Back many years ago I saw the Dalai Lama speak in Chicago. Someone asked a question about anger and his response stuck with me all these years. He said that anger is really just fear. When someone presents anger to you or is angry at you the way to avoid responding in kind is to ask the question, "What are they afraid of? What about this moment or me or this topic do they feel threatened by?" By seeing anger as a symptom of fear we open the door to empathy with another.
In the months since the election I see tremendous anger in friends and colleagues and students and certainly myself sometimes. It isn't hard to look deeper and see how much fear feeds that fire. Fear of violence. Fear of loss of liberty. Fear of further marginalization. Fear for friends and loved ones. Even fear of the anger that seems to be coming towards liberals from conservatives.
The anger of people we disagree with or who's lives seem 'other' is far less scrutable. Their anger (especially on television or online) looks like it is entirely about hate of me or my friends and neighbors. It has no context. They have no context besides the frame I already built for them. My visits with people on this trip helps scratch away at the anger that was so visible in the campaign and is still a major part of how the President himself communicates.
In meetings with people I hear themes of fear. There is genuine fear of violence. There is real fear about the economic security of their communities. There is an abiding fear about a loss of rights. There is a fear that people who don't know them want to tell them how to live their lives and judge them for their beliefs and identites. There is a fear of the government.
These fears are, of course, utterly familiar. I hear them all the time from friends and colleagues. I share some of them. When I tell my hosts that people in the city share many of those fears there is a kind of shock. The source of the fear in urban and rural areas is, of course, often the other. I am trying hard to describe our fears and listen to theirs.
We can and should have a conversation about the reasonableness or rationale behind fears. Some of what I hear is based on erroneous information or out and out dis-information. Some of what I see on the left is too, if I'm honest. On many occasions someone quotes a story or event I never heard about. Sometimes I look it up and it did, indeed, happen. Often it was a tiny event that served as evidence for what someone already believed and a media outlet stoked the tiny story for days or weeks. The result is utter amnesia about the event on the left and a mythos around the event on the right. The people I meet aren't stupid or even unsavvy media consumers. They largely see Fox News, for instance, as a biased source. They just see it as biased in their direction.
For many people I speak with, the anger at Trump from the left is totally mysterious. It seems childish and poor sportsman-like. They don't ever hear about the fears that motivate it so the way it shows up in their newsfeed is a curated set of memes or stories that decontextualize the circumstances and turn human beings into cartoon characters. It reminds me a bit of the cartoonish and homogenized version of 'Trump supporter' I see in my own feed.
I'm not against anger. It is a great motivator and we are biologically built to use it in response to danger. The problem is that our anger is a currency that other people now use to turn into clicks and shares and, in turn, currency for their pockets. The internet is full of alchemists and our health and our democracy is being mined for their profit. This requires our participation and right now we are all readily giving it. I've met lots of people I disagree with about almost everything. The one thing we agree on is that we are being used against one another for the profit of others. The alchemists already have their formula down, so the rest of us better start experimenting together with new formulas if we want to get free from our fears.
Scott Illingworth is an Assistant Arts Professor in the Graduate Acting Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and a freelance theatre director.