In Defence of the Hot Head

I’ve just had a conversation with my mother re-visiting a familiar topic for me.  One which has bothered me for as long as I can remember, although I think I’m now better able to put my finger on why than I was in earlier years.  I decided to put my thoughts on it down in writing, for the record.

The issue at hand is this: imagine during a long road trip a family comes upon their destination, a major city where they will spend a few days vacationing.  As they enter the hectic streets of the city Dad is behind the wheel and starts to suffer a low-grade case of road rage complete with raised voice and expletives.  Dad is frustrated and pissed off and everyone knows it.  Now everyone’s upset and Mom wags her finger and admonishes Dad for not controlling himself.  In other words, he has done something wrong.

I take issue with this telling of the story.  Putting aside considerations like whether the parents don’t want to encourage the use of bad language in front of the kids, or whether one should avoid expletives in general, a more central issue to my mind is whether it’s justified for people to insist that others bottle up their feelings (that is, not express them, or express them in a controlled way that’s palatable to others) in order to avoid creating (so-called) social friction.

In my experience the reasons people typically give in support of this view are:
1. It’s unfair for Dad to direct his anger at his family, given that the things that have made him angry are not their fault.
2. It’s wrong to make someone feel bad, especially if they are innocent, and Dad’s swearing makes everyone upset – maybe even a little scared.
3. Society is founded on the idea that everyone is personally responsible for controlling their impulses and instead exhibiting socially acceptable behaviour, and Dad failed to do this.

To the first of these reasons, it’s inaccurate to say that Dad was directing his anger at his family.  He wasn’t – he was simply expressing anger at something else in a sanguine fashion in their presence.  These are crucially different things.

Secondly, I dispute that it’s always morally wrong to “make someone feel bad”.  It IS wrong to act maliciously – that is, with the intent to do physical or emotional harm to someone.  Also, if you know some course of action will make someone feel bad and you have a choice, all things being equal it’s more ethical to choose the course of action that defends their emotional state.  But the point here is that Dad is neither acting maliciously, nor are all things equal.  In this situation Dad is contending with a lot of pressures – the responsibility of not getting into an accident, the constant need to stay alert to road signs and other indicators in an unfamiliar environment, and the uncertainty of discovering an efficient path to their destination.  Also, probably more than anyone else in the car, he’s tired because he’s been doing all of these things for hours.  What this means is that while he technically has a choice of how to behave, his faculties are overwhelmed and the consideration of the possible emotional reactions people might have in response to his actions (again, assuming those actions aren’t implicating them somehow, other than as an observer) is just one of several factors vying for his attention.  Ultimately it’s unreasonable to hold Dad solely responsible for everyone’s feelings as long as he’s acting honestly and with good intentions.

Thirdly, while everyone is responsible for controlling their impulses, the same is equally true for everyone and all impulses – not just those that are the most visible.  Really, Mom is also acting on impulse.  Her impulse is to react with discomfort when someone exhibits behaviour that may indicate aggression, but that’s not necessarily an appropriate reaction.  Really it’s a form of “fight or flight” built-in to Mom’s psychology to make her naturally averse to things which may threaten her physical well-being.  If there is no threat, it seems to me that the onus is on Mom to recognize that this is the case and act appropriately.  Finally, because everyone in the car probably reacts similarly to Mom, what happens is everyone bonds together in their indictment of Dad as having done something wrong, even if it isn’t necessarily the case.

