourselves to offer space to those who disagree with us to offer evidence for their views. Surely, if our own opinions are sound, those with the best data will carry the day. In our own psychology department at Stetson, we offer an Unsafe Spaces debate series, purposefully bringing together scholars and students with divergent views on “hot” topics to debate them civilly. This is a model easily adopted and has been very successful.
Discussion, rather than acrimonious debate, particularly as it moves beyond moralistic binaries can lead to both greater insights as greater affinity between those involved. Discussion can move us away from binary decisions of who is right/wrong or wins/loses…most social issues are more complex. Helping students to understand these complexities is as important as teaching them to tolerate civil debate. Most people do not readily endorse the political extremes of either right or left and the nuances and complexities of opinion can get lost when we become focused on who is with us and who against any given issue.
Model Civil Behavior: Always remember, whether in our classrooms or online, our students are watching. If we, as academics, can’t behave, why would we expect our students to? Don’t tantrum, bully, or censor, and stand up to such behavior from others.
Do I Need This Battle? It’s not necessary to respond to every tweet or post that differs from our own views. Sometimes, they may very well be bot farms anyway, designed to stoke anger and resentment. Just remember the old maxim: Never get into a mud fight with a pig. Everybody ends up looking dirty, but only the pig has any fun. In class, if a student offers a divergent opinion, is it really my job to smash that opinion into the ground?
Am I Trying to Persuade or Signal Tribal Identity? Few people listen to us more after we’ve called them an asshole. So, what’s the point of the fight you’re having? It’s natural for us all to want to show we’re on the right side of morality. But we likely need less of angry moral grandstanding and more modeling of rational discourse. Tribalism is one of the great vices of the modern age.
Remember Twitter Isn’t Real Life. In general, we probably need to stop assuming that moral outrage mobs on Twitter (and other social media) are an indication of public opinion. So too, we need to stop assuming that stories told by people on social media are true (indeed, several cases of academics assuming totally different racial identities have been uncovered). Put bluntly: a wave of stories of injustice, malignancy or just idiocy on both sides can inflame our passions. Yet, very likely, a non-trivial percentage of those stories either aren’t true or have been cropped, either in the narrative or even in video, to portray events in a different light from what actually happened. As professionals, where we encounter stories of injustice, we should be prepared to help those individuals seek resources to get justice, whether police, lawyers, advocates, mental health professionals or campus resources. Yet, at the same time, we should stop giving public outcry of such stories blank-check currency which may only encourage more such stories, some of which will inevitably be false. Be a compassionate resource, yet data-seeking.
The Emperor Has No Clothes: We also need to find it in ourselves to be brave. That is to say, to be brave but not stupid. Social science tells us that many publicly accepted beliefs are spread through availability cascades. Briefly, they are self-perpetuating cycles in which belief in thing X tends to generate more news stories and public discussion and, often, moral grandstanding about thing X, even when thing X may be false. But because people only hear about thing X and not criticisms of thing X, they believe thing X to be true. Couple this with a moral push, and it can be difficult to challenge beliefs in thing X out of fear of cancelation. However, as academics, it is our job to shine the light of truth onto the world even if that means challenging thing X. It can be frightening to do so, to go against the moral headwinds. But find the courage to do so strategically, with data, a generous spirit and carefully reasoned arguments.
We are living through a truly unique time. Our political divisions are deeper than they’ve been in generations. And social media companies profit from stoking outrage and anger. Academia is far from innocent in this spiral, having for decades slipped further and further into advocacy, however well-meaning, rather than critical thinking and data. As individuals, we can each take steps to move back toward civil debate, academic freedom and data-based dialogue. Our individual acts may seem small, but in the aggregate can have tremendous impact.