Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire, Hang Them Up on a Telephone Wire

"2 Men Looking On" from the "Perched" series by artist Jodi Chamberlain. Her multimedia work can be found at http://www.jodichamberlain.com (just click on the painting). Copyright by Jodi Chamberlain; used with permission of the artist.

By way of an introduction, I did some Internet research on the origin of the expression “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire, hang them up on a telephone wire” and found this reference to an 1810 poem by the English writer William Blake:

 The Liar

Deceiver, dissembler
Your trousers are alight
From what pole or gallows
Shall they dangle in the night?
 
When I asked of your career
Why did you have to kick my rear
With that stinking lie of thine
Proclaiming that you owned a mine?
 
When you asked to borrow my stallion
To visit a nearby-moored galleon
How could I ever know that you
Intended only to turn him into glue?
 
What red devil of mendacity
Grips your soul with such tenacity?
Will one you cruelly shower with lies
Put a pistol ball between your eyes?
 
What infernal serpent
Has lent you his forked tongue?
From what pit of foul deceit
Are all these whoppers sprung?
 
Deceiver, dissembler
Your trousers are alight
From what pole or gallows
Do they dangle in the night?

If you do your own Internet research (and of course you do; you’re probably verifying this on Google right now), you’ll find numerous references to this Blake poem, some of them in fairly reliable places. There’s only one small problem: William Blake didn’t write it.

Additional research has yet to turn up the actual author of the poem or its place and date of origin. I did find, however, that the word “alleged” had at one time been attached to the claims of Blake’s authorship. Some of those who later reposted the poem and its origin myth carefully edited out the word “alleged,” perhaps to boost their own authority. I’ll leave it to the Blake scholars to hash out why this could or could not possibly be an obscure verse from the poet who gave us “Tyger tyger, burning bright”—which, when you say it loud, does share some strong poetic similarities with “Liar, liar, pants on fire” after all.

• • •

I am constantly amazed and dismayed by the number of people who both post and spread unproven statements and “facts” on the Internet. Quite a few of these people are close friends, many of them remarkably intelligent people. Even so, they often clamor to be the first ones to expose some new controversy or conspiracy via Facebook or Twitter. Maybe it’s the journalist in all of us, desperate for a scoop, but if there’s one thing I learned while staying with my ailing father and watching endless episodes of Judge Judy, Judge Jeanine, and Judge Joe Brown, it’s that hearsay is irrelevant in a court of law.

Let’s stop a moment to take a look at that word, hearsay. We hear something, then we say it. From ear to mouth in an almost direct line that bypasses the brain. It’s a key ingredient of soap operas and celebrity gossip, yet it also sadly infects the serious discussions of the day’s major issues. Perhaps in this technological age we need new words for hearsay, such as readshare or seetweet. “I read those statistics on someone’s Facebook wall, so I immediately ‘shared’ them by reposting on my wall.” “I saw a sports commentator on television talking about that big trade that might happen, and so I tweeted that it actually had because he sounded so convincing.”

Another classic example is the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that went viral immediately after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Here’s the sentence in question: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” I have no problem with the quote itself, but King never said it. All credit is due to Jessica Dovey, who prefaced an actual King quote with that sentence. In its original form, she even set her own thought outside of the actual quotation, clearly distinguishing her words from his. (The teacher in me can’t help but point this out: Punctuation matters!) As the quote ricocheted around the Internet, however, the quotation marks got knocked off and the two speakers’ sentiments became one. Since the Internet never forgets, there are now thousands—if not millions—of lingering misattributions.

After this incident, I began to wonder just how many of those inspirational/motivational “posters” that people share contain actual quotes from the the pictured sources. With today’s technology, anyone with a basic knowledge of photo editing can attribute just about anything to anyone and fool millions in the process. Just look at all those often-shared fake Ryan Gosling quotes. It’s all in good fun…until someone starts attributing hateful or hurtful language to him. (Chances are probably pretty high that someone already has.) Then what started as parody or satire slides uncomfortably across a blurry line into libel and slander.

I know I come across as a killjoy here, but on matters like this, I reveal my true colors as a classic skeptic. I reserve judgment until I can ascertain the facts of the matter, and I remain open to the possibility that objective reasoning may lend credence and support to multiple sides of an argument, even those that might contradict my own previously held beliefs. Like William Blake and many other artists of the Romantic era, I seek a direct link to the primary source—though, devout skeptic that I am, I question his subsequent claims to a mystical intimacy with a supremely divine being. Perhaps his position in literary history—at the crossroads of the Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) and the Romantic era (or Age of Emotion)—describes my own inner identity crisis as a writer. I would also argue that it describes the manner in which America currently teeters as a political force in the world, and our casual (not causal) relationship with the truth seems to be a reliable measure of that tension.

