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Civil Discourse and the Delights of Discontent

02/24/2011 05:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Not long ago Chris Matthews shook his head when a spokesperson for the Tea Party refused to condemn Michele Bachmann's claim that the founding fathers solved the problem of slavery. His reaction seemed a bit premeditated, but Matthews looked off in disgust and then blurted, "Michele Bachmann is a balloon head." I'm not exactly a fervent fan of Hardball, however I gave the host a fist pump for that one.

There is a person I find in the mirror every morning who seems to love to fume. Often before the coffee even finishes dripping, I'm bellowing to my wife, "Can you believe what that maniac Palin said? What a narcissist!"

It's not just me. As anyone acquainted with the comments on the blogosphere will attest, most of us like delivering a kick in the shins. Moreover, the body counts of popular movies is proof positive that we Americans -- even peace-loving liberals -- have some anger issues. It would be naive to imagine that the kind of bloodlust that has made ultimate fighting so popular does not have some resonance in the peanut galleries of the political arena.

If we really want to put a leash on our tongues, we need at least to acknowledge that we are a chronically peeved people that enjoys letting off steam. As Freud taught, it is the emotions that we refuse to acknowledge that dance us out on puppet strings. In his Civilization and its Discontents, the master of the inner world made this observation apropos the delights of a dudgeon.

It is clearly not easy for men to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression. They do not feel comfortable without it. The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct an outlet in the form of hostility against intruders is not to be despised. It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.

This paragraph led to Freud's famous discussion of the narcissism of minor differences. He maintains that we will always look for someone on whom we can deflect our aggressions, "like," Freud wrote, "the Spaniards and Portuguese, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and the Scotch, and so on," and perhaps now, the liberals and the Tea Party.

For Freud, we will cook in our own bile if we can't find a fit punching bag. As he saw it, aggression that does not find an outlet ferments into acts of self-destruction and a miasma of malaise. While Freud railed against the Christian ideal of love, there was a sense in which he believed we should love our enemies. For Freud, we need them. They do us an important service.

For those inclined to chuckle at this hypothesis, you would have to be a balloon head to dismiss the idea that, up to a point, we enjoy outbursts, especially of the kind that we ourselves do not have to answer for.

Although the conversation about having more civil conversations appears to have rolled on, it will roll around again. When it does, it may be worth considering the possibility that being more respectful will require renouncing a pleasure that most of us are loathe to admit, namely, the delicious taste of vented anger.