How Rage Is Shutting Down American Politics

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As a high school and college student, I aspired to change the world. I binge-watched The West Wing before binge-watching was a thing. I talked with friends about becoming a lobbyist and engaged in passionate debates about American and global politics. I idolized the Supreme Court and read its decisions with finger-tingling excitement. I even watched C-SPAN. For fun.

Ten years later, I hate American politics and remain as distanced from current events as humanly possible.

So what happened?

9/11 happened. And over the next few days, months, and years, this country and its people bitterly disappointed an idealistic, ambitious 20-year-old. What I saw–in response to the tragedy–was violence, hatred, and xenophobia unparalleled since the internment of Japanese-Americans and white retaliation against attempts to end Jim Crow. There were frequent reports of attacks on anyone who even “looked” Muslim or Arab, vandalism of mosques, and indefinite detentions of American citizens without trial.

Yes, our political system has a lot of problems. Pick one. Whether it’s corporate funding of campaigns or secret deals behind closed doors, America has the same problems as any corrupt nation.

But I believed this could be addressed by and through the people.

Our national reaction of stereotyping, racist violence, and outright war proved otherwise. What I saw instead was all too familiar to a child of abusive parents: outrage.

Public outrage has poisoned American politics. Recently, Ferguson gave this country an opportunity to address violence, racism, and retaliation. And, predictably, rage hijacked the conversation.

I grew up in a home where adult rage figures into my earliest memories. It’s something I know intimately. I lived as its victim for 20 years. I went on to be its perpetrator for 5 more. And rage–even when there are excellent reasons behind it–is the most toxic approach to serious issues. And here’s why:

1. It shuts down dialogue because it alienates the other parties.
Whether you’re a cop outraged that the citizens you are sworn to protect killed one of your own or a citizen fed up with seeing people of color targeted for their race, that rage is misplaced at the bargaining table. Problem-solving doesn’t come out of finger-pointing. Civilization’s major developments didn’t happen when people were busy slinging accusations and insults at each other. If you really want things to get better, get a hold of yourself, count to ten, and then say something constructive. Like what our next step should be.

2. Rage shuts down higher brain functions.
No kidding. So basically, if you’re in a blind rage, you’re useless. Sit down and shut up. As for the rest of us, stop giving the dudes on TV so much of your time when they shoot off at the mouth. I don’t care if you agree with them. That’s no excuse. They are basically incapacitated when they’re foaming at the mouth. Watch it for its train-wreck quality, sure. But shouting matches ain’t news.

3. Rage is addictive, and America: you need to kick the habit.
This was perhaps the hardest part of my healing process after I got away from the abuse and started to face the effects of 20 years of that shit. Rage stews our brains in a chemical soup that we quickly learn to crave. Especially if we’re feeling scared and vulnerable. You know how good it feels to be pumped up on that juice. I sure do. I’m basically a junkie, and kicking the habit will be something I struggle with all my life. After all, my developing brain was steeped in that cocktail for my first 20 years on the planet.

So here’s the thing: rage feels good. It gives energy. Confidence. It simplifies life. God is it seductive. But America, you need to move on. Our addiction to rage is preventing us from feeling the emotions that can truly help us heal. Regret that we have treated neighbors and family members like enemies simply because they have different political views. Sorrow over what this nation’s history has left to its citizens of color.

But above all, rage insulates us from the desire to connect, making it impossible for us to listen across our differences. Which means while we’re high on rage, reconciliation and collaboration can’t happen. And that’s the biggest tragedy of all.

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