Monday, 27 August 2012

The Futility of Anger

So, in my return to blogging, I was planning to do a series of basically quite angry posts about various issues in the publishing debate. Then I read this article by David Vinjamuri and reconsidered.

Why? Well, not only is it an excellent article, but it manages to be both calm and unprovocative. That is not to say Vinjamuri says nothing which is contentious - he certainly does, and is frank in his appraisal of both sides of the publishing debate - but he manages to cover points of major contention without being provocative about it. There's no animosity here for either side. He just gives his analysis, clearly, succinctly and politely.

And I found myself thinking, 'I write like this all the time in my academic writing (despite Sayre's corollary); why can't I do the same on my blog?'.

(Image by keepcalm-o-matic)

I'm about to start my tenth year of studying philosophy in academic contexts, starting with sixth-form college and going right through to what will be the last year of my PhD. As such, I've spent a huge portion of my time over the last decade in debate with people, ranging from formal academic conferences to setting the world to rights over beers in a pub. I've been involved in pretty much every kind of debate there is, and most of them many times over.

And I have an observation to make, one which should perhaps be obvious but which it's perhaps also worth drawing some attention to:
As the total anger among participants in a debate increases, the likelihood of any participant achieving a useful outcome (asymptotically) approaches zero.
To put it another way, the more angry people in a debate get, the less likely anyone is to benefit from the debate.

I'm going to spend most of the rest of this blog going into this in more formal detail (and, arguably, greater intellectual pretension). If that's not your cup of tea, fair enough; here's the point I'm working towards:
Getting angry while contributing to a debate actively lowers your chances of getting anything out of the debate.
Please bear this in mind next time you're faced with a debate you're prone to getting angry about! I shall do my best to do the same, and we can just imagine all the people, living life in peace.

(Actually, I kind of hate that song, but you see the point, I hope).

Those of you with the saintly patience to put up with my pretentious guff, read on.


Those of you familiar with internet jargon will be familiar with Godwin's Law. Along with Sayre's law (mentioned above), Godwin's law forms a large part of the inspiration for the law stated above (call it, for our purposes 'the principle', in the sense of 'the principle under discussion').

Sidebar: Yes, I'm totally fishing for getting this recorded as my eponym. I make no apologies, and I don't think it compromises my arguments (though by all means, if you find other faults in my arguments, please bring them to my attention).

The principle as stated above can be regarded as a generalisation of Godwin's Law, if we take 'the Nazi Analogy' to be evidence of irrational behaviour caused by mounting anger, and accept Godwin's corollary that an internet discussion should be brought to an end at the point of the first irrational Nazi analogy (because no-one can profit from a debate that has been brought to an end).

Either way, as stated above, I formulated the principle based on what is essentially anecdotal evidence, albeit a very large body thereof. The debates from which I have profited most - and seen others profit most - have all been small, rarely with more than half a dozen participants. They have been calm and amicable, private, detailed and precise. The very best have been one-on-one, most commonly in private discussions I've had with my PhD supervisor.

I have also done my best to pay attention to a number of debates I haven't personally participated in, but have been able to see progressing, such as comment threads on Youtube videos and discussions on various other types of internet forums. In these cases it has been harder to quantify productivity, but rather easier to see anger.


We should start by making sure we are clear about what precisely I mean.

Debate: By 'debate', I mean an exchange of ideas between two or more viewpoints on an issue. This is not really precise enough, however. I certainly don't want to include all points of contention as 'debates'. For example, a parent or teacher in disagreement with their child or pupil about a matter of discipline is not engaged in a debate with the child.

I would in fact be sceptical of allowing children into a debate at all, but only for some definition of 'child' which explicitly included the lack of intellectual maturity suitable for participation in debates. Different people reach intellectual maturity at different ages, and there is always a sliding scale of maturity (it is a trite but obvious joke to point out that there are some adults who seem to lack the intellectual maturity for proper debate). I leave the question of a precise definition of 'intellectual maturity' to another time.

There's a legitimate question over whether anything that could be described by the phrase 'a screaming row' can also be described as a debate. Certainly, I have seen debates devolve into screaming rows. I think if we allow 'screaming rows' into our definition of 'debate', though, we may have to sacrifice some of the precision of the principle. It may - probably does - hold in a looser form when applied to screaming rows (and indeed, all disagreements), but what varies is the definition of a 'useful outcome'.

Useful outcomes: I take the purpose of a debate, for any participant in it, to be ultimately bringing the other participants around to his point of view. Experience suggests that this very rarely happens - if anyone's position shifts at all, it may move towards some midpoint, but it is very unlikely for anybody to switch sides wholesale.

