Anger is different than vengeance.
My wonderful and knowledgeable colleague, Dr. Thomas Plante (2022), recently wrote a very insightful Psychology Today post regarding the threats to freedom of speech on college campuses. Dr. Plante points out the very real peril faced by professors, colleges, and ultimately the society itself if the current social climate continues to chill expression.
While I agree with Dr. Plante on the alarming state of affairs in academia, I respectfully disagree regarding how to solve the problem. Dr. Plante calls for increased civility, hospitality, solidarity, and kindness. However, I would argue that we need to not only accept, but embrace, the opposite of these values. Some of the more salient antonyms offered by Merriam-Webster include audacity, impertinence, estrangementand incompatibility,
Perhaps these antithetical values appear counterintuitive allies to free expression. However, if we examine the mechanisms by which speech is suppressed, the core belief which facilitates reprisals is the mistaken judgment that anger is an unacceptable state. It follows that someone must be at fault for this transition and therefore must be punished. A misguided understanding of empathy can lead to that punishment falling on the one who “triggered” the abhorrent emotion.
This approach gives entirely too much power to anger. Moreover, I fear that expectations such as civility and kindness only exacerbate this anger-phobic attitude. Instead of expecting people to be calm and civil, we can instead choose to believe it’s no big deal if they’re not.
On a smaller scale, I see this issue arise frequently in couples therapy. If one partner becomes mad, they argue over whose “fault” it is. But no one has to be at fault. We can experience anger irrespective of an intellectual analysis of the moral culpability of others. And anger is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite positive. I sometimes point to the Incredible Hulk as a metaphor for deriving power and drive from anger.
In addition to psychological and other scientific perspectives, history, philosophy, and religion are ripe with examples and allegories which demonstrate the constructive aspects of audacity, impertinence, estrangement, and incompatibility. In the Christian tradition, Jesus audaciously overturned the tables of the money changers. In the United States, impertinence has coursed through the fabric of society from the Boston Tea Party to Rosa Parks to the change-makers of today. In therapy, sometimes clients can heal only by choosing to become estranged from abusive family members. Quantum mechanics developed despite its (continued) incompatibility with relativity, yet both are embraced in different contexts and for different reasons.
With esteem and appreciation, I also disagree with Dr. Plante on the analogy of society as an extended family. I can see how such a metaphor for treating others like kin can be powerful for many people. However, there are many people for whom “family” has a fundamentally negative connotation. And there are still more who have dysfunctional and boundary-challenged relationships with their families which would not be desirable to replicate in their other social interactions. For these people, when, for example, their employer states that the workplace is a “family” it is not only disingenuous but it can recall real pain. In my view, it’s OK for family to be family, coworkers to be coworkers, strangers to be strangers, and even for adversaries to remain adversaries.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the contingent nature of employment, and university opposition to unionization for non-tenure track faculty is perhaps the single greatest threat to free speech on college campuses (Swidler, 2016; Bancalari, 2017,) etc.). I would invite every advocate of free speech to become active in movements to change those practices.
Putting legal issues aside, I want to make clear that I don’t think private social tolerance for expression should be absolute. I do believe we as private citizens should balance objectionable speech against the harm it causes—physically, psychologically, or otherwise. Where exactly that line is to be drawn is beyond me, but it can be guided by insightful experts providing realistic appraisals of the actual harm caused.
The expectation that we can and should get along is ultimately anathema to free speech. People can be free to be rude, and still no one needs to be fired, punished, or harmed in any way. And, when we are the angry ones, we can recognize that in most instances we can be angry and no one needs to face any real-world consequences as a result. We can simply vent and everyone can move on with their lives.
It all depends on the courage of our institutions, and ourselves, to tolerate observable anger. Instead of reacting to emotional outbursts, we can choose to accept them as a normal part of the human experience that requires no remedy. I remain grateful to Dr. Plante for his advocacy on this issue and, ironically, I do find amusement in the fact I’ve endeavored to craft a civil dissent to the concept of civility.