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. Ratings service Nielsen begins tracking live TV consumption on Hulu, YouTube

    Retail

    TV ratings service Nielsen will begin tracking how many people watch network TV on YouTube and Hulu to gauge how many viewers broadcast networks have through streaming, the company announced Tuesday.

    Nielsen, a ratings company, is monitoring how many viewers watch live TV on Hulu and YouTube to get a better sense of overall viewership. | [AP]
  2. FWC investigates viral video of shark getting dragged behind speeding boat (w/video)

    Wildlife

    The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating a viral video that shows a shark being dragged behind a boat on a rope as men laugh each time its body slams the water.

    The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating a viral video that shows a shark being dragged behind a boat on a rope as men laugh each time its body slams the water. [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission]
  3. Cheers, whoops for McCain's return, then impassioned speech

    Nation

    WASHINGTON — In high drama at the Capitol, Sen. John McCain on Tuesday delivered a crucial vote in the Republican drive to dismantle the health care law, a win for President Donald Trump and GOP leaders, and then leveled a broadside at how the GOP got there.

    In this image from video provided by C-SPAN2, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. is embraced by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of N.Y. as he arrives of the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. [C-SPAN2 via AP]
  4. For starters: Slumping LoMo, Dickerson not in Rays lineup tonight vs LHP

    Blogs

    1B Logan Morrison and LF Corey Dickerson, two of the main slumpers in the Rays lineup, are not in tonight's lineup with the Orioles throwing LHP Wade Miley.

    Logan Morrison is 0-for-12 on this homestand.
  5. Pence breaks tie as Senate votes to begin debating 'Obamacare' repeal

    Nation

    WASHINGTON — The Senate narrowly voted Tuesday to begin debate on a bill to repeal major provisions of the health care law, taking a pivotal step forward after the dramatic return of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who cast a crucial vote despite his diagnosis of brain cancer.

    Vice President Mike Pence (R) and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus arrive on Capitol Hill, Tuesday in Washington, D.C. [Getty Images]