As an educational writer, I am often governed by a remarkably strict and lengthy set of mostly objective state standards and guidelines, even as I am asked to write fairly sentimental pieces, such as articles about developmentally challenged children overcoming adversity. Age of Reason, meet Age of Emotion. For a recent series of writing assignments, I was required to provide two credible and reliable sources for each sentence (yes, each sentence) in nonfiction articles. When and where possible, I was to cite the primary source—in other words, an eyewitness account or an original text, not some second-hand or third-hand citation or discussion. After all, elementary school standards (i.e. grades one through six) stress the significance and importance of primary sources in research. This is not “elitist, ivory tower” graduate-school-level academia stuff.

In my own college-level classrooms, I likewise impressed upon students the necessity of primary sources in validating claims, especially as we grappled with sensitive and controversial issues such as abortion, capital punishment, and religious freedom. By extension, I reminded them that primary sources were crucial in evaluating the claims made by advertisers and politicians, both of which would often seek to twist the truth to suit their own agendas. By further extension—and hoping to avoid turning those young people from skeptics into cynics—I reminded them that they needed to evaluate the primary source itself and take into account any conflicts of interest. After all, the makers of Brand X are likely to promote studies that show that their product is more effective than Brand Z, especially when those studies have been planned and paid for by the makers of Brand X.

I had hoped that this kind of education, common in most schools and colleges, would serve the students well in their adult lives and help them to make objective, reasonable, and justifiable decisions on all matters great and small, from the election of presidents to the selection of a new toothpaste. (Is it more important to remove plaque, avoid gingivitis, eliminate bad breath, or have whiter teeth? Honestly, a skeptic can spend hours analyzing the endless varieties of toothpastes offered by each brand these days.) I wanted students to realize the great potential and power they had to sort through all of the distractions and clamor around them in order to get at the truth, even if that earned truth challenged their preconceptions and ideological dispositions. In other words, I wanted them to be open to new information and perspectives, even if this led them to change their minds. After all, the human capacity for change and adaptation is a key aspect of our forward-moving evolution. Yes, I said it— and if you don’t believe in change or evolution, enjoy the view from your rut.

In the end, however, it appears that preconceptions and ideological dispositions still get the best of most of us. On social networks, people on the left post and spread unverified stories and statistics that seem to prove their political points; people on the right post and spread unverified stories and statistics that seem to prove their political points. Some of these are easily proven to be hyperboles, misstatements, or outright lies; others are carefully twisted and redirected versions of the truth (the process we all know as “spinning”). In nearly all instances, however, the posters (and re-posters) risk looking either naïve, misinformed, ignorant, or just plain stupid when the claims are analyzed and the facts made clear.

That risk—and the willingness of so many people to accept it for the most trivial of reasons—fascinates me. Checking the validity of some of these claims and stories takes less than a minute, especially if you’re clued in to sites such as snopes.com and politfact.com. (Disclaimer: These sites are good places to check first, but on their own they are not definitive arbiters of right and wrong. They can, however, provide valuable leads in a search for those coveted primary sources I mentioned earlier.) Despite that, there is still the temptation to hit that “share” button, which takes but a split second and provides that little hit of adrenaline that information junkies seem to crave. After all, if they wait too long, someone else might scoop them and ruin their status as the first (if not primary) source of breaking news. Take that, FoxNews and CNN!

(Topical side note: The death of Whitney Houston on February 11 was a prime example of this. Even before reports had been confirmed, dozens of people raced to post the story as fact on their Twitter and Facebook feeds. Perhaps they all wished to be, if I may twist the New York Times’s catchphrase slightly, the “tweeters of record.”)

In many instances, perhaps, the risk of being wrong is offset by a firm belief that we are right. Even if the statement is later shown to be false, the underlying “truthiness” of it remains. (Thank you, Stephen Colbert, for having introduced that word into the public lexicon. We clearly needed it.) To explain this more plainly, the truth doesn’t need to actually be true as long it truthfully supports what we truly believe to be true. This is why politicians can make wild claims in our legislative chambers (such as the “fact” that Planned Parenthood’s primary mission is to provide abortions) and later claim “no harm no foul” because the easily disproven “fact” was simply alluding to a basic “truth” anyway. (If I had to allow such reasoning in my classes…well, I couldn’t and wouldn’t. It undermines the entire premise of education, not to mention making a travesty of logic and reason. Civilized people simply don’t entertain this kind of idiocy.)

