06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Take the High Road: Personal Responses to Political Tantrums

There's paradox in all this angry ranting about other people's bad behavior. It's just so easy to match their vitriol with our own sarcasm, and combat their intolerance with personal disrespect. I'm speaking from experience, having followed the recent media discourse and, okay, I admit it, having just deleted the first draft of this piece because it was hypocritical and full of clever nastiness imbued with self-importance.

It's not rocket science to know that self-righteousness can easily pave the way for tarring and feathering others, and disdain supports the kind of self-justification that clouds clear judgment. Maybe there's a strangely tempting energy to anger and hate, but giving in to these feelings is profoundly toxic for those involved and deeply destructive to society over all. Much as we might want to condemn people whose behavior and politics we dislike as "irrational fanatics" our ostracism and angry rebukes simply reinforce the implicit message that demonizing others, due to our differences, is somehow acceptable. It isn't, and never will be. And, it's time to model responsible behavior and commit to civilized engagement.

To my mind, the basic issue is this: we can't directly change anyone else's perspectives or behaviors, but we can control what we think, do and say in response. And our responses indirectly, but powerfully, alter current circumstances and can increase the potential for more productive outcomes. We've got to let our brains serve us well, and that means, we need to manage our emotions - even if others aren't. Our success with doing so will affect our own mental health as well as the strength of our democracy.

The science is pretty clear. When people become enflamed by their anger, the emotional parts of the brain take over and the thinking parts can't catch up. Rage, terror, and hatred are explosive emotions, and repeatedly experiencing them alters brain chemistry and function. In the midst of such extreme emotion, the perception of external threat or attack adds fuel and clouds judgment. This is how destructive emotions can hold the thinking brain hostage.

Just witness the public experience of the pundits or the private conflicts with the neighbor next door, and you'll see confirmation that anger doesn't diffuse rage, and disrespect can't promote tolerance. So why do so many of us get angry at other people's anger and condemn those who claim to judge us? The temptation to join the fray is so strong, in part because we wonder "what else can you do when everything is getting worse." But doing so simply confirms what we fear ... and things do get worse.

There's got to be another strategy. Just as water douses fire, and wet conditions prevent re-ignition, we've got to use ethics to create the conditions that promote civil society. This is a time for firmness, and fairness, for confidence and the demonstration of constructive behavior. Patience is the best antidote for anger -- not the kind of patience that enables someone else's rage, but the kind of internal patience that allows us to control our own anger and offer an effective response.

Anger, like other strong emotions such as terror or hatred, tends to be catchy. It doesn't have to be contagious, and cultivating self-awareness and self-control is the best prophylaxis. By holding steady and emotionally stable, in the midst of instability and rampaging emotions, we can change current conditions. Rather than fighting (and fueling) nascent anger, let's put our energy into creativity and service to society and the world. Rage is all about the person who becomes it, and rather than empower that person and reward bad behavior, we can consciously choose to put our energy into focusing on the public good.

When tired young children tantrum, experienced parents do well to stay calm and acknowledge the situation. They might say, "We see you are feeling really mad," and then explain firmly, patiently and gently what comes next -- something like, "We're going into the other room, and we can discuss things when you've calmed down." And then, they do what they said, and leave the room to focus on something else while waiting for the conditions that foster constructive communication. Parenting is challenging, most of us make many mistakes and try to learn from them for the future. But, woe to parents who repeatedly yell at their kid's raging, because the tantrums inevitably involve both parties. And woe to parents who always give in, because rewarding unmanaged emotion creates bad habits in children and set dangerous precedents for our future.

As citizens considering the best response to the intolerant and angry behavior of other citizens, we could do well to remember the example of experienced parents and recognize political outbursts of vitriol as indications that adults are throwing tantrums and demanding attention in public. Sure, we could simply turn our backs and ignore them because anger, like fire, eventually burns out without further fuel. But there's enough kindling in the current political landscape that ignoring the flames probably just postpones the intervention.

A more constructive response is to do what grown-ups do, and recognize that we, as mature adults, are stronger, and more centered, than those whose behavior and experience is driven by destructive emotions. We can dig deeply inside ourselves and find the patience to stand firm in the face of politically charged anger and remain impervious insults. We can say, "It's clear that you're feeling furious about things and that you're not ready to try to resolve our differences reasonably." And, then we can say, "So, until you're ready to engage respectfully, we'll give you some space and focus on other things." The key is that we really do need to give them some space but remain aware of their actions, just as parents do when they monitor an enraged child from a little distance. We must also pay attention to the other things, and not let dramatic tantrums distract us from what we believe is important. In the end, constructive action is the most powerful force for public good.

It takes guts to face anger with inner patience, and take the higher road of ethical responses. But, I believe that we are gutsy as people, and capable of rising to a higher standard. And, it takes trust and confidence to believe that, in time, adults who throw public tantrums will either regain their self-composure or not, and their capacity to do so will determine their success advocating for their beliefs within democracy. The basis for full and constructive participation in an open society is civil discourse and civilized behavior. It's up to all of us to demonstrate that we have the capacity to engage at this level, and by doing so, simultaneously create the conditions that foster similarly constructive participation among others.