Sunday, July 17, 2011

Anger: Weakness, not Weapon

An anti-anger rant, presented here for reasons that are best kept private:

Blame it on the cartoons and comic books and action movies, and their equivalents in generations past. Somewhere along the line, young human beings acquire the notion that anger is a weapon.

Think of every action hero who was trampled, stomped and beaten down, and who then, in his moment of rage, fought back and demolished his persecutors. A berserker rage energized him and drove back the foe, and he triumphed. He was galvanized by his outrage, he shouted from the rooftops, and he won over the crowd. From John McClane to Rocky Balboa to Popeye (“That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!”) to even Mr. Smith in Washington, the lesson has been the same down the line: Get angry enough, and you’ll win. Anger is your weapon.

So children assume that if they display enough anger, shout loud enough and long enough, say enough nasty things or hit hard enough, people will listen to them.

But the world doesn’t work that way. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Angry people are a turn-off. Very few people listen to them.

Shlomo said it in Mishlei 15:1: מענה רך משיב חמה, A soft reply turns back rage. Abayye quoted this in Berachos 17a, saying that one must always speak softly to everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike.

As the Gemara, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch all stress, rebuke must be worded in a way that it will be accepted; otherwise, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah, but has actually sinned.

The last experiences of Eliyahu haNavi on earth are instructive in this regard. It was in Melachim I, chapter 19, that HaShem sought to teach Eliyahu to tone down his rhetoric, and when HaShem saw that He was not getting through, He told Eliyahu it was time to retire, and appoint Elisha as his successor.

Here is Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, author of austritt, on rebuking others and setting things straight. Herewith are the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in Horeb (paragraph 380), “But if you turn into a sharp and lethal weapon this word which is destined to bring life and blessings; if you seek pleasure in mocking the inexperienced and less intelligent, in deceiving and embarrassing him instead of teaching and correcting him; if you ridicule the unfortunate whose troubled mind is longing for comfort from your lips; if you put your brother to shame in front of others even for the purpose of correcting him; if you degrade your brother’s personality by calling him bad names; if with icy scorn and fiery disdain in your barbed words you shoot sharp arrows into your brother’s heart and rejoice in his discomfiture - oh then, do not dare to look up to heaven! Gd sees your bother’s heart convulsed by the daggers of your words, frozen under your icy scorn, humiliated under your ridicule. With Him the rejected soul will find refuge, to His Throne tears always find the door open. And you? The Almighty is just!

And, anger doesn't work, for any number of reasons. Among them:

1. Anger makes people defensive.
2. Anger makes you fight sloppily.
3. People who disagree with you are not compelled to agree simply because you show you are sincerely committed to your position.
4. Anger doesn’t address the core disagreements.

And, perhaps most of all, an angry approach doesn’t allow the listener a way out. If I want to convince someone to change his stance, I need to provide him with a way to change his stance without looking foolish. If I get angry and yell at him, how can he change without looking like he was beaten into submission?

So anger is no weapon; it’s useless.

And worse, anger is a result of weakness. Anger is nothing more than frustration with the universe; things aren’t going the way I think they should.

The Rambam wrote in Hilchos Deios that only anger and arrogance must be entirely eliminated. Both of these appeal to basic human weaknesses, arrogance to our ego’s fear and anger to our ego’s frustration.

The Gemara says as much when it declares that anger leads a person to ignore G-d (Nedarim 22a-b). Why? Because anger indicates that I think the world should be different, should match my plan... instead of that of G-d.

Bottom line: We need to learn another way for convincing other people. If the best we can do is raise our fists and voices in rage, then there is no hope at all.


  1. I agree that true anger should not be used. However, the rambam also writes in Talmud Torah 4 that one should feign anger in certain situations, if it will be effective.

    Sometimes showing anger, without actually being angry, may be helpful in getting your point across. This is used often by politicians in many different situations.

    It is true that it won't convince people of your position and doesn't address the core differences, but it is a tried and true negotiation tactic, both in the class (as the Rambam was speaking) and at the negotiating table. However, it probably only works when it's a manufactured emotion, which would still mean everything in your post is true.

  2. I think both this post and Russell's comments are important and true.
    My friend was just telling me about the verbal anger and violence that is consuming facebook regarding the murder of Leiby Kletsky A"H. If people would instead cope through channeling their intense emotions toward the positive, a lot of good could be done. Let's learn from the good of a pure, innocent boy and the multitudes who joined together for him and not from the hatred of a murderer.

  3. Russell-
    Yes, the Rambam says it, and it's anchored in the gemara - but I have great doubt about its application today. As you note, it must be purely manufactured, and it rarely is. And further, I am worried about אחרי הפעולות נמשכים הלבבות, the way our minds are drawn after our deeds. It can be insidious.

    Thanks for visiting/commenting. Is it fair to expect that sort of coping?

  4. I agree with Russell.

    Another example: In parenting, feigned anger is a strong tool, not to be overused, but if rarely used will have an impact particularly on younger child. For example, my wife and I would use this in the case of running across the street without supervision. A calm logical discussion after the fact with the child will not have as much as impression as a rarely delivered angry rebuke. They will see "Wow! Abba is hardly ever upset - this must be really bad!"

    The key is that is has to be controlled, rarely used, and not done in the midst of real anger (I used to count to ten internalizing the above before I would launch into it).