When it comes to believing the unbelievable (or giving credence to the incredible), it’s not just the lies that people tell that intrigue me—it’s also the lies that they hear and subsequently believe or let pass unchallenged. This takes us back to the crux of the reposting problem: people believe and spread untruths because, in some strange way, they WANT the untruths to be true somehow. Testing such a claim would be evidence of weakness or a lack of confidence: If it feels or sounds right to you, it probably is—no further research necessary. In other words, if you’re a cynic, pointing out hypocrisy justifies your cynicism. If you’re paranoid, spreading conspiracy theories justifies your paranoia. If you’re (liberal/conservative), propagating the latest (conservative/liberal) scandal gives you that higher moral standing that you just know your side deserves. If you hate Company A or Team B, then that damning news about Company A or Team B simply MUST be true.

So let’s bring this full circle. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that you can learn a whole lot about a person from the lies he or she tells. Further, you can tell even more about that person from the lies he or she is eager to believe, especially at the risk of reputation and social standing. The more entrenched the belief, the less likely the person is to respond to reason. As a result, dissonance becomes an unavoidable consequence, and with that dissonance comes discomfort, anger, and sometimes violence. In all the hullabaloo, reason and logic are often the first casualties.

Perhaps a first-hand case study would help to illustrate the point. At a town-hall-style meeting a couple of years ago, Senator Bernie Sanders was taking questions from the crowd. One man, most likely a member of the Tea Party, asked him to explain why the government keeps raising his taxes. Sanders pointed out to him that President Obama had just passed tax cuts for the majority of wage-earners, but this man was insistent: His taxes had gone up. Sanders tried to reason with him, pointing out that he appeared to fit the demographic of people who received a tax cut, but no, there was no reasoning with the man. His taxes had gone UP. The discussion, as Sanders subsequently remarked in his typically brusque style, had reached an impasse and could not continue in that forum.

Had the man’s taxes gone up? Probably not. But here’s a pet theory I have about all of this. Had the amount of money being taken out of his weekly or monthly paycheck gone up? That seems likely, especially since many companies have been increasing the employee co-share of medical benefits as health insurance costs continue to rise. The disgruntled man might easily have lumped all of these paycheck deductions under the simple heading of “taxes,” giving him evidence, however misinterpreted, for his claim and belief. And what legislation had been introduced to try to deal with the problem of rising medical insurance costs? Why, the very legislation that members of the Tea Party are dead-set against.

The man at the town hall meeting was angry, and he wanted that anger to be heard and validated. When the facts didn’t serve that purpose, he was faced with a dilemma. He could change his mind, or he could stand his ground.

His final decision: ignore the facts. Therein lies the root of the word ignorance: someone who can be shown the truth yet insist on the lie. Someone who can be told that something is fiction and yet still believe that it’s fact. In this respect, ignorance is a worse trait than naïveté or stupidity.

Just consider the synonyms for the feeble-minded: words like dull and dim. Ignorant people are hardly dull or dim. They carry the full force of their beliefs behind them. Their faith in one unwavering, indisputable view of the world can be both violent and catastrophic. After all, when one person runs through the village with his pants on fire, he or she can spread the flames to every surrounding building. That makes the practice an emergency worthy of public concern.

Luckily, we are all able firefighters. With all this “Information Age” technology around us, the truth is closer to each and every person than it ever has been in the history of mankind. And yet, the most powerful tools can often be used both to create and to destroy. A hammer can help build a hope chest for our dearest possessions, but it can also break a window or kill a man. One post can spark the overthrow of dictators and the rise of democracy, but it can also ruin careers and destroy a country’s economy.

I’ll end this section with a paraphrase of Tim Gunn from the reality show “Project Runway”: “Use the wall thoughtfully.” He was talking about shelves of fashion accessories, but he might just as well have been talking about Facebook. Whatever we do, we should do it thoughtfully, with care and consideration. To do otherwise would be, quite simply, uncivilized.

(NOTE: There is a second and perhaps even third part to this post already underway…)

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American Anger Pt. 2: Where Does It Hurt?