The human brain is a capricious organ, and can throw up all sorts of useful stuff when you least expect (see: almost all my good story ideas). As such, pretty much any useful outcome is conceivable from any given debate, but many are highly improbable. The main likely useful outcomes of a debate, I think, fall into three categories:
  •  New ideas or arguments: A debate may, by focussing your attention surgically on some part of your viewpoint or someone else's, inspire whole new ideas or strategies for criticism. You may spot new ways to challenge your opponent's position, or new weaknesses in your own, or new ways to repair known weaknesses in your own.
  • Increased understanding: I intend this to cover both increasing your opponents' understanding of your position (and thus increasing their ability to see your side of the argument), and increasing your understanding of your opponents' positions. I take it as axiomatic that increased understanding is beneficial in all cases (if nothing else, gaining better understanding of a position better equips you to expose its weaknesses).
  • Practical applications: In a way, this is a sub-set of new ideas, but it could also be classed as a separate category because it involves concrete benefits rather than abstract ones. As an example, if we are having a debate about self-publishing, and my brain throws up a new story idea, I'd count that as a 'new idea'; if instead I came up with a new way of distributing my work, I'd count it as a practical application.
This is a little bit subjective, since we can imagine that if we were having a discussion about story ideas the categorisation might be reversed. The distinction may however remain useful.

I do not, in this case, consider entertainment to be a useful outcome. I am aware that there are people who take a great deal of pleasure in provoking angry rows and watching the results. These people are entitled to find entertainment where they will, but I am of the opinion that in such cases entertainment is a dead end; it has no lasting effect on the troll's life.

'Asymptotically': An asymptotic approach is one which reaches its endpoint only at infinity. So, for example, if you move towards a point by halving your distance to it every second, you actually reach it only after an infinite number of seconds (this is closely related to some of Zeno's paradoxes).

In the case of the principle, 'asymptotically' means that the possibility of a useful outcome will never in reality quite reach zero (unless it's possible for a debate to involve infinite anger, which seems unlikely). This condition is added because of the aforementioned caprice of the human brain, and its ability to occasionally throw off useful ideas at the most unlikely moments.

Another relevant property of many asymptotic approaches is that they tend to be quite swift at first and slow down as they tend towards infinity. So, for example, if we imagine that the possibility of a useful outcome starts at some point near to one (certainty) and decreases by half for each arbitrarily-sized increase in anger, we get a graph that looks like this:

(Where the vertical axis is probability and the horizontal is the number of arbitrary-sized steps in anger levels)

I offer this limited explanation of asymptotes with apologies to the mathematically astute. I'm skipping over a lot of technical detail not just to keep this post simple but also because I'm not terribly confident on the algebra underlying asymptotes.


There are a few different phenomena which I think account for the principle. First and foremost, there is the problem of entrenchment. This is the phenomenon whereby, if you feel threatened, you become defensive. I take it that anger is threatening, for broad definitions of 'threatening'.

Becoming defensive of your own ideas makes you less inclined to accept input from others, which greatly diminished the likelihood of you increasing your understanding of their positions; you become less likely to take their ideas seriously. In extreme cases, a kind of paranoia sets in which interferes with one's ability to take one's opponents in a debate as sincere, never mind intellectually astute.

By focussing you on the ideas you already hold, entrenchment also cuts down the chance of developing new practical applications (which are essentially relations between the concepts you hold and external phenomena).

Again in extreme cases, rising anger and thus external threat may also cause panic-type responses, a sort of 'man the barricades, throw everything we've got at them!' attitude which actually interferes with your ability to think about anything at all. I'm speaking as someone who's had panic problems in contentious situations on a handful of occasions, and my experience has been that it drastically interfered with my ability to think. Thus, particularly drastic levels of anger in a debate may even affect your brain's ability to come up with new ideas.

Entrenchment covers what happens when other people get angry with you and you become defensive. It's also possible (though in my experience far less common in debates as defined above) that you may instead become placatory, and act as if you have accepted your opponent's position just to calm them down. This is less damaging than entrenchment, but it's still not going to help you improve your own ideas at all. It may lead to increased understanding, if you're lucky, but you may equally abandon any such increase the moment you revert to your own position.

Also of import is the effect your anger may have on the debate, and here there can be two effects. First is that getting angry interferes with your ability to think rationally (if nothing else, common definitions of rationality take emotion as the opposite of rationality; anger is an emotion, so if you're spending more of your energy on anger you're spending less on rationality). Useful outcomes such as those outlined above have, in my experience, been far more common when people are at their most rational, so anger directly interferes with your path to useful outcomes.

Secondly, anger is self-propagating. If you get angry, you are more likely to do things which make other people angry. You are more likely to lash out, verbally or in very extreme cases physically. This, of course, is the essence of Godwin's Law; 'the Nazi Analogy' marks the point at which some participant in the debate has become so irrational, normally due to anger or another high emotion, that the debate is no longer likely to prove useful.

And if you make other people angry, you're more likely to find yourself entrenching or placating (and given that you're already angry, placation seems unlikely).