Dad’s version

And this begs us to look at the other side of the coin.  Not only has Dad succumbed to intense emotions and had a minor breakdown, but now he’s getting accused by the people he loves of having harmed them in some way.  The family’s response certainly does nothing to help the situation, and instead exacerbates it.  To me this is not a fair or loving way to treat someone, especially when everyone is benefiting from the fact that Dad has taken on extra responsibility.  You can maybe excuse this on the part of the kids, because they’re kids, but shouldn’t Mom, the only other adult, be recognizing that her partner is in distress and stepping up to try to and assist with the situation however possible?  The form this would take really depends on the specific situation at hand – she might say “Don’t worry, we’ll be there soon”, she might reach over to touch Dad to let him know he has her support, or she might engage him in some conversation to take his mind away from the situation that’s distressing him.  In other words, she might acknowledge and validate his anger rather than trying to turn it back on him as an accusation.  This would possibly remind Dad that there are other dynamics at play in the car other than the frustration he’s experiencing, and help him to put his anger into perspective.

But it’s possible that Dad isn’t listening to words of kindness right now.  He sees red and just wants to end this trip as soon as possible and that’s the only thing he has the resources to concentrate on at the moment.  In this case, if Dad’s emotions are causing him to be less than reasonable, the least Mom could do is to focus on asserting her and the childrens’ emotional needs rather than belittling Dad’s ones.  It’s always appropriate for Mom to tell Dad how his behaviour is affecting her and start talking about what they can do to make everyone feel better.  She could attempt to de-fuse the situation, maybe by having Dad pull over for a while until they can calm down.  Another (and perhaps the best, depending on the situation) course of action for Mom to take might be to just recognize Dad’s outburst for what it was – a release of steam – and make some casual comment or joke to reassure the kids and downplay the significance of it, and otherwise do nothing.  It’s true that Dad needs to take responsibility for his behaviour and should strive to rein it in if he knows the effect it is having on those around him, but considering the circumstances maybe his responsibility can be shared to some extent.  If so, the family can act more in the model of a team, with everyone pitching in to try and help out with the work that needs doing (in this case, the driving), rather than as a load of dependents placing even more demands on an already tapped patriarch, as may be what was traditionally done.

So, you say, the end result is that we can all go around screaming and swearing at each other whenever we like then?  I didn’t say that either.  The point here is just that Dad’s momentary lapse of composure was not necessarily immoral and shouldn’t be treated as a major social transgression.  It certainly doesn’t relieve others in the car of their social responsibilities, such as the responsibility to try and empathize with and support Dad, who has taken on extra responsibility in order to benefit everyone.

Anger and Fear

At this point people usually start making arguments about how it’s not the fact that Dad reacted, it’s the way he expressed himself that’s immoral.  My response to this is that it a) ignores the real experience of frustration and anger and b) is somewhat disingenuous for implicitly holding up certain character traits (usually those of the complainer) as superior to others (those of the alleged offender), and as such really amounts to an exercise in narcissism.

The reality of anger is that it is an intense emotion, and it affects each of us differently.  Some react to anger by crying, some by drawing into themselves and becoming despondent, and others by raising their voices.  Nobody responds to anger by asking themselves “What’s the fairest way for me to express myself right now?”  The impulses the emotion of anger creates in a person are beyond their control, but we all have some ability to resist these impulses.  Anyone who takes issue with Dad’s particular expression of anger should recall how they respond in similar situations, and ask themselves whether really they are any better at controlling their impulses, or whether it just so happens that their expressions of anger are not met with as much resistance by those around them (for example, if they are quieter).  To say that one response is preferable to another is to say it’s better to prefer chocolate over strawberry flavour, and additionally to say this in full knowledge of the fact that you yourself are a chocolate-lover.  The result is not actually that useful as a social imperative.

Given that anger impulses are difficult to control and affect everyone differently, it may be that one person’s anger reaction is so troubling to an observer that they have serious difficulty in resisting their reactive impulse.  You often hear people talk about this when they say “I just can’t be around you when you’re angry, it makes me crazy”.  This can be a very difficult situation to deal with, but again the answer is not to admonish one or the other person for their feelings (or expressions thereof), which can only serve to increase the tension.  The likely resolution to this situation to my mind is that both people try as much as possible to:
a) control their impulses in the moment,
b) remind each other of the immediate effects their behaviour is having on others present, and
c) otherwise try to find techniques for de-fusing the situation that’s causing the anger in the first place.

