Songs of Angry Men

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Last weekend we attended a youth theater performance of Les Miserables, the musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo. In The People’s Song the chorus sings, “Do you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men? It is the music of the people who will not be slaves again.” It reminded me of many in the United States and across the world who join in groups to fight oppression, poverty, war and injustice. Fueled by moral anger, outrage and desperation, people join together to right perceived wrongs in the hope of a better day for themselves or their children.

While many of these movements create positive changes such as religious freedom, civil rights, protections for children, some turn violent and ugly.  Sometimes groups begin as peaceful protests, but shaped by changes in leadership, embark on an ominous, destructive path. The recent murder of Dr. George Tiller by a violent anti-abortion extremist comes to mind. When we believe in our own righteousness it can feel intoxicating.  Famous wit, Oscar Wilde said, “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.” Moral anger can disguise hatred, envy, jealousy and yes, simple dislike.

When tempted to get puffed up with righteous indignation, the wise person pauses, reflects, and tends to take the moderate view. Studies show that people of higher intelligence tend to take moderate positions. Less intelligent people take extreme positions. When we feel angry we like to join with others who share our views. They support our position and make us feel great about ourselves. Throughout history people have been lynched, gassed, shot, tortured and oppressed out of moral anger. This behavior has not stopped human problems, but instead created greater problems.

In our personal lives we get outraged by inconsiderate house guests, people who don’t RSVP, poor drivers, help desk professionals who speak poor English and other perceived infractions both important and petty. We like to recruit people to our cause, “can you believe he said that?  Don’t bother sending anything, they never reply.” When friends and family agree with us we feel supported and entitled to our indignation.

Of course in the midst of our delicious baptism of moral superiority we forget our own driving errors, inconsiderate behavior, forgetfulness and human failings. We tend to commit the fundamental attribution error:  Our own mistakes are situational (I speed because I overslept).  The others mistake is due to a flaw in their character (He speeds because he’s a maniac!) We give ourselves a pass when we make a mistake, but don’t give the same courtesy to others.

Next time you feel superior to another, stop. Take a deep breath. Get off your pedestal. It’s the smart thing to do.