Homo sapiens was a puny prey animal that, by sheer Ty Cobb-like will and guile, became the top predator in the food chain. Homo sapiens did not come by its heedless dominance through introspection (nobody ever does). We organized, believed, followed ruthless leaders, waded through rivers of blood, did whatever was necessary to conquer and take what was needed. We are not always a very nice species, I’m afraid. Some of our traits are primitive indeed, none more primitive than our reflex to get angry. Anger played a key role in survival, and genetic selection, and all that, but… still.
My father was angry his whole life long, uncontrollable outbursts of frustration and temper were common. At the same time, he was very smart and something of an intellectual, weighing arguments, informing himself about all sides of a matter, speed reading the New York Times cover to cover every day, like Popeye sucking down a can of spinach. In his retirement he spent hours daily reading any number of periodicals. He also listened to Rush Limbaugh, who reminded him of hate-spewing 1930s radio blowhard Father Coughlin, and would chuckle sometimes observing Limbaugh’s cheerful, brazen manipulation of whatever facts he was handling.
I wrote the other day about my father’s black and white thinking, in spite of all this time he spent weighing everything he could find. “My way or the highway,” is most often the credo of idiots, but my father felt this way too, and was far from an idiot.
Except in his primitive attachment to his own anger. Anger that, without a doubt, tormented him even more than it damaged those around him. It was a double whammy– feeling the anger in the first place, which hurts, and then shoving down the insight that your outburst has once again done damage to those you love. So you justify your helplessness, instead of working to understand, to master the urge to rage. And it enrages you that you are powerless to stop raging, of course, and this pours gasoline on the fire. Succumbing to rage, of course, is often the way of the average homo sapiens.
Hard to unravel this at the moment, but these words from a recent discussion Bill Moyers had rung a bell in my head when I heard them yesterday, and fortunately Moyers always has his chats transcribed on his website:
Democracy doesn’t work if everybody’s angry at everybody, because anger literally stops us from wanting to compromise. Anger emanates primarily from the insula in the brain. And when the insula is activated, we don’t compromise. When we are anxious, which is the amygdala part of the brain, that’s okay. We can be anxious about stuff and we’ll still be willing to compromise. But when we go toward this dark anger, and a majority do, everything stops and that’s really my diagnosis of why the country is in so much trouble right now.
It also works as an explanation of why my father was so inflexible much of the time. The insula, whatever the hell that is, once inflamed, makes a person rigid. There’s science coming to the support of philosophical observation.
When we are angry, says science, there is no convincing us of anything. We rage and only those who agree that we are right to rage are welcome to comment. I feel this way sometimes, hey, you hurt my feelings and offer a dozen reasons why I shouldn’t be hurt, I’ve got one answer. Fuck you. There’s only a limited range of reasonable motion possible, apparently, when the insula is activated.
This is not to say that a willingness to compromise is always a good thing or that anger is always a bad one. Is it right to be angry about slavery, corruption, mistreatment of the vulnerable? Is it ever right to compromise with Nazis? These are reasonable and sticky questions.
There are others, also sticky, that are not very reasonable, and the blindness to reason may be a function of an angrily engaged insula. Is it right not to compromise over the important matter of what it means when your son refuses to wear the blue pants for a visit to the hospital? That may be one of those times when it is better to let the insula relax, take a few breaths, look at the matter with an eye toward soothing the anger. A compromise aimed at making everyone in the house cut each other a little slack is hard to see as a bad thing.
The function of the anger center of the brain, and how it shuts down the impulse to see another side to things, explains a lot about one of the most vexing contradictions of my father, Irv. It explains a lot about everyone.