American Anger

Part Two: Where Does It Hurt?

 Preface: This is Part Two of a longer project on the topic of American anger. Part One was entitled “Use Your Words.” Subsequent entries will be posted throughout the coming year.

 From Part One: As you’ll no doubt quickly note, my take on American anger (at this time) is a rather personal approach; your take on the topic may differ. Despite that, I’ll be using terms like “Americans “ and the first-person-plural pronoun “we” rather liberally throughout the entries. I do this merely as shorthand, fully aware that it’s literary sleight of hand, both a contrivance and a conceit. I don’t intend to suggest that there are absolute universal truths here, especially since the insistence on universal absolutes in society tends to generate the very anger I’ll be analyzing.

 As always, thanks for reading, and even more thanks to those who respond to provoke or inspire further insight and discussion.

• • •

John Lydon of Public Image Ltd., from the video "Rise"

“Anger is an energy.”

(from the 1986 song “Rise” by Public Image, Ltd.; John Lydon and Bill Laswell, cowriters)

Taken from the words of interrogation victims during the height of South African apartheid, the Public Image, Ltd. (PIL) song “Rise” was originally entitled “South African Song.” The track features ex-Sex Pistol John (“Johnny Rotten”) Lydon screaming the above sentiment over an insistent drumbeat and the jangling guitar playing of Steve Vai. Speaking about the victims’ reports, Lydon said, “I put them together because I thought it fitted in aptly with my own feelings about daily existence.” (interview with Smash Hits magazine, February 1986) Though ostensibly a song of angry protest, the title of “Rise” refers to a Celtic blessing, sung as a sort of counterpoint chorus: “May the road rise with you.”

For a number of America’s pogo-ing punks back in the 80s, the British import “Rise” struck a deep chord. That inner rage and turmoil—that combination of moral outrage and confusion—led to many a spastic outburst on the dance floor, my own included. Though a mild-mannered college student by day, my inner id emerged on summer nights in Boston clubs like Spit and DV8. For me, music was a possible form of protest, a bullhorn for the bullied.

Many of us may not have known what we were lashing out against at the time, but it felt great, perhaps even (dare I say it?) cathartic. Lydon himself admitted that he had never been to South Africa and had appropriated the material because it could “apply to lots of other situations.” (New Music Express, February, 1986) When he sang that “anger is an energy,” he made the emotion as generic as the title of the album on which “Rise” can be found: “album.” (If you had the cassette, the release was called “cassette,” and the compact disc was subsequently titled—oh, never mind; you already guessed. Anyway, the video for the song, entitled “video,” can be seen here: http://www.pilofficial.com/video.html#promo) Anger became a catch-all word, something that all the young punks could experience and translate for themselves, whether thrashing about on the dance floor or pounding the walls at home.

Parents of nearly every generation are probably quite familiar with this sort of behavior. The constant complaint from young people is that parents and society “just don’t understand.” When you press for details, they’re few and far between. You can flash back in time to the film “Rebel Without a Cause” or flash forward to teen literature’s current obsession with marginalized monsters and dystopian societies to see this dynamic in play. In some instances (books dealing with racism, poverty, and homophobia, for example), claims to anger and alienation are valid and justified. In many, however, it’s a hyperfictionalized affect, a pose as phony as Holden Caulfield, narrator and self-appointed arbiter of phoniness in the book Catcher in the Rye. Despite all the care, cash, and comfort provided by the typical parent, teenagers feel compelled to rebel and revolt.

This brings me back to my original question: Why are Americans so angry despite our claims of being the best at nearly everything in the world? Is it that we, as a nation, are still stuck in some sort of cultural adolescence? And if so, why?

"SYR" by James "Mayhem" Mahan; artwork inspired by listening to Sonic Youth Recordings from the collection "Convoluted Noise" and available here: http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/328357 (You can also just click on the image.)

Numerous articles during the presidential primaries have noted that Republican candidates are trying to “tap into” the anger of American voters as if it were some kind of electrical current. In many instances, both the media and the campaigns are working feverishly to hype and stoke that anger. If anger is indeed an energy, it’s readily available, highly combustible, and (for all you environmentalists out there) renewable to boot.

For the sake of argument—and at the risk of derailing my own train of thought here—I’m going to challenge the assumption that this electoral “anger” even exists. Given the world’s current political and economic uncertainties, I’d argue that “angst” is a better word to describe most people’s basic concerns and insecurities.