Having said this, I do think it’s worth considering the implication of being so affected by witnessing an un-harmful behaviour that you “can’t stand it”.  This to me suggests that the observer is creating mental associations with the behaviour they’re witnessing that are not based in the reality of the moment, but are drawn from their own psychology.  Because everyone is responsible for controlling their own impulses I would argue that they should feel an obligation not to do so, because it creates a mountain out of a molehill and probably augments the tension of the situation.  But to be fair if Dad can have his emotional breakdown, then so can someone observing him.  At the very least one is not more culpable than the other, but most often Dad would be solely blamed, more due to appearances than actual guilt.

So the result is that it IS true that Dad should try to control his anger, and he should also try not to eat the entire bag of potato chips by himself.  But, if he slips at either of these, he shouldn’t be open to condemnation by society.

To sum up a lot of what I’ve said, it needs to be recognized in this situation (and others like it) that there are at least two strong emotions at play in the car.  One is the anger that has caused Dad to momentarily lose it, the other is the fear that his outburst provokes in the observers.  My main point is that it is no more valid to blame Dad for “creating a situation” than it is to blame the others for being afraid (or more likely “uncomfortable”, which is a watered-down version of the same thing).  You have to ask what is the basis for the family’s fear?  Is Dad a violent person with a history of lashing out at innocent bystanders?  If not, then there should be no reason for it.  If this is a loving family who trust each other, then Dad’s outburst should not be interpreted as some kind of threat.  If despite this, some family members feel fear anyway, then to say that is justified should also allow justification for Dad’s initial anger.  To blame one person as solely responsible for the whole dynamic is hypocritical.

Over-reaction

The fact that Dad would ordinarily be blamed in this situation I think is due to several reasons.  One as I’ve mentioned is just that his initial anger was the most easily visible emotion and served as the catalyst for the situation, which causes people to knee-jerk respond “don’t do that!”  Secondly there’s a cultural tradition at play wherein men are supposed to be the strong ones who provide for their families’ needs.  In theory this means that in a pinch, when it is too inconvenient for whatever reason to investigate underlying reasons and solutions for some problem, the default behaviour in many situations is to lay responsibility for fixing it onto the patriarch’s shoulders who should just suck it up and “be a man”.  Unless a particular family prides themselves on being traditional, this model doesn’t apply any more in most families.  It is more the norm for modern families to share responsibilities, and so should it be in this situation.  Nowadays it’s clear to most people that even though Dad might be physically stronger, it doesn’t mean he is any more emotionally capable than another adult to deal with the challenges of the situation the family is in.

Finally there is a general culture of conflict aversion that causes people to disparage potentially conflict-causing behaviour such as displays of anger.  This is the same as the fear response I already talked about, only elevated to the level of society.  I consider this cultural thread to be largely ignorant and unhealthy because conflict is a natural part of life – if conflict is dealt with ineffectively it can create bad consequences, but that’s not due to the conflict itself so much as the response to it.  Indeed an aversion to conflict guarantees that many people will not have had the relevant experience to properly deal with conflict when it occurs.  This cultural aversion is based in a mouldy Victorian indictment of displays of emotion, and it’s time for society to evolve past it.

So in conclusion, the next time you’re in a situation where someone is expressing anger, instead of reacting with fear and judgement right off the bat, stop and consider the situation.  Most often the anger is occurring because that person is emotionally compromised – rather than being threatening, in many cases they probably feel threatened in some way.  A constructive response would address their emotional state rather than holding them to account for it.  And especially if it’s someone you have made a commitment to be around, don’t let an irrational fear response erase everything else you know about them.  It may be that someone who reacts loudly in anger is just an expressive person, which oftentimes could be the same trait you find the most appealing about them in other circumstances.  You could even find that the anger that is making you so uncomfortable in the moment actually serves as a reminder of the whole person that you like or even love.

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