Anger as evidence

Duncan A Sabien on 2020-01-18

Anger is one of the most valuable signals we have, but only if we attend to it correctly.

The emotion of anger is produced (most often) by the violation of expectation. You’re mad at other drivers for failing to follow commonsense rules; you’re mad at your roommate for failing to do their fair share of the cleaning; you’re mad at your child for doing what they’ve been told a thousand times not to do. Even more deep and serious anger—at rapists and murderers, at corrupt politicians, at one’s mortal enemies—it almost always has its roots in some kind of should.

You shouldn’t hoard billions of dollars while other people starve on the street.

You shouldn’t use epithets that have a history of denigrating and delegitimizing millions of people.

You shouldn’t write laws that reach all the way into the privacy of my own home, my own body, my own willing interactions with other consenting adults.

These shoulds and shouldn’ts aren’t just intellectual. They’re not just reasoned positions. They live deep within our bones. We don’t just recommend them, we expect them, on a visceral level. The anger of a road-rager often starts with shock, surprise, sudden dismay—they weren’t planning on nearly being run off the road by an idiot texting (or, less forgivably, on being pointlessly obstructed by someone driving three under in the fast lane).

But of course, there’s no physical barrier preventing people from driving slowly in the fast lane and holding up traffic. There’s police enforcement, and social shaming, each of which can punish or deter such behavior, but the universe itself, on the level of strict possibility, doesn’t share your should.

Similarly, the universe doesn’t prevent people from bullying your child, or keep you from tripping over a piece of loose concrete, or stop doctors from performing abortions, or stop protestors from bombing abortion clinics. All sorts of occurrences which shock and surprise and outrage us are completely allowed, as far as the universe is concerned.

And this means that anger is an epistemic warning flag. Nine times out of ten, anger is a hint—that You Believe Something Which Is Not True.

You expected that the drivers around you would conform to a shared set of norms and behaviors.

You expected that everyone would agree that something must be done about climate change. You expected that everyone would share your outrage over the injustice of income inequality.

You expected that people would immediately understand the overwhelming and obvious truth that mass shootings represent an almost impossibly tiny fraction of total gun use, and you expected that this understanding would prevent them from proposing laws which impose significant costs upon tens of millions of law-abiding citizens without even making a dent in the actual problem.

You expected the code to compile.

All of these expectations were, in fact, false. They were miscalibrated—even if you knew that failure was possible in a technical sense, you didn’t see it coming, and so you shout and pound your fist on the desk and honk your horn (or you smolder internally and take it out on the dog when you get home, because you expected the dog to know not to rip up your loafers, and that’s the last straw).

And so the anger is a signal that you could do something better, inside your own mind. It’s a trigger, and one of the possible actions is to revisit and reevaluate your expectations and beliefs.

Feel anger → Say “I notice I expected something else to happen.”

And from there, decide what to do next. Not from “something else should have happened,” but from “I thought something else would happen.”

(Here I’m distinguishing between the moral should, which I have no objection to, and the anticipatory should. I think it’s absolutely fine to continue thinking that people shouldn’t rape, in a moral, prescriptive sense (and in fact, anger and outrage are a tool toward that end, via signaling and punishment and so on). But it’s silly to expect that you can put a few million people together in a city and have zero sexual assaults occur, at least at this point in our moral and social development as a species. It’s a shame that we use the single word “should” to describe two so very different things.)

This is not to say that you shouldn’t (heh) stay angry, either, or that you shouldn’t act from anger. Anger, in addition to being an epistemic flag, is also a useful source of motive energy, and a way to put pressure on the social structures around you. But it’s an attempt to point at the difference between someone whose anger is likely to be effective, because it’s channeled and targeted well, and someone whose anger is just … random? Wishful? Likely to be ineffective, because it’s running the show, rather than being used by the person running the show. Likely to be unstrategic and counterproductive, because it’s emerging from someone with unexamined false beliefs—and those unexamined false beliefs probably extend to what impact they expect their anger to have on the problem.

Anger is evidence—and it’s evidence about what’s inside you just as much as it’s evidence about what’s going on in the broader world.