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How Demagogues Turn Anger Into Collective Poison: The Middle-Finger Party

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 2/03/2016 Alan Briskin

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"But why are you supporting Trump?" a volunteer for an opposing politician asks an older gentleman standing outside his house in Las Vegas's Silverado Ranch neighborhood. The older gentleman has just declared his support for Trump and is now going to explain. "Because he says this," the man responds, throwing his middle finger upward, "to everybody."
And so it is. With one pantomimed action, we see and feel the thrust of the argument that the electorate is angry ... and willing to go to extreme lengths in a presidential election cycle. The question, however, may not be so much about what is making the electorate angry as what anger says about the electorate.
In Buddhist thought, anger is one of three poisons, the others being greed and ignorance. Together, they create a trance state overtaking the mind, causing delusion and suffering. The delusion is of a particular kind, believing we are separate from other living things and the physical earth that is our home. From this stance of separation, the individual focuses on his or her own needs and desires. However, something feels amiss. The trance states produces cravings that seem to grow the more they are addressed. The poisons feed each other with amplifying effects: feeling separate, we want more and more; desiring more, we become suspicious of others; suspicion breeds fear and anger; anger fuels our sense of separation--and the cycle continues. At the collective level, anger becomes simultaneously grandiose and specific, a middle finger thrust into the air for "everybody" and targeted emotional resentments aimed at specific groups.
What we know about anger is that it inflates self-importance and builds a wall between genuine introspection and finding right action. Anger can be a useful signal, alerting us that something is amiss, but if we don't explore what truly makes us angry, anger isolates us from our heart's intelligence and our connection with others. Anger may be thrilling, but it also leaves us separate and alone.
The antidote to this delusional state involves humility, introspection, and personal responsibility. Even more, it requires a demonstrated concern for others, especially those less fortunate. In a world that sought to combat anger, greed, and ignorance, we would strive to create a better world for everyone. And we would be mindful of how our own emotional reactions, including anger, can lead to greater self-understanding. The quest would be to cultivate peace of mind from within and harmonious relations with others in the larger world.
Now imagine that we live in a parallel universe, where people believe they are indeed separate. In this world, greed is reframed as success, evidence of being in God's grace. Ignorance is a form of bliss because we don't have to suffer other perspectives or face the consequences of our actions. Arrogance, self-aggrandizement, and factual embellishments (making things up) are valued as demonstrations of confidence, self-esteem, and rhetorical skill. In this world, the way to address insecurity is to accumulate more things, and the way to address vulnerability is to create an enemy.
How do we reconcile what appears to be two such separate worlds? How can we shift our attention back and forth between the social forces fermenting a growing rage within the collective and compassion for those succumbing to the trance state that accompanies anger?
Comprehending the attractiveness of anger is an essential element for its healing. There is something absolutely delicious about finding fault with others and making one's own insecurities the justification for demonizing others. But rather than simply condemning anger or allowing it free rein, we can approach it with gentle inquiry. What values are being threatened? What beliefs are being jeopardized? What control is being wrested from our grasp? And conversely, how good does it feel judging others, punishing them, and relishing in revenge? If anger is delicious, we should be willing to recognize how much we take delight in threatening, haranguing, and demeaning those from whom we feel separate.
The poignancy and even distressing nature of this insight struck me recently as I read of Donald Trump's address to a South Carolina audience about an American atrocity that never actually happened. It doesn't matter. For Trump, the veracity of the story is inconsequential. The story is simply a vehicle to channel anger. He lives in the alternate universe I described earlier, one in which arrogance and factual embellishment are evidence not of a disordered internal state, but of confidence and rhetorical skill.
"You know, I read a story -- it's a terrible story, but I'll tell you," Trump said. "Should I tell you? Or should I not?" The crowd cheered him on. The taste of punishment and revenge, the bittersweet fruit of anger, was already on their tongues.
The story as told by Trump is this: Following an attack, U.S. General John J. Pershing had 50 enemy combatants lined up for execution. The bullets for the execution were dipped in pig's blood, and the soldiers loaded the blood-soaked ammunition into their rifles. They were then ordered to execute 49 of the men. The 50th person, Trump informed the crowd, was told to "go back to your people and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years there wasn't a problem."
No problem. This was, for me, the most chilling aspect of the story, and it evoked anger. Stories of my relatives in Eastern Europe lined up and shot dead into a ditch by Nazi soldiers linger in my memory. These soldiers too were following orders. They may have even believed that killing my relatives was necessary to combat the Jewish problem, eliminating them the solution. No problem.
So my anger wells up, and I ask myself what is going on. My anger is self-defensive. I carry with me a fear that the atrocities visited on my own blood can happen again, though not just to Jews, but to my brothers and sisters who may be Muslim, Arab, African, Hispanic, and Asian. My anger is a residue of my hyper-vigilance, that I took seriously a vow made that I would not be a bystander to demagogues or political parties that turn normal human emotions such as anger, fear, and vulnerability into collective poison. My own vulnerability begins to bleed into awareness. Tears well up. My cheek is wet and my body just so slightly shivers.
And I remember to breathe. I remind myself that emotions such as anger are ephemeral, and what is important is not to hold on to it, to not let a single emotion define me. I engage in some sober self-talk. Anger will not be my substitute for stepping forward with a more hopeful message about human possibility.
With discipline, anger can be tamed and transformed into caring, even for those I may disagree with, fear, or not understand. Anger, however, does not automatically disappear. Only when we grasp its role as a signal function, rather than a thought we identify with, can we allow the feeling to shift naturally to a broader, more compassionate stance. As with a diabetic looking at a chocolate cake, the temptation for anger is lessened by understanding how terrible the body will feel if the thing is mindlessly ingested. We cannot and must not be passive, but neither shall we evolve by being emotionally self-indulgent or self-righteous. Recognizing how anger functions as a manipulator of emotional life while also understanding its vital function as signal for deeper distress can be a basis for real dialogue, connecting us to our shared human experiences of fear, vulnerability, and the values we hold dear.
The political fanning of flames, the surging up of anger, and the demonization of the other are all signals, at the collective level, of something deeply unsettled. We have reason to be cautious and alert to the dangers ahead. However, our inner attitude matters a great deal. If we succumb to despair or simply meet anger with anger, we will fail to bring forward a new ethic that embraces the reality of our interconnectedness. Let us be a growing network of evolutionary humans who meet anger with curiosity and loving resolve.

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