Emotional Control   /   Spring 2010   /    Emotional Control

Anger Management, American-Style: A Work in Progress

Peter N. Stearns

The late summer of 2009 was a bad period, at least symbolically, on the American anger front. A television host preempted an awards ceremony with an ill-tempered (and lengthy) outburst. A tennis star excoriated and threatened a hapless line judge. A representative shouted “You lie!” at the President of the United States on the floor of Congress. More broadly, “town hall” discussions of health care reform frequently degenerated into passionate shouting matches and sometimes outright violence, with one participant having his little finger bitten off after he punched an opponent.

Standard interpretation: there we go again. An American Studies professor is quickly quoted to the effect that the American people have always been coarse. A host of experts are ready to tell us how angry we are and how we need to learn more self-control—just think of the epidemic of road rage. But the actual story is more complicated. It may prove equally troubling, but it differs markedly from the conventional national self-portrait and probably also from the ways foreigners, accustomed to Hollywood violence and American military assertion, think of us as well.

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