Still, “angst” is a rather static and boring term. If you can recall your grade-school science, it’s the equivalent of potential energy. There’s energy there, but it’s not yet being utilized or expressed in any particular manner. “Anger,” the equivalent of kinetic energy, is the far sexier cousin. Anger has a vector; it moves with both direction and magnitude. In short, anger has a target. Because it is both lively and dynamic, it is also entertaining. Film critics might applaud a somber arthouse film focused on despair and frustration, but for packing American theaters on weekends, a shoot-em-up revenge-fantasy action flick will win out nearly every time.

To cycle back once more to the adolescence motif, today’s most popular films are marketed primarily to young males, those C-sized batteries of teenage angst. Likewise, a fair number of young adult novels (and, sadly, too many adult novels in the wake of Catcher in the Rye) employ the snarky, sarcastic protagonist to translate all that angst into the adolescent vernacular. Fewer verbose third-person snoozefests, please; more sexy “Snap!” in the fast-paced “me, me, me” narrative.

In the previous post, I noted that modern behavioralists advise teachers and parents to tell unruly children, “Use your words.” It’s a call to reason and civility, a redirection of energy away from the id toward the ego and developing superego. And yet, in most of the media to which children are exposed, the id runs rampant and reigns supreme. When you ask children to use their words, chances are good that you’ll hear a line quoted from a favorite movie or song. And when you ask an American voter to express his or her opinion on a political matter, chances are probably even higher that you’ll hear them repeat nearly verbatim some of the “talking points” that they’ve heard from this or that pundit or candidate. In planting their slogans and sayings into the minds of American voters, media mavens are effectively saying, “Don’t use your words. Use ours instead.”

When I was in high school, I had a talent that made me rather popular: I could write large amounts of information on incredibly small surfaces. When an unsuspecting physics teacher allowed students to bring “one sheet of notes” with them to an upcoming exam, I became the go-to guy for nearly everyone in class. With such popularity came this potential power: If I chose to, I could have provided some of my former nemeses with completely false and embarrassingly twisted information. I could have redefined the basic vocabulary of physics and rewritten the laws that govern the interaction of matter and energy in the universe. (In the literary world, this is often called “science fiction,” and yes, it was my initial genre of choice in creative writing.)

Luckily for them, I considered this vengeful fantasy to be unethical. Perhaps this is why I bristle so much when I see trusted public figures engaging in similar behavior with no hint of regret or remorse. Take politicians, for example. They toss off all sorts of terms and statistics with a carelessness that borders on criminal, and the lazy public laps it up. For example, if you’re caught in an argument with someone about the nation’s economy, ask them to distinguish between the debt and the deficit. The odds are high that they won’t realize there is a difference, let alone a huge one. Likewise, people engaged in politic punditry throw around words like communism, socialism, and fascism as if they were synonyms. They’re not. (Go look them up if you distrust me on that. I can wait.)

When politicians say and do such things, they’re not interested in promoting logic or reason. They are not making appeals to the brain. More often than not, they’ll claim they’re speaking “from the gut.” To be more anatomically precise in the metaphor, the appeal is to the spleen, the figurative organ of passion and outrage. (We could drag the heart into this discussion, too, but then we’d have to contend with “bleeding heart liberals” with their “heart-on-their-sleeve” sentiments, which just gets too gory too soon. We’ll get to all of that later.) To push the word into its adjectival form, “spleeny,” we end up with a term that means “peevish and irritable with hypochondriac inclinations.” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, 11th Edition) Now, it seems, we’re getting somewhere. You can’t make this stuff up without being accused of rigging the game.

Let’s stay with the biological metaphors for a moment. After all, when people are constantly angry, they often exhibit symptoms of stress and fatigue. Anger sickens us, both literally and figuratively. It keeps us awake at night, raises our blood pressure, gives us headaches, and has been known to provoke the occasional heart attack.

So when we’re sick, we go to the doctor. If yours is fairly typical, a comment such as “It hurts!” isn’t very helpful at pinpointing a diagnosis or arriving at a cure. A series of probing questions usually ensues: “Where does it hurt? When did it start hurting? Can you describe how it hurts? What activities ease or aggravate the condition?” And so on. It’s a pain (pun intended) to be so precise sometimes, but more often than not, a positive outcome depends on it.

