Dave Smith: Our Gilded Rage

Americans are only getting angrier, and LEOs are increasingly finding themselves on the receiving end of that anger.

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Dave Smith (aka Buck Savage)Dave Smith (aka Buck Savage)Illlustration: Sequoia Blankenship

I think almost all crime fighters are, to some extent, social scientists. Dealing with the dark side of our species and helping the victims of that darkness often makes us pause and reflect on the causes and results of these problems. All one has to do is read a police-only Facebook page to see an array of amateur sociologists' views and opinions about today's social ills.

These posts regularly miss the mark, but they also regularly express anger over one or a multitude of issues; I must admit that I often agree, angrily "Liking" the meme or adding an angry comment. Politicians and academics also try to come up with causes, effects, and solutions to our problems; these also regularly miss the mark and only ramp up the anger, aggravating an already bad cultural situation. In short, it seems to me that anger is becoming a common denominator in our culture.

Perhaps one could say America has become an angry nation. But hasn't America always been "angry?" 1776, 1812, 1861, 1968, are all years of angry violence within our society, and yet today's anger is somehow different, more vociferous and vicious between individuals. When did that start? In 2004, Paul Starobin wrote an article in The Atlantic and noted that Americans were learning to unbridle their anger, that this was a new phenomenon, and that it was a symptom of a healthy culture. Starobin ended his article saying, "America works as well as it does because of the practical use it makes of its anger. Now the country is getting angry again. Perhaps it is not angry enough." Wow, not angry enough?

Well, in 2006 the social anthropologist Peter Wood wrote A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, explaining how the "new anger" was different from previous generations' hostility. American tradition previously recognized anger as a motivator that had to be tempered; something present in us all but a genie that had to be kept in the bottle. George Washington was famous for his temper and his ability to contain it, and in early generations he was considered the model for keeping anger in check. Dr. Wood explains how popular psychology in the 1980s encouraged folks to express, not bottle up, their anger while simultaneously cultural issues were coming to a head, creating a new national anger readily displayed and expressed.

Dr. Wood would update his thoughts in 2019 in a Spectator article entitled, "The gilded rage: why is America so angry?" In this article, Wood counters the critics from his earlier book and reaffirms the conclusions he previously reached about the growing anger in the United States, something law enforcement can confirm from our day-to-day interactions. Before we conservative thinkers hammer our liberal counterparts, we must note that Dr. Wood places responsibility for America's descent into angry discourse at both camps' feet. We ALL feel justified and affirmed in our anger, and the genie is fully out of the dang bottle.

Yes, the anger from the 2000 presidential election became fully inflamed by 2008, and the election in 2016 has unleashed a devastating level of hostility that enflames both sides in today's culture war. Mr. Starobin has gotten his wish, and the creative and destructive energy of anger is on full display for all to see. The problem with this unbridled rage is it silences debate, stymies solutions, and leads to closed camps of thought, leaving no way to resolve the issues. It produces a festering wound in our society, requiring those of us who are responsible for civil order to wait and watch for the next ignition point to create more problems.

Peter Wood ended his 2006 book with a discussion about how anger in America was like the spread of the Africanized bees that in 2005 had finally reached Florida, completing their trek across the continent. He gives us no solution for dealing with the bees or America's anger, quoting Arizona's advice for dealing with such bees: "Run, run, run!" The 2019 Spectator article ends with no solution either, so the good doctor hasn't found a way out since he first identified the problem. It would be great if our leaders, educators, and cultural icons would once again profess and model restraining emotional outbursts, like George Washington did, but I don't see that happening.

For you crime fighters the best course is to understand that the new anger in America isn't going away, and you will be in the crosshairs of much of it. So, it is going to be more important than ever to maintain your awareness, skills, and equipment so when social tensions snap you will be prepared, even at the one-on-one level of confrontation. Sadly, anger is often the trigger for violence and one of the differences between the old anger in our society and the "new anger" is its focus on members of social institutions, especially…you!

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.

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Officer (Ret.)
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