Here in the United States we are entering an election year. I must confess that I face this election cycle with some trepidation. While I do have some concerns about the future of my country and its government, what worries me most is the propensity for political discourse to turn contentious and downright nasty. I worry our own anger sometimes clouds our judgement. And more troubling still, I worry that there are those who seek to take advantage of and even inflame our feelings of anger for their own benefit.
Alma chapter 48 of the Book of Mormon is chilling to me. At this time in the book there were two nations, the Nephites and Lamanites. The usurper Amalickiah ruled over the Lamanites and wanted to do battle with the Nephites. In the previous chapter, we read that the majority of the Lamanites didn't want to fight (see Alma 47:2). After seizing control of the their army however, Amalickiah appointed men "to speak unto the Lamanites from their towers, against the Nephites" (Alma 48:1). What's chilling is that, in time, this tactic of stirring up the Lamanites to anger actually worked. Their hearts were hardened, their minds were blinded, and they submitted to being led to battle, thus kicking off a war that would last over fifteen years and cause the loss of many lives on both sides.
Even more troubling are the parallels one can see in our own day. There are many who use our own "towers" today to broadcast messages of anger and hatred across the airwaves, often with the purpose of inciting their listeners to believe, say, and do things that they otherwise wouldn't. I'm sure that many examples easily come to mind; any of us could easily think of "that politician," "that podcast," "that news network," or "that influencer" who is clearly just trying to make people mad. But I would encourage us all to think critically, to ask "Lord, is it I?" and to be on guard for examples in our own lives.
In Defense of Anger
I don't want to give the impression that anger is, in and of itself, a bad or evil emotion. None of our emotions are inherently good or bad. Rather, our emotions are signals that tell us how our mind is processing what we experience in the world. Anger, in particular, seems to be tasked with alerting us when something isn't right, and that aggressive action is needed to fix it. And certainly there are many things wrong with the world today that need to be fixed. If you find yourself feeling angry about acts of injustice, there's nothing wrong with you. It shows that you care and you want it to change!
There are those who point at the anger of another and use it as a point of criticism. They might say, "They're such an angry person!" as if to define the individual solely by the emotion. The anger itself is seen as a moral failing, thus giving license to ignore what the person has to say, or the issue that has gotten them so upset. On the other hand, there are others who view anger as a moral strength. "They're so passionate about this topic!" they might say, and as long as it's a topic they too see as important, they use this perceived strength to overlook inappropriate words and actions they may have said or done.
Again, it isn't the emotion that is good or bad; what matters are the decisions we make. And while anger is great at motivating us to take action, it isn't so great at helping us to determine what the best course of action is. Based on my own experience, it doesn't seem to matter whether I'm angry about something important or something inconsequential; decisions I've made in the heat of the moment have been rarely optimal, and often harmful.
When we feel angry about something, we shouldn't ignore that feeling. But neither should we allow our anger to dictate our actions. Perhaps the best decision we can make when angry is to allow ourselves time to process our feelings, and resolve to make a decision about what to do next after the intensity of those feelings have passed and we are able to think more clearly and rationally.
While there may not be anything inherently wrong with feeling angry, it is wrong to deliberately stir someone up to anger, or to do so through careless words or actions. While everyone will be accountable for their own decisions, we also have the responsibility to not make it more difficult for others to make those decisions. And as discussed, feeling angry makes it harder to make a rational decision.
This is not to say that we should shy away from telling unpleasant truths when appropriate, even when they might cause someone to feel angry. However, there are those who seek to profit from our anger, either by causing us to pay them more attention, or by putting us in a state where we can be more easily manipulated. Sometimes they do this by lying, other times by focusing on only part of the truth. Often they employ contempt, creating parodies of their enemies and opponents and sometimes entire groups of people by reducing them solely to those qualities their followers find most offensive.
In the political sphere, there is no party that is completely innocent of this tactic, and it is naive to assume that only one side does it, while everything the other side says is accurate. It is ubiquitous because it works. And because it is ubiquitous, we can't simply disengage from any party that is found guilty of it. To do so would be to let them have their way, and to allow those who give in to anger to make all the decisions, thus perpetuating the cycle. No political leader is perfect in this or any other regard. My purpose isn't to tell anyone who they should vote for, or even who they shouldn't vote for. My hope is that we will all strive to be mindful of those who attempt to manipulate our emotions. And I would suggest we be extra mindful when it comes from a source we are generally favorable towards.
When a politician, candidate, or news organization says something that makes us angry, we should acknowledge the feeling, and try to examine why it makes us feel that way. We should ask ourselves, is what they're saying totally accurate? Is it backed up by other credible and unbiased sources? Was any key information left out that might cause it to seem different? Does the speaker have anything to gain by making me feel angry? Could they have conveyed the same information in a way that would make it more likely for listeners to think about it clearly and rationally? And most importantly, what is the course of action that is most likely lead to a favorable outcome, and should I take some time to calm my emotions before deciding on such an action?
God has blessed us all with agency. He wants us to use our ability to think and reason to make decisions that will benefit us and His other children. But there are those who don't want us to think too hard and instead act impulsively. We can choose the former by being mindful of our emotions and those who try to manipulate them.