Analysis and Comment

I hope I've rendered the principle plausible. A few additional remarks are now in order. I think it is obvious that there is some relationship between anger and the decreasing utility of debate - that, I hope, was obvious from the start. I would like to start this section by explaining why I believe the principle to be the correct (or at least preferable) statement of that relationship.

I mentioned above that the most productive debates I've been in have been small. I've also noted that internet debates - and particularly big, open-access ones - tend to be particularly acrimonious (Sayre's Law may be at play here as well). This is a reason to prefer a formulation of the principle which relates lack of positive outcomes to total anger rather than average anger.

Consider: the larger a debate, the more people are involved. But the average level of anger among them may be equal to that among participants in a much smaller debate. The total anger, however, will be much greater. And we have already discussed the probability that anger is self-propagating. The more anger there is flying around in a debate, the faster it will propagate.

This makes internet debates in particular breeding grounds for hostility. Lots of people, all feeding off each others' anger, all presumably also getting frustrated at the failure of the debate to bear useful fruit (well, except trolls, but we don't care about them).

I'm not claiming, by the way, that the principle is the sole determining factor in the likelihood of a debate's producing useful outcomes. Just that if you managed to hold all other factors constant while increasing the total anger, you'd see something closely approximating to the asymptotic graph proposed.

So what can we take away from this? First and foremost is the point mentioned in the corollary given above: that, given the choice, there is no benefit to getting angry. If you have sufficient self-control that you can choose whether to write an angry response or a calm one to a given provocation (and hey, even the most saintly of folks have sore spots where they won't have a choice - more on that in a moment), it is always in your best interests to go for the calm option.

 (Image by keepcalm-o-matic)

If you get angry, you put people on the defensive. You also reinforce whatever other anger is out there, thus possibly putting yourself on the defensive. On both counts, you reduce the possibility of useful outcomes for everyone involved. I suggested above that the ultimate goal of a debate should be to convince your opponents to switch to your view - if you put them on the defensive, you are driving them in the wrong direction. I'm sure I could give a systematic description of the relationship between that ultimate goal and the more mundane categories of useful outcomes, but we're running way long on this one already.

So that's why you should try not to get angry. The second key corollary is that you should try to refrain from making your opponents angry. This is a risky thing to say, because you can't control when your opponents get angry and you don't want to end up just caving the moment they get shirty with you. That's just placation, as described in the previous section.

However, there is such a thing as politeness. I actually know people who have stated the belief that you should go out of your way to offend people whose views you strongly disagree with because you're more likely to 'shake them out of their ignorance' with 'shock tactics'. I have never experienced or heard of a case in which this worked. In my experience, absolutely universally, provocation has put people on the defensive, closed them up, and killed any serious chance for progress.

This is something that happens a lot in politics, I think. It's why noisy fringe interests increasingly dominate our political systems; because they deal in shock and offence, thus steadily becoming more entrenched themselves and pushing everyone else to entrench. It's very hard to keep calm when someone's raving about how abortion doctors should be shot or all soldiers deserve life in prison (I take these to be roughly equivalent extreme views, one from the right and one from the left. I have heard both, though the former rather more frequently than the latter).

The most productive debates I've had have all been ones in which provocative statements were kept to a minimum and all parties tried to take account of the sensitivities of others. This helped everyone stay calm and rational. Exactly what constitutes politeness will vary from debate to debate (for example, setting the world to rights in a pub, it's usually more OK to swear profusely than in a PhD viva), but I feel this is a question that can be navigated with nothing more than a little empathy and caution.

In summation, then, there are two main upshots of the principle, if you accept it: first, try to keep calm yourself, and second, try to avoid making others angry where possible.

It's been a bit of a labour getting to two such obvious points, hasn't it? I felt it was worth it to make sure I've covered all my bases, though. It would be hilariously ironic, after all, if I was careless and this turned out to be my first blog post to produce an angry row in the comments (I say this in the hope of forestalling such a debate). In all seriousness, though, I would love to collect more opinions on the principle. Does it match your experience?

Appendix: The Problem of Verification

A quick note on evidence and proof. My own experiences are fairly consistent in their support of the principle. Of course, anecdotal evidence is never good evidence, particularly when limited to a single perspective. Still, I don't think the principle is completely unfalsifiable.

I take it as axiomatic that anger can't be precisely quantified. That's not an uncontroversial claim, but it's where I'm coming from (and I can cite good philosophical arguments on the point if challenged). On the other hand, with a suitably refined framework, I think useful outcomes can be counted.

If anyone's still interested enough by this point (and I recognise this is a ludicrously long blog post already), here's the best kind of test I've been able to imagine for the principle. You can't just measure the anger in a debate and then count useful outcomes, because you can't just measure the anger. But you can find debates as they happen, survey the participants afterwards about useful outcomes, and then compare that to how angry the debate seems to have been. At best it will give you a statistical distribution, but that's at least capable of refuting the principle if it's wrong.

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