“It is wise to direct your anger toward problems, not people.” – William Arthur Ward
On Friday November 20th – one week after the Paris terrorist attacks – I was listening to the radio, and heard the announcer speaking about an incident in Toronto, in which a Muslim woman was assaulted as she was walking home after picking up her kids from school. Her hijab was ripped off, and she was then beaten and robbed.
During the program, the announcer said “I was hearing interviews with people who have been attacked, and in those interviews you really hear the anxiety in the voices… ‘Why is this happening? I’ve been here [in Canada] my whole life.'”. She then invited listeners to call the station with their thoughts. To me, the answer is glaringly obvious: a few shameful people are not directing their anger at the appropriate target.
I, too, was revolted by the news of the Paris terrorist attacks, saddened by the senseless loss of life and also angry at the people who did this. I think it’s reasonable to feel a sense of loathing about this incident. However, the problem many of us have is in expressing and directing our anger and frustration appropriately (or in socially acceptable ways). This misdirection isn’t a series of isolated incidents, this, in my opinion, is a systemic human character aberration. For years now, I have seen examples of people who are unable to direct their anger at the proper target.
I realize that there are two separate issues here: directing your anger at the appropriate target, and expressing your contempt in socially acceptable (non-violent) ways. This blog post will deal only with the first one: our frequent misdirection of anger.
Misdirected Anger Examples
- On Monday November 16th, three days after the Paris attacks, a mosque in Peterborough – a town about 125km north-east of Toronto – a mosque was damaged in a deliberately-set fire. The police aren’t establishing a causal link, but the timing does make it look very suspicious.
- There is a pop song called Sucks To Be You, by a group called Prozzak, that contains the following line “I’m a [mild expletive] it’s true; the things she did to me is what I did to you”. This song brings to the surface, what happens in some relationships: the current boyfriend or girlfriend often pays for the sins of the previous one.
- In 1993, John Bobbitt was mutilated by his wife Lorena, after she accused him of physical and emotional abuse, as well as infidelity during their marriage. This case garnered national media attention and elicited a wide range of often polarized views from the public. As the trial was nearing its end, I was listening to the radio, and a reporter was speaking with the National Feminist Association who viewed Lorena as the victim. They told the reporter that they want Lorena to be found not guilty in this trial, because if she is found guilty, then they would go on a rampage and “Bobbitt-ize” the first 100 men they encounter.
- When Pope Benedict visited Great Britain in 2013, the British author Richard Dawkins asked authorities to arrest the Pope to face questions over the Church’s child abuse scandal.
- In 2014, a Russian monument to Steve Jobs was dismantled after Tim Cook revealed that he is gay.
The Scourge of Stimulus Generalization
It’s easy to become an armchair activist – chastising the world while sitting in front of this keyboard – but I’m not going to do that. Combating misdirected anger is going to be an uphill battle because of something my psychology professor told our class back in university.
We human have developed a number of mechanisms to help us survive. One of these is called stimulus generalization. It’s a learned response to a stimulus that is similar, but not identical to, a conditioned stimulus. There’s also its coping counterpart, a defense mechanism called Displacement: discharging pent-up hostility on objects (or people) less dangerous than those which (or who) initially aroused the emotions.
Here’s an example: suppose that you’re a member of a hunting-gathering tribe, and you are out as a group foraging for food. Suddenly, a mountain lion pounces on you. It takes the combined efforts of your entire group to extricate you from the situation and get you to safety. A week later, while still nursing your wounds, you are out foraging for food again, and you see another mountain lion about 100 yards away, moving slowly in your general direction.
How would you react? Obviously, you would do whatever you could to leave the area undetected and avoid engaging the mountain lion. Let’s suppose that another member of your tribe – a very erudite, logical and politically-correct fellow – said “Wait a minute… how do you know that this is the same mountain lion that attacked you? This could be an entirely different animal, with a completely different disposition. Don’t you think it’s unfair to paint all mountain lions with the same brush?”. Technically, he would be correct. Arguably, stimulus generalization is prejudice in its purest form: pre-judging an entire group based solely on the actions of an individual. However, if you followed this eminently logical, politically-correct course of action, you and your tribesmen would find yourselves, in short order, grievously injured and likely shuffling off this mortal coil far sooner than you had anticipated.
Stimulus generalization is one of the ways we’ve learned to adapt to a potentially hostile and dangerous environment, and in doing so, keeping ourselves alive long enough to reproduce and to nurture the next generation into adulthood. I think it’s safe to say that we all, to varying degrees, owe our existence to this survival mechanism.
We Need To Rise Above This
So why should we take deliberate steps to go against something that’s hard-wired into our DNA? Why should you listen to me?
Because I think that we’ve all evolved and matured as individuals, as a society, as a civilization, and as a species. Our world is still frightening, but it is no longer pre-historically savage and brutal. We humans are now educated and knowledgeable enough to understand the many advantages of being kind to one another. We are also sophisticated enough to know that the actions of a few deranged individuals do not represent the mindset of an entire group – especially a religion with over 1.5 billion adherents worldwide.
Right now, I’m just like you. I still can’t wrap my head around the Paris atrocity. I’m unable to comprehend how anyone can walk into a restaurant or a concert venue and display such a callous and wanton disregard for human life. However, I also know that these people don’t represent the beliefs or practices of any religion.
If you’re someone who sees a woman wearing a hijab and think that there’s some sort of connection, then let me be charitable and say that I will acknowledge the primal effects that stimulus generalization may have on you – it’s hard-wired into all of us. However, we humans – all of us – are above responding to that type of primitive survival mechanism. We are civilized; we are rational, thinking, compassionate beings. Please stop even considering this despicable behaviour. That Muslim woman from Toronto who was picking up her kids from school had nothing to do with the Paris attacks. She did not deserve to be assaulted. Those worshippers in Peterborough did not deserve to have their mosque set ablaze. This, in my opinion, should be abundantly obvious to anyone.
It’s OK to feel anger at the many injustices in the world, but it’s not OK to misdirect that anger, and it’s completely unacceptable to act upon that misdirected anger – whether it’s vandalizing property or harming innocent people. Ideally, I would like us all to resist the urge to respond to violence with more violence. In the case of the Paris attacks, your targets are the perpetrators themselves – and not innocent people who just happen to belong to the same religion.
In all other aspects of your life, think carefully about what’s bothering you, and how you’re reacting to it. Identify the source of your frustration or anger, and then ask yourself if you’re treating innocent people unfairly. Focus your consternation on the appropriate target, and spare those who don’t deserve it.