Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Hardly an angry black man

In different societies, groups with a higher percentage of reasonable people like Obama come out ahead. But really successful societies always include people who sometimes are angry and spiteful. 

New York Times

In different societies, groups with a higher percentage of reasonable people like Obama come out ahead. But really successful societies always include people who sometimes are angry and spiteful. 

Dinesh D'Souza's new book about President Barack Obama is wrong in many ways. But its biggest error may be its premise. • The title of the book, The Roots of Obama's Rage, makes as much sense as "The Roots of the Pope's Atheism," or "The Causes of Shakespeare's Illiteracy." • America wants to know not why Obama is so angry, but why Obama seems incapable of anger. Recent commentary has questioned not only whether Obama experiences ordinary emotions, but whether he is (1) a milquetoast, (2) an embarrassment, or (3) really a black man. • The notion of Obama as an angry black man in disguise, peddled during the 2008 election, has been thoroughly debunked. Many liberals believe Obama does not throw elbows because he does not want to jeopardize his tenuous hold on white voters. This may be true, but would it really upset white voters if the president showed anger at a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

I think the primary reason the president never gets angry in public is that he does not believe anger is productive. Obama is a practical man. His foundational rock is not ideological but affective: He is reasonable and wants to be seen as reasonable. Hence his plea: "Can't we disagree without being disagreeable?"

Reasonable people don't harm common interests. "I'm not willing to let working families across this country become collateral damage for political warfare here in Washington," Obama said last week as he gave up a campaign promise not to extend tax cuts for the wealthy, in exchange for extended unemployment benefits.

Obama represents a widespread pattern among liberals. Talk radio experiments featuring left-wing ranters fail, even as there is insatiable appetite for right-wing fulmination. Given a choice between compromise and absolutism, reasonable people seek the middle ground. This is why many commentators see the Democratic Party as the party of compromise.

This is a grown-up attitude. If your neighbors blast loud music at 2 a.m., it may feel right — but isn't reasonable — to aim giant speakers at their house and blast them out of bed at 4 a.m.

When scientists study different societies, groups with a higher percentage of reasonable people come out ahead of groups that have fewer reasonable people. But here's the curious thing: Really successful societies always include people who sometimes act in angry, vindictive and spiteful ways.

These people are not aberrations or cautionary signposts. They are essential. Get rid of them, and the group will function less well.

Take a common traffic scenario. Police cordon off a lane for road construction. They post signs a mile ahead of the roadblock telling drivers to merge into the remaining lane. The reasonable thing is to merge as quickly as possible. But this creates free passage in the blocked lane, and selfish drivers take advantage of the situation. They zip ahead of everyone else using the blocked lane. This makes the jam worse for everyone, because the sneaky cars merge close to the roadblock.

In a world of reasonable people, everyone would ignore the free riders. But in a world where some people are prone to vindictive anger, a driver might aggressively take matters into his own hands. He could move his car partly into the blocked lane in order to prevent others from racing ahead. He does this because he cannot stand to have others take advantage of him. The driver who acts in this way can be the recipient of violent road rage. He receives no thanks from anyone. But by deterring freeloaders, he can make the jam less onerous for everyone.

The Ultimatum Game is a laboratory experiment along the same lines: Here's how it works: You and I have to divide $100. I get to pick first, and you are allowed only to accept or reject my offer. If I offer to give you $1 and keep $99, that isn't fair. On the other hand, it isn't reasonable for you to reject my offer, because that would mean neither of us gets anything. In a perfectly reasonable world, your getting $1 is better than your getting nothing.

Around the world, human beings do not act reasonably in this situation. They reject an unfair offer even if that means they get nothing.

Spiteful? Yes. Necessary? Yes. Knowing that people will sacrifice their interests — and the common interest — to enforce fairness prompts most people to offer a fair division in the first place.

In this way, spite is a form of altruism. It leads people to sacrifice their own well-being to enforce group norms. After the recent financial meltdown, there were people willing to let the global financial system collapse in order to punish the bankers who led us over the precipice. Obama, ever reasonable, helped the bankers to their feet because bringing them down would have brought all of us down, too.

The lesson of spite is not that people should always act unreasonably. Societies with lots of spiteful people do far worse than societies where most people act reasonably. But liberals are wrong to dismiss spite, anger and the urge to retaliate as unsavory vestiges from our evolutionary past. Within limits, these emotions are salutary.

Debu Purohit, a marketing professor at Duke University, told me he used to have trouble persuading his daughter to get ready on time for school, which made him late for work. No matter how much she dallied, she knew Purohit was reasonable and would get her to class on time, even if that meant inconveniencing himself. So one day, instead of taking her to school, he took her to work with him — and then dropped her at school at 11 a.m., which got her in trouble. He never had to argue with her again about getting ready on time.

"You have to act slightly crazy to get them to believe you will follow through," Purohit said.

Memo to Obama: Being always unreasonable is crazy, but if you're always reasonable, you might as well hang a sign around your neck that says, "Exploit Me."

Shankar Vedantam is the author of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.

Hardly an angry black man 12/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 11, 2010 3:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. GOP's new repeal bill would likely leave millions more uninsured, analyses suggest

    Health

    WASHINGTON — The latest Republican bid to roll back the Affordable Care Act would likely leave millions of currently insured Americans without health coverage in the coming decades, and strip benefits and protections from millions more, a growing number of independent studies suggest.

    Vice President Mike Pence listens as President Donald Trump talks to reporters about the Graham-Cassidy health care bill during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in New York. [Evan Vucci | Associated Press]
  2. Mueller casts broad net in requesting extensive records from Trump White House

    Nation

    WASHINGTON — The special counsel investigating Russian election meddling has requested extensive records and email correspondence from the White House, covering the president's private discussions about firing his FBI director and his response to news that the then-national security adviser was under …

    In a photograph provided by the Russian foreign ministry, President Donald Trump meets with Sergei Lavrov, left, the Russian foreign minister, and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, May 10, 2017. Special counsel Robert Mueller is interested in this meeting, where Trump said dismissing FBI Director James Comey had relieved "great pressure" on him, the New York Times reported on Sept. 20. [Russian Foreign Ministry via  New York Times]
  3. 'We will find our island destroyed': Hurricane Maria demolishes Puerto Rico

    News

    SAN JUAN — Sleepless Puerto Ricans awoke Wednesday knowing to expect a thrashing from the most ferocious storm to strike the island in at least 85 years. They met nightfall confronting the ruin Hurricane Maria left behind: engorged rivers, blown-out windows, sheared roofs, toppled trees and an obliterated electric …

    Rescue vehicles from the Emergency Management Agency stand trapped under an awning during the impact of Hurricane Maria, after the storm  hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The U.S. National Hurricane Center says Maria has lost its major hurricane status, after raking Puerto Rico. But forecasters say some strengthening is in the forecast and Maria could again become a major hurricane by Thursday. [Carlos Giusti | Associated Press]
  4. Obamacare repeal bill offers flexibility and uncertainty

    Politics

    The latest Republican proposal to undo the Affordable Care Act would grant states much greater flexibility and all but guarantee much greater uncertainty for tens of millions of people.

  5. Manafort offered to give Russian billionaire 'private briefings' on 2016 campaign, report says

    Nation

    Less than two weeks before Donald Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign chairman offered to provide briefings on the race to a Russian billionaire closely aligned with the Kremlin, the Washington Post reports.

    Paul Manafort, then Donald Trump's campaign chairman, talks to reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. [Associated Press]