Be Civil, Not Angry

Democracy benefits from approaches characterized by inquiry, relationships, persuasion and reason – and other reasons why civility is better than anger.

November 19, 2018

The very word ‘anger’ trips off the tongue with a potency that simply overpowers the term ‘civility’, a word which sounds meek by comparison. The visual that comes to mind when you match ‘anger’ against ‘civility’ is of a professional football player in full gear going up against a professional badminton player. You can imagine ‘anger’ being in the title of a heavy metal album, or part of the name of a rock band or hip hop group. Civil sounds like something you’d mention during an invitation to a garden party in the English countryside.

Well, I prefer rock and roll, football and potency over garden parties, badminton and meekness, and yet I am a big proponent of being civil rather than angry. Why?

I think civil postures and discourses are a lot better for democracy than comportments or tirades characterized by anger. I think democracy benefits from approaches characterized by inquiry, relationships, persuasion and reason. If you had to find a term that wrapped these four into a neat package, you could do worse than civility.

Here is another way of putting matters. If your general approach to the world is to be angry rather than to be civil, you are probably not learning as much (thereby robbing from inquiry), building rapport with as many people as you could (thereby robbing from relationships), convincing others of your views (thereby robbing from persuasion) or thinking as clearly as you might (thereby robbing from reason).

Of course, anger can sometimes be useful, but when anger is the standard mode rather than a gear to be pushed into on rare occasion, I think it causes all kinds of other problems.   

For example, it strikes me that angry people are often asking others to change or do something: the leaders of schools, colleges, police forces, the government, etc. etc., they all need to be hounded into changing. I agree that all of these institutions require change, but why do some people get to do the relatively easy and self-righteous work of demanding while others do all the hard work of running something and changing it at the same time? 

The best advice I ever got when I was an angry activist calling on major international interfaith organizations to expand their youth programs was: that’s a great idea, you should put your energies into building what you’re calling for.

What if some of the anger that was directed against institutional leaders was instead put into building expertise to run those institutions better? Schools are unfair and racist. You should run one; or better yet, not just one, but the whole school system. 

Speaking of self-righteousness, one of the things that restrains me when I am spitting mad is wondering whether, of the seven billion people on the planet, I am so uniquely persecuted as to justify angry treatment of others. If my standard mode with regards to people with whom I disagree, or towards those who have wronged me, is to breathe fire on them, what of all the people who I have wronged, or who I treat unfairly, simply as a matter of living in the United States of America? All the people who toil away to make the clothes I wear or the electronics I use – do they not have a far greater right than I to be angry at a system that robs them of a fair wage for their labor and rewards me for the unearned randomness of being raised in the United States?

This sense of being persecuted is the justification for an awful lot of rude behavior. But, as my dad would ask me when I was going through an angry activist phase, if you are persecuted, what word do you have for the 99% of humanity who clearly has it worse than you, and would trade places with you in an instant? And if your (pretty privileged) conditions justifies the rude way you treat people, what does someone else’s far worse conditions license them to do?  

I could think of all kinds of other ‘rational’ reasons why I find anger distasteful and counterproductive, but I think in my core, my discomfort with anger is spiritual in nature. I was taught from a very young age that the signature qualities of the Prophet Muhammad were patience and mercy and that in embodying such virtues he was following God’s command. When a women threw trash on the Prophet from her balcony, he was patient with her, even inquiring about her health when she failed to appear at her balcony one day.

There is a story that Sufi Muslims like to tell about Jesus (who is a Prophet in Islam). When he was being insulted in the marketplace, he responded by blessing the people who abused him. His disciples were flabbergasted. ‘How could you bless people who insult you?’ they asked.

‘I give only what I carry in my purse,’ Jesus responded.

I would rather fill my purse with blessings than anger.

In a similar vein, a Buddhist teacher once shared with me the lesson that being angry with someone else is a little like drinking poison in the hopes that your enemy will die. That struck me as absolutely accurate. When I’m angry at someone, I’m the one who does most of the suffering, not the target of my anger. And if I think about it long enough, I actually don’t want to hurt that individual either; I just want them to change. Anger is the least useful path to the goal of getting them to change. Inquiry, relationship, persuasion and reason – in a word, civility – is likely to get me there much faster, and in a better state.


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