Be Nice or Be Outraged —Finding Depth in Our Anger

By Stephen Cataldo, 7 April, 2017

Nicholas Kristof’s My Most Unpopular Idea: Be Nice to Trump Voters, like most articles about judgment and outrage around this election, comes down on one side. In this case, the “nice” side, awfully close to policing the feelings of other people. "Be nice" shoots down what should be a strawman, except that it is widespread, of shouting outrage at voters you don’t know, who don’t know you, over social media — and pretending that the volume is activism.

But there can be more depth to anger.

{ Part of a Cognitive Politics series aiming to disentangle political fights among allies. }

What would a conversation about outrage, judgment and anger look like, if we broke it into components rather than choosing sides on whether to be angry or nice? Outrage overlaps:

(1) Utilitarian politics. Discussing what works, rather than what is right.
(2) Judgment. Some voters either (a) preferred or (b) tolerated a man who leverages racism and sexism to gain power. What do they deserve? How should they be judged?
(3) Feeling anger. What is appropriate for decent people to feel? What is healthy for us as a community, what is a healthy psychological or spiritual response to living in a country full of racism, sexism and hate?

As soon as you break it down, some things become obvious.

(1) Outrage rallies part of the base. And doesn’t welcome anyone new to join. Activists deserve hugs if they are willing to hold back their anger and be nice to a potential voter — holding back anger is work. Even when it seems to work for rallying the base, anger politics may also burn out quieter and gentler people who feel angry, but don't use anger as fuel. Unleashed, anger tends to take over, whether it is working or not.

(2) Sitting in righteous judgement may be our nation’s current favorite hobby, but no one has given me lightning bolts to strike down the sinners, so I'm moving on.

(3) People working for a more compassionate world have some damned good reasons to feel angry. Even for people who don't believe anger is healthy or don't trust it, it would be strange not to feel angry sometimes in this environment. There is something in the "be nice" argument that is very strange: Kristof's argument feels too safe and easy, the real advocates for "nice" should have gone through anger and chosen not to stay there. If you can skip past anger in this environment, something is off.

The activists around you need a chance to express how they feel: a lot of good people need supportive listeners and hugs right now. In personal relationships, we're generally not encouraged to hold our anger in. Basically, our current expressions of political anger — what I think Kristof is encouraging us to replace by being "nice" — is close to passive aggressiveness. Therapists don't tell us to suppress our anger, nor to tweet nasty messages at someone who wronged us. Social media, like leaving notes around the house, is a very weak way to express anger. Gandhi and King believed in transforming anger, not just flushing it away with niceness: no one was "a deplorable," but they put people on the hook to make their own actions right in a way that is very rare today.

The psychological wraps back to the utilitarian: can anger be connective?

If conservatives and liberals had a therapist, we'd be encouraged to talk about one topic at a time, and have a specific ask to move forward. People already voted for Trump and everything he stands for instead of Clinton and everything she stands for. That might be a reason for a breakup, give up and go to Canada; who you voted for last time can't be fixed, and it's too big to have a sane conversation. But if we're going to apply our anger, it's better to be angry about one thing at a time, and to imagine the action that could lead to forgiveness. If someone you know says "All Lives Matter," maybe you could ask them to go to their circles and demand that Syrian refugees be taken seriously under that quote. If they thought Trump would stand for ordinary people, ask them to write their congressperson and oppose the ISP sellout. Whatever it is, get angry as if they are capable of earning your respect, as if there is a path to forgiveness and connection. It's worth exploring the suggestions from Nonviolent Communication (NVC), or basically any other personal or business theory of communication, and applying it to politics. Don't ask people to repudiate their entire ideology: give them one request that begins change. To go all the way back to the utilitarian points, pull out book on business sales: you need to get your foot in the door, create one point where they feel more connected to you than to the politicians they previously felt loyal to.

When you express outrage, invite your audience to be better, starting now.

On social media, think about how you react to expressions of anger. It's often powerful to echo the voices of people directly impacted by this administration. Don't own their anger, just echo their voices, give them the mic. If someone's life is better for school lunches or women's shelters that are being cut, and they are angry, share (and share and repeat) their blogs with "what do you think of this?" — expose your social circles to their anger, without claiming it as your own.

It's also important to be supportive of friends and other activists: which is very difficult on social media. If people are expressing anger from a place of overall disgust and exhaustion, we need our friends to show up — but not to turn that exhausted anger into blasts of hatred aimed in the general direction of "them." Giving everyone a chance to get their anger out where their friends can hear is important — but answer that with hugs and activism, not with shares that bounce anonymous outrage to anonymous listeners.


Kristof is onto a problem: we are angry, everyone on every side of politics, on Facebook and other social media where our anger doesn’t sting, it just separates. "Be nice" took a wrong turn between telling other people to get over it, rather than figuring out both how to be supportive of people whose anger (or fear) is well justified. And even if most social media anger has no sting or positive political value, some does. His article is caught in the whirlpool of anger politics: he's more or less angry at people for being angry, admonishing them not to admonish others. Which, like almost all our political efforts, is coming from a good place and a desire not to see us elect politicians like the ones in office today.

I think Kristof's argument should be limited to this: avoid stale anger. Avoid getting angry at an amalgam of Republican leaders and the person you are talking with. If you're not looking for support from friends but talking to people you feel anger towards, then be sure your anger is personal, connective, and includes a clear and achievable invitation for change.

If the whole argument is that you can win more people to your side by being nice, it is helpful to remember this when talking to your own side: Kristof’s article fits a strange pattern of being a bit outraged at liberals who are outraged — if being nice would work better, then be nice to people feeling angry.

Practice exercise:

Review recent political posts in your feed that express anger. How many have an underlying message: “We are better than you” vs “You are better than this”