On the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), angered by Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D-Mich) support of the health reform, called the bill a “baby-killer.” Protesters screamed racial epithets at Reps. John Lewis (D-GA) and Andre Carson (D-Ind) and yelled anti-gay slurs at Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) This comes not that long after Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted “You lie!” at the President of the United States during a speech to Congress.
Just in case anyone is inclined toward civility, the Rush Limbaughs (“we must defeat these bastards”) and the Glenn Becks (only “losers” need help…) of the world are fanning every little flame around. The rants and rages are not limited to right-wingers, it’s just that those are the most prominent these days, what with congressmen standing on the balcony whipping up the crowd — while anti-anti-reformers shout their own epithets.
All this rage may not be healthy. A recent ‘Personal Journal’ piece in the Wall Street Journal explored the idea that anger is, in many cases, an illness unto itself.
Scream at the boss? Snap at a colleague? Throw your cell phone into your @#$%%&* computer monitor? If so, you may find yourself headed to anger-management classes, which have become an all-purpose antidote for fit-throwing celebrities, chair-throwing coaches, vandals, road ragers, delinquent teens, disruptive airline passengers, and obstreperous employees.
Demand for such programs is coming from courts seeking alternatives to jail sentences and companies hoping to avoid lawsuits and office blowups. Aware that high-pressure jobs can make for hot tempers, some professions offer pre-emptive anger management. A few state bar associations now require “civility” training for lawyers renewing their licenses. And as of last year, hospitals must have programs for “disruptive” physicians as a condition of accreditation.
Programs run the gamut from $300-an-hour private therapists to one-day intensive seminars, weekly group sessions or online courses with no human interaction. Many advertise that they satisfy court requirements—even if all they offer is six CDs and a certificate of completion.
It’s not clear if the programs work, as few studies have analyzed their effectiveness. There are no licensing requirements for anger-management trainers—anyone can open a business. And since participants don’t usually sign up voluntarily, trainers say it’s possible to complete a program without actually changing one’s behavior.
Part of the problem is that professionals can’t agree whether a pattern of angry outbursts signals a mental illness or simply a behavior issue. As a result, people who need psychiatric help may instead get shunted into a short-term anger-management course. Employers and courts may not adequately evaluate people before sending them for anger interventions, nor provide sufficient follow-up.
There have been some notable failures—the Columbine shooters, for example, attended anger-management classes before their 1999 killing spree. Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama biologist who allegedly killed three colleagues and wounded three more last month, had been advised by prosecutors to take anger-management classes after an earlier incident in 2002. Her lawyer says he doesn’t know if she did.
It is hardly the same, but the rage that exploded into these tragedies is still akin to the shouted obscenities of recent political scenes. Maybe all those shouters aren’t mentally ill, just badly behaved. Maybe they are protected by the First Amendment. Maybe the anger and ugliness is, as more than a few defenders maintain, perfectly excusable in response to “totalitarian tactics” or other perceived wrongs. But does that make it right? Or worth the loss of civility?
Maybe a little anger management — and civility — would be a good idea.