THE BLOG
08/18/2015 07:35 am ET Updated Aug 18, 2016

The Mailbox Incident and Political Anger

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Last week, the Postal Service began delivering mail in a cluster mailbox at the curb behind our homes, and the individual, bucolic-looking mailboxes in front will soon disappear. Everyone on the street knew this was coming; the cluster was installed six weeks ago. Since each mailbox is locked, we expected keys along with a note indicating who had what box. That did not happen. Our mail was thus inaccessible. Calls to the local Postmaster produced the response that the keys were delivered a month ago to the lawyer for our development. Calls to the developer's onsite representative produced the reply "call the Postmaster." Anger erupted.

We soon heard that one resident, who got a cluster mailbox months before, was suing because the individual mailbox was removed. Were our keys being held as a negotiating tactic to prevent further use of cluster mailboxes? A call to the developer's lawyer revealed that he did, in fact, have the keys. Embarrassed (or worried), he distributed them the next day. All of this was accompanied by raised voices on all sides, threats of "further action," and charges about government incompetence. It was road rage at curbside.

Did our anger work? In the short term, yes. We got our keys. Yet, a few days later, I find myself surprised by how quickly this small problem escalated into an angry confrontation. Is there be a broader message in this minor incident?

Anger seems plentiful in America. You see it in the news, in nasty comments on social media, and in Americans' shouting across picket lines, police barricades, on cable talk shows and on talk radio. You see it in road rage, frustration at the airport (and sometimes in the airplanes), at campaign rallies, and in legislative hearing rooms.

Major candidates seem anxious to claim the role of lightning rod for American anger. On the right, for example, Trump supporters hate big government, the impotence of Congress, lax immigration enforcement, and political correctness. On the left, Sanders followers hate big business, Wall Street, and the growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else. As with our mailboxes, angry voters want things fixed - now - and they don't care whose feelings get hurt in the process.

There is certainly a place for anger as a device for social change. When directed against moral failure, it can produce energy and marshal resources to correct injustice. But every disagreement is not a justifiable pretext for righteous indignation. Anger can be overdone.

To be useful, anger must be balanced by love of one's opponents as human beings and the willingness to forgive. Lincoln knew this at the end of the Civil War; Martin Luther King, Jr, knew this in the struggle for civil rights. The families of those killed at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston demonstrated it most recently.

Unmitigated anger extracts a steep price. In part that price is a retreat from reasonableness. Anger leads to defensive escalation, producing anger in return, and uncalculated risk taking. Research confirms that energy consumed by the emotional center of the brain is energy unavailable for its logical processing center. Angry people don't search for facts, unless to selectively pick them to build their case. Rage pushes reason to the background. The solution to our mailbox problem was to find who actually had the keys and request them. Instead, lost tempers not temperance ruled the day.

Anger's "win-lose" mentality is the antithesis of compromise. The greater the anger, the more "unconditional surrender" is demanded. What worked for mailboxes is useless for complex social issues, where legitimate moral values exist on multiple sides and where "winning" only ensures the next round of anger from the loser. Solving tough problems requires empathetic understanding of what motivates opponents. Anger drives out empathy.

Anger also shuts down productive conversation, damaging relationships - and not just in the short term. We got our keys, but our ability to work together on future issues is compromised. We all may have a tendency toward defensiveness, primed to be hurt and strike back. The scab on wounded relationships takes time to heal. Self-protective by definition, such scabs lead to seeing only what we want to see, stereotyping, and wariness in reaching fair solutions.

Anger also crosses generations. Children see it and learn its ways, for they often model what they see. Most teaching occurs not in formal lessons - few want their offspring to hate - but in observing those we love and are told to respect.

And anger produces a loss of perspective. It makes us ignore what is going well in our lives, communities, and nation. It leads us to forget how fortunate we are to live in a country mostly devoid of terrorism, religious persecution, sanctioned violence against other cultures and women, famine, widespread corruption, rigged elections, rampant disease, and extreme poverty.

In our politics, and on the road to the 2016 election, we should be wary of the power of anger. It will energize voters. It will get many to the polls. It may help a candidate win. But what then? Anger is a weapon not easily sheathed. It will be a pyrrhic victory whose major achievement is a mandate to govern yet the inability to do so. Governing depends on collaboration not conflict, on using anger for something more than just generating more anger.