At some point during the examination, many doctors set down the stethoscope and become human thesauruses. “Is the hurt like an ache? A soreness? A tenderness? A burning sensation? A sharp, knife-like stab or jab? A stitch or a sting, a cramp or a pang?” (It suddenly becomes clear to me why so many of my favorite poets are also physicians.)

Like a patient parent (no pun intended), the doctor asks you not only to use your words, but to use them carefully. In a way, he or she is also asking you to define your terms. After all, we can only communicate effectively if the words we use have clear and consistent definitions. Without such a linguistic foundation, we’re reduced to hand gestures and babbling.

Webster’s dictionary defines “anger” as “a strong feeling of displeasure.” This is the first definition. The second definition—and surprisingly, there are only two offered in the Collegiate 11th edition—is, simply, “rage.” I’m always intrigued when a word is defined in opposition to another word—in this instance, pleasure. Anger displeases. It leads to uneasiness. To graft these branches back onto the medical analogy, anger is a form of dis-ease. See how language sometimes dances about in revelatory patterns?

In addition to the dictionary definition itself, Webster’s offers a rare, almost editorial side note: “ANGER…names the reaction but in itself conveys nothing about intensity or justification or manifestation of the emotional state.”

In sum, anger is vague. As a word, it doesn’t communicate much of anything. As a concept in physics, it would be rather useless. So much for defining our terms.

Luckily, in addition to its two definitions, anger has all kinds of synonyms. First, however, we should define that term a little further. A synonym is not an exact equivalent of a word, as we’ve seen with the socialism/communism/fascism example. (If you still don’t believe me and didn’t look it up the first time around, I encourage you to do it now, but this time I’m not waiting.) Contrary to what you may have heard in grade school, synonyms are not always interchangeable. They may be siblings in the same family, but not all siblings are identical twins.

Therein lies the inherent beauty and usefulness of the thesaurus. It inspires a sort of lateral thinking that can often surprise the curious reader with its insights.

This is especially true when confronted with a generic term like anger. Here are some relevant synonyms for anger (from Roget’s Super Thesaurus, Third Edition): rage, fury, irritation, annoyance, indignation, wrath, resentment, animosity, displeasure, peevishness, pique, bitterness, gall, soreness, umbrage. We could go further and list causes for anger (envy, spite, insult, revenge, etc.), but that would be confusing the symptom with the dis-ease.

Interestingly, you’ll note that though resentment and animosity are listed as synonyms, Roget (at least in the third edition) stopped short of including hatred. Other sources added it but stopped short of adding hatred’s seething stepsister, contempt. Anyone who has been involved in or paid attention to politics over the past couple of years knows very well that both of those sentiments are alive and thriving in American culture.

As we define and apply these terms, I also want to make clear that I’m not conflating anger with violence. Though they are no doubt related and will be discussed throughout this essay, there is a great deal of hope to be had in the dramatic decrease in violence in our society. For more on that, I strongly recommend the epic book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. Though the overall premise seems to run counter to conventional wisdom, it’s a well-researched and thoroughly documented analysis guaranteed to cure at least some small part of the darkest skeptic’s pessimism. Critics of the book also tend toward the redefinition strategy that I cautioned against above: They try to redefine the foundational word “violence” in order to undermine the book’s meticulous reasoning. It’s somewhat akin to those who wish to rewrite history (along with the here and now) in order to suit their own ideological inklings.

What I suggest for the moment is that we consider anger, ours and others’, and test it against the synonyms listed above. If we can refine (or more precisely define) the feelings that we’re sensing on any given topic, we might find ways to communicate about this so-called anger more effectively. As we do, we should bear in mind that words have both established denotations (their literal, “dictionary” definitions) and potentially unpredictable connotations (implied associations and feelings). After all, an article entitled “American Fury” would no doubt conjure different expectations and emotions in a potential reader than an article entitled “American Indignation” or “American Peevishness.”

That said, I’m eager to explore a number of these words and associations in the entries to come. Indignation, for example, with its linguistically internalized reference to dignity, dovetails rather nicely with a discussion of American feelings of self-righteousness and entitlement. The goal is not to locate anger in any given sector of society, nor is it to make quick or simplistic connections between any type of anger and a particular ideology. The goal, quite simply, is to raise awareness, and with that, the level of discourse about what actually and honestly displeases us.

As always, I welcome all thoughts and comments in advance, as well as any anecdotes that you feel might be useful in illustrating some of these ideas. I’m sure there will be many examples to come as this election year gets underway.