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Rage has limits as a rhetorical strategy

Rage has emerged as the preferred rhetorical lever in America’s cultural and political arguments. Political activists now use rage as a tactic to lure followers onto the bandwagon of whatever cause can be exploited to advance an agenda or accumulate power. Activating the masses by telling them how angry they should be has a certain functionality to it and feels righteous in the moment. A major problem is that rage seldom ends at the level of messaging. It gets operationalized in violent acts and the destruction of property, as has been realized repeatedly in recent years across America.

The summer of 2020 was filled with rage as “Defund the police” activism substituted chaotic action for genuine dialogue about grievances.

Rage was used after the 2020 election in the runup to the riot of Jan. 6.

Rage is being applied to fuel current public arguments about guns and abortion.

The word “rage” is in the title of a women’s activist group’s campaign this summer: “Summer of Rage” headlines the website. Raging is easier than a summer campaign of creating reasoned persuasion.

Demagogues think rage can move public sentiment faster than doing the heavy lifting of careful thinking and interpersonal convincing required by rational deliberation and debate. Raw anger can be simple to generate and spreads quickly. Rage flourishes in the streets, on social media and — sadly — in the halls of Congress. The former niceties of the legislative arena have disintegrated, as name calling, cheap shots and dehumanization have gotten traction as argumentative devices.

The nation’s news media too often play a role in facilitating rage in the public sphere. The structure and nature of establishment journalism today necessarily reduces sociopolitical controversies into dramatic “stories,” which require a simplification of complex topics. Simplification enhances the emotion of any topic — at the expense of measured reasoning. News coverage in this era requires accompanying video, which too often excites emotion without sufficient context.

The hit-and-run nature of social media especially lends itself to rage and the sensationalism of simplification. Persuasive deliberation struggles in the heat of social media algorithms. Mean tweets may well have contributed to making Trump a one-term president.

Rage has drifted into all corners of society. Normalized rage is found in modern music and “entertainment,” including numerous violent video games where anger is played out vicariously.

A particular f-word is now such a commonplace — even when referring to the president or justices of the Supreme Court — that at some point will lose its ability to shock. Such raw venting serves little rhetorical purpose except to say, “I’m mad … and have no other way to express myself.”

Ultimately, overheated emotion has severe limits in moving a society forward, and indeed, seldom improves a culture. Further, rage often backfires. It often runs its course with no identifiable progress, but the debris of animosity and destruction remains. Rage disrupts cultures quickly, but may take decades to undo.

Rage makes compromise or changing the minds of adversaries unlikely. It is possible to re-engage people with whom one has a policy disagreement, but it’s extremely difficult to re-engage people who have been labeled and dismissed as hateful, evil or bigoted.

Cultures in which rage ultimately wins out descend into chaos with disastrous consequences. Civil societies hinge on being able to decide things through rigorous debate, but rage disrupts the clash of ideas, making true deliberation impossible.

America’s constitutional framers knew there would be tense disagreements in their new nation, but they crafted a system to allow robust debate within and outside of government. For that structure to function, however, there must be a commitment to foundational principles of civility.

John Adams once wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Rage disallows fair rhetorical debate, and as Adams asserts, makes it difficult for Constitutional principles to work effectively. The question now is whether any of America’s national leaders are willing to tone down their own rage and lead the nation in reasoned discourse.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.

Tags American democracy argument Debate Dialogue Emotion Journalism media coverage oversimplification political polarization Rage Reason

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