Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Public Displays of Anger

Socially speaking, PDAs are public displays of affection. Most people find them slightly uncomfortable.

It’s not that they disapprove of people kissing, but they feel that intimate moments are best reserved for intimate settings.

Others find it refreshing to see that the culture is more open to more public displays of immodest behavior. They find it liberating.

But what about other, more dramatic, public displays of an emotion like anger? Is it equally uncomfortable to bear witness to someone’s poor impulse control?

In her column today Elizabeth Bernstein referred to them as adult temper tantrums. By associating them with childishness, Bernstein was characterizing them as shameful, an embarrassment to self and others. Link here.

Bernstein begins with the story of Tim Hoistion, a man who throws temper tantrums in restaurants, who explodes in anger at waiters. And who does so in the presence of his long-suffering spouse.

Strangely, to me at least, Bernstein believes that this behavior, however much it embarrasses his wife, does not constitute spousal abuse. I disagree. Submitting your wife to public humiliation is highly abusive.

If a husband makes a public display of affection with a woman who is not his wife, doesn’t this constitute public humiliation, and thus, spousal abuse?

Clearly, Hoistion and Bernstein agree that he is not an abusive husband. I doubt that Hoistion would have allowed the Journal to use his name if he had understood that he was announcing to the world that he systematically humiliates his wife, thus, that he is an emotionally abusive spouse.

Whatever Hoistion‘s anger management issues, he clearly believes that throwing a tantrum is a righteous thing to do. As long a he feels pride in his achievements, he will continue to behave like a mindless bully in public.

Also, if he feels proud to the point where he wants the world to know, then he must belong to a culture that values such behavior.

Any time a member of Congress or another public figure justifies a public display of anger on the grounds that he feels very strongly about an issue, he is laying the foundation for a culture that produces people like Mr. Hoistion, who throw temper tantrums and feel proud of themselves.

If he were to live in a culture where such behavior made him like an abusive bully, he might have better control over his emotions.

As I have often mentioned, and contrary to what the therapy culture says, failing to control your emotions means that you have weak character. Nothing about it should evoke pride.

Bernstein explains that therapists have taught us the therapeutically correct way to deal with such behavior. They want us to validate the person’s feelings, not the person‘s behavior.

By this they mean that Hoistion might have a legitimate grievance against the waiter, and that his wife should be willing to listen to his grievance. Then she can tell him that his behavior makes her uncomfortable.

If you think that this exercise in sharing feelings is going to solve the problem, then you have had too much therapy.

It is still important to see how our therapy culture defines social values and teaches us the right and wrong ways to behave in public and to conduct relationships.

Granted that some people cannot control their emotions because of an underlying medical condition, most of us follow the dictates of the culture, even when they make little or no sense.

Let’s change our cultural perspective and our way of solving the problem. Let us introduce ethics into the equation.

Begin with an old Chinese proverb: He who strikes the first blow has lost the argument.

Once Hoistion blows up, he has lost the argument. Whatever offense, real or imagined, the waiter has visited on him, that offense is no longer relevant. Nothing could possibly been sufficient to justify his making a fool of himself in a public space. Contrary to what the therapists would recommend, we should ignore his grievances.

Not only is Hoistion an abusive husband, he is a flat-out bully. What kind of person would display his macho bravado against a waiter who, most likely, would not be allowed to strike back? Surely, a man without character.

I would not exclude the possibility that the waiter might already have sensed that Hoistion was a powder keg waiting to blow, and thus, was avoiding his table.

Therapists may believe that they can easily separate off the grievance from the behavior, but if they validate the grievance, Hoistion will come away feeling that he was partly right.

Ethically, he should come away feeling that there was no possible justification for his behavior, no excuse worth offering.

He does not need understanding; he needs to see that nothing justifies his behavior, and thus, that he needs to apologize to all of those he has abused.  

We have an abusive bully, a man who makes a habit of threatening and intimidating people he sees as inferior to him.

If that were you, would you want your name associated with that behavior in the Wall Street Journal?

