Commentary

Anger is only making trauma of pandemic worse: We should all try being more constructive

August 30, 2021 12:20 am

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 06: A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Why is everyone so angry about everything? I mean, why does the least provocation, real or imagined, seem to ignite instant rage between friends, complete strangers, in stores, restaurants, on airplanes, while driving, at what used to be civil community events, anywhere? Doesn’t take much to set us off these days. Someone not wearing a mask. Someone wearing a mask. Someone dissing vaccines. Someone endorsing vaccines. The undercurrent of anger is widespread and palpable. 

Scroll through your newsfeed and try not to do slow burn. 

COVID-19 cases are spiking to numbers not seen since January. This shouldn’t be happening. Not when free vaccinations began rolling out in December 2020. They were available to everyone 16 and older in Ohio by the end of March. It’s the end of August. We should be talking about the pandemic in the past tense. Instead, we’re living through the fourth wave of a virus that has mutated into something far more contagious than the original strain. 

Why? Because a vocal minority of vaccine-resistant, hesitant, indifferent folks have allowed it to spread like crazy. Most Ohio counties (51) still have full vaccination rates only in the 30% range. Not surprisingly, COVID cases are skyrocketing in many of them. The day before Ohio reported a seven-month record of new COVID cases in a single day, anti-vaxxers and a smattering of cowboy extremists protested mask and vaccine mandates at the Statehouse during a hearing on a Republican bill to prohibit both. 

Pure madness. No wonder we’re angry and becoming angrier. But Ohio State University Professor Brad Bushman, who has spent a career studying anger and its correlating tentacles of aggression and violence, cautioned against blowing off steam — no matter how tempting — and dispelled the myth that it’s healthy. Research shows the opposite. Better you should count to 10. “Thomas Jefferson said if you’re really angry you should count to 100,” quipped Bushman. Venting your anger only ratchets up the temperature and pretty soon you’re in someone’s face, shouting, kicking a can.

“Step back from the problem. Adopt a fly-on-the wall perspective as if you were a third person observing it. Angry people are immersed. They magnify differences rather than look at commonalities. If you can, reframe the issue,” Bushman suggested. A conflict might be reconsidered as a challenge, an opportunity for growth. For example, he said, instead of clashing over mask mandates in schools, an alternative framework would be: “Everybody wants their kids to be healthy in school. Nobody wants their kids to get COVID-19. Everybody wants to beat this pandemic so why not work together to do that and reduce the spread of the virus instead of becoming angry with each other.” 

Diffusing a heated moment is dicey, Bushman acknowledged, and you can’t force angry, defensive people to meet in the middle if they feel their outrage is justified, or God is on their side, or their perspective is the only one. The OSU researcher admits he is troubled that so many have staked their very lives against what works in a pandemic on little more than a belief, hunch, gut feeling, intuition, something they heard or read online.

“I’m a scientist,” said Bushman. “If we have research evidence, if we have scientific data, that trumps all opinions, right? I don’t care what your opinion is about masks. We have data. They work. I don’t care what your opinion is about vaccines. We have data. They work. I don’t care what your opinion is about social distancing. We have data. It works.”

But anytime there is a crisis (like the pandemic) there is a profusion of hearsay, conjecture and political spin premised on unproven claims, added OSU colleague R. Kelly Garrett, an expert on rumors and misinformation. “In the face of uncertainty and threat, human beings need to feel like they have some control over their world and that they have some understanding of what’s going on. So, they will create a sense out of the noise. Sometimes it’s right but often it’s wrong.”  

Professor Garrett said he was surprised at “how robust people’s beliefs were that the pandemic is a false narrative, that it is a conspiracy to some other end, even in the face of massive numbers of American deaths. Individuals who are espousing these beliefs are being treated for Covid and still saying it’s not real.” They’ve chosen a side, permitted themselves to be manipulated by false claims and put their trust in “political elites who are willing to endorse or at least not deny patent falsehoods” that are causing millions of Americans to get needlessly sick and die.

“In some ways,” mused Garrett, “these challenging moments can serve to underscore how valuable expertise and knowledge is…because science does pretty well when you compare it against reality. It makes accurate predictions about how many people are going to get sick, what’s going to happen if you don’t use masks, if you don’t get vaccinated, if you don’t use social distancing. Problem is the people who are exploiting the system, who are actively denying the facts to advance a political agenda, they aren’t backing down. That makes it very hard for the country to move past this and back to a point where we can agree about common problems and argue over how best to solve them.”

I wish I knew how we get there. I don’t. But as COVID infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths have ticked up this summer, the data shows vaccination rates have ticked up as well.  That’s something bordering on sane, I guess. Deep breath. Count to 10. Repeat as needed.  

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Marilou Johanek
Marilou Johanek

Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.

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