By Len Zheleznyak
When I was a child my father often read to me the stories of the Olympians. One of the greatest rivalries in those stories was between a brother and sister, Ares and Athena. Athena was born fully formed from the mind of Zeus and was the goddess of wisdom and war. Ares was conceived in spite and born to anger. He was the god of murder and war.
Theirs was a conflict between rage and reason. They were polar opposites.
RAGE VS REASON
Athena was a defender. Her symbol was a shield, the fabled aegis. Athena was a strategist, a thinker, a planner. If she battled it was for justice, though she preferred peaceful settlements over violence.
Ares was quite different. He represented the lust for blood. His symbol was the spear, an offensive weapon. He fought simply for the thrill of killing, justice be damned. He marched to war with his sister Eris (Strife) and his children Phobos (Panic) and Deimos (Rout).
Athena was worshiped in Athens, a democracy. Ares was worshiped in Sparta, a military oligarchy.
Sparta (Ares) fought and won a war against Athens (Athena), installed the government of Thirty Tyrants, and then initiated a blood purge in which 1500 Athenians were put to death without trial. Democracy in Athens never fully recovered.
Why the lengthy background on Greek mythology and history? Because the conflict didn’t end with Sparta conquering Athens. In our modern political climate rage is still at war with reason, and, sadly, it appears rage is winning.
THE BATTLE CONTINUES
Research psychologists have discovered much about anger in general and political anger in particular.
For example, we know that as anger mounts into rage, people tend to see things in simplistic either/or categories, black and white. I’m right! You’re wrong!
We also know that acting out of anger fuels more anger, acting out of rage fuels more rage.
What’s worse, we’ve also learned that when anger is combined with politics, anger causes many people to assimilate information in ways that support their biases and prejudices. Angry people are less likely to accept alternative points of view, or even listen to them.
Politicians understand this toxic mix and have sparked anger and rage as means of achieving their goals. Why? Because it’s far easier than reason and persuasion.
If politicians can make you angry, consistently, frequently, then they create a self-reinforcing cycle of anger that helps them. Your ability to think about a problem, critically, coolly, in a detached way, is subverted by your anger, which prevents you from absorbing information that might contradict your biases.
Bottom line: Politicians don’t want you thinking. They want you raging.
MARCHES & ABORTION, ARES & ATHENA
Three examples from our modern politics illuminate the phenomena I am describing:
- The Women’s March
- The Covington High School March for Life incident
In an effort to discredit the Women’s March, opposing partisans have used the anti-Semitic actions of a few to spark anger towards everyone marching, the vast majority of whom don’t hate Jews. Doesn’t matter. Every other important issue raised by the Marchers has been eclipsed by angry accusations of support for Jew haters.
Similarly, in an effort to discredit the politics of the current President, a heavily edited and decontextualized video of teenage boys wearing red MAGA hats was used to reinforce the idea that the President’s supporters must be racist because the President himself must be racist.
Abortion is perhaps the best example. The epithets hurled by each side—baby killer, woman hater, etc.—render any kind of reasoned discussion impossible. When everyone believes that all parties to a debate are either baby killers or woman haters, the only option is total war followed by complete victory over the enemy.
While fueling anger and rage is convenient for politicians, there is a dark side that we ought not forget. The victims of anger often become resentful. They rightfully feel maligned and likely won’t agree to the prescriptions or solutions offered by those who use anger against them.
They may themselves start to become angry at their political opponents and the cycle of anger to rage can lead to violence. That’s not what any of us should want.
Will we go the way of Ares followed by strife, panic, and finally rout? Or will we choose to follow Athena, and choose to use our reason? Our answers to these questions determine our future, so let us think well and answer carefully.
Len Zheleznyak is a business executive, immigrant from the former Soviet Union, husband, father of two empowered little girls, and a lover of all things in outdoor Colorado.