Yet, Hoistion surely does not believe that he is a bully; he thinks he has expressed righteous anger, and that, as the therapy culture prescribes, he is right to express it fully and openly.

When therapists react as though they feel that his grievances must be respected, they are also saying that they are threatened and intimidated by him.

Forget all of the pseudo-scientific explanations: they are afraid.

Faced with adult temper tantrums, therapists are counseling appeasement. Either they have their own character flaw, or else, their training has taught them to be emotional cowards.

In the end, of course, therapists believe that the answer to all problems is therapy. Regardless of whether or not it works.

Through Bernstein, they suggest that the abused spouse should adopt this approach: “After everyone has quieted down, explain calmly why the meltdown upset you. Ask your loved one how the tantrum made him feel and what might really have sparked the anger.”

Somewhat perversely, I fear, I like this. In two sentences Bernstein has encapsulated everything that is wrong with therapy.

First, when your spouse melts down, it is not up to you to explain why it upset you. You were just humiliated in public. You are right to be upset. If he cannot tell that you are upset, then you have a very large problem, indeed.

In fact, he needs to apologize to you, nothing more or less.

He does not need to explain why he threw the tantrum. He should not even be invited to justify it. He must recognize that it was fundamentally wrong.

Then, therapy wants the abused wife to ask her “loved one” how the tantrum made him feel. Yikes.

I wonder why a man who has just humiliated his wife in front of an entire restaurant, and is proud of himself for having done it, still deserves to be called her “loved one.”

As for asking him to share his feelings, most men, when asked how something made them feel, will have no idea of what you are talking about. If you don't believe me, try it at home.

If the conversation shifts into the enquiry mode: what was it that really made you angry, honey?, it suggests that behind the manifest grievance there is a latent grievance that needs to be identified.

By this point, the husband and wife have been transformed into patient and therapist. Do you really think that this is going to improve their marriage, or do you think that it is just a ploy that will lead them to a real therapist, who can find other ways not to solve the problem?


Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Out of 'Curiosity'....

....under what particular 'circumstances' are Public Displays of Anger 'appropriate'?


[The exception justifies the rule.]

Chuck Pelto said...

P.S. Possible 'Case-in-Point'....

Someone with a concealed carry permit sees an individual in the process of committing murder.

Should said person 'conceal' his anger? Invite the perp for tea, crumpets and therapy?

Or should he demonstrate in the public venue his 'outrage'?

Chuck Pelto said...

P.P.S. There is such a 'think' as the appropriate use of 'force'.

Believe me. After so many briefings on the authorized/justified use of 'Deadly Force', I know such.

The first such briefing was as a young paratrooper about to deploy to Washington DC for the May Day Riots in '71.

I've had several such blocks of instruction since then.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I am not so sure that there are ever circumstances where an adult has a right to throw a temper tantrum in public. If you can think of any, please tell us.

I would say that when it comes to people who are carrying guns, it is probably a good idea that they do not become overcome with emotion. If not, when they might have to use their weapons, their emotions will make them bad shots.

Anonymous said...

Okay, leave out the sidearms for a moment. What if you are attacked and fighting hand-to-hand? Here anger could save your life and displaying it may help you defend yourself.

Or, more peacefully, how about at a public protest. Some displays of anger can help to further your cause by triggering an emotional reaction in those who see your protest. However, other displays of anger could have the opposite effect.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Sometimes, if you get too angry while fighting you lose focus and effectiveness.

I tend to believe that when politicians and protesters start throwing tantrums in public, or become overly emotional about an issue, that undermines their cause.

While the Weathermen's Days of Rage in 1968 drew attention to them, I am not sure that they persuaded very many people about the righteousness of their cause.

Of course, there is anger and there is anger. And there is such a thing as the right kind of anger at the right time and place. When someone expresses anger correctly and appropriately, it can certainly draw attention to a grievance.

But if the person throws a tantrum that draws more attention to the theatrics than to the cause.

Unfortunately, I did not distinguish very clearly between tantrums and appropriate expressions of anger. Probably because throwing a tantrum in a restaurant, the example I got from the article, seems never to be appropriate or helpful