Anger on a Small, Crowded Planet

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Moving Past Hatred. Read other perspectives here.

Civil and political discourse are so often fueled by stridently expressed ideology that people with trained, tamed minds are often discouraged about entering the fray. How do we deal with anger and vitriol, disagreements, and conflict?

From a Buddhist point of view, anger is inevitable. From a common sense point of view, it should be obvious that disagreement among people, even people who have similar interests, to say nothing of people with vastly different interests, is also inevitable. The problem is that untrained, untamed people become very upset when others disagree with them, easily falling into a dualistic, "I'm right and you're wrong—end of story" stance. Such dualistic polarization is very difficult to work with. It is problematic for those at whom it is directed. Less understood, such polarization is also painful to those who initiate it and feel so self-righteous.

But according to Buddhist psychology, anger or aversion is one of the three most basic emotional responses to stimuli. These reactions are not to be condemned or praised, but need to be worked with skillfully. These three responses to stimuli have been widely discussed in Buddhist texts and have been frequently translated into English as "aversion, attachment, and ignorance," with ignorance considered to be the most deeply rooted and the source of the other two. Aversion or attachment means either disliking something or being attracted to it, while ignorance has more to do with feeling that the stimulus is irrelevant to oneself. When we discuss vitriol or "hate speech," we are discussing different shadings of aversion, finding something dislikeable, and shying away from it. "Hatred" and "aggression" are some of the most problematic outgrowths of aversion, as are their even more intense forms—xenophobia, warfare, and spiteful, hate-filled speech.

However, according to Buddhist psychology, these three "unwholesome roots," as they are sometimes called, are not part of a "good-evil" duality, for all three also contain more useful and positive possibilities. Aversion can bloom into clarity, attachment into compassion, and ignoring into accommodation. What the actual stimulus will produce is not pre-determined. It all depends on how trained and tamed is the mind of the one who experiences the stimulus. The goal is not to ever dislike something, but to know how to deal with feelings of disliking someone or something without letting that feeling devolve into hatred or aggression, which easily degenerate into conflict, vitriol, and the aggressive confrontation that are so characteristic of so much contemporary social and political discourse. Teachers of Buddhist meditation like to tell students that various thoughts and reactions will inevitably arise, but one does not have to believe in a thought just because it occurs and momentarily feels convincing or compelling. Untrained people are much too prone to immediately believe in their thoughts and act on them.

Not surprisingly, people will sometimes feel aversion toward what they experience. It should not be surprising that different people dislike different things, which means that people often disagree with each other. That should not be surprising. What is surprising and unfortunate is that some people become aggressive and belligerent when other people disagree with them. Who could possibly expect or even hope that others will always be on the same page with them? Of course there will be disagreements, even among close colleagues. But people do not seem to know how to work with their own emotions in the face of disagreement from others and the fact that other people are different from them, have different values, and make different choices about important things like sexual orientation, lifestyle choices, and social or political issues. In the face of difference and disagreement, they become combattitive and belligerent. This is the genesis of vitriol, hate speech, and confrontational social discord.

To overcome negative, destructive social confrontations, it is not necessary that we all agree, that we find unanimity. Such a quest is inevitably bound to fail. We need to learn how flourish with diversity, rather than finding diversity uncomfortable and insisting that our choices should also be everyone's choices, on penalty of social of legal penalties. Thus, things people often feel strongly about, such as use of contraceptives, forms of marriage, reproductive choices, or religious preferences, etc., should not be decided for everyone by the preferences or choices of the majority. I have strong views about many things and am confident to make my case for the cogency of my views. That does not mean that it would be reasonable for me to expect others to agree with me or end up making the same choices I do. I only expect them not to try to force their values and choices onto me, as happens when only one form of marriage is deemed appropriate, or when contraception and reproductive freedom become difficult to obtain.

Those who disagree with us or with whom we disagree are often close-minded, obnoxious, and impolite in their responses to us. Thus, we must train ourselves, not only to hold and state our own opinions without a fixed mind and without being strident, but also not to react aggressively to those who may receive our comments with hostility and confrontation. Both tasks require equal amounts of discipline, graciousness, and training. Both are equally crucial to quelling the epidemic of aggressive speech and fixed mind that make public discourse so challenging these days.