Anger, Sedition, and Freedom of Speech

Ashley Thorne

As noted yesterday, NAS president Peter Wood was interviewed briefly on MSNBC in a segment focusing on public anger and the potential for acts of anti-government violence. Wood was asked in connection with his book A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (2006). In his book, Wood argues that America’s longstanding aversion to outward expressions of anger has given way in the last half century to a culture that regards angry expression as empowering. He calls this emerging form of self-glorifying and celebratory emotion “new anger.” 

In Wood’s view new anger has roots in America’s post-World War II embrace of psychoanalysis, European existentialism, and home-grown movements that emphasized the healthiness of unrestrained expression. He argues that while new anger originated on the cultural left, it eventually became the dominant emotional style across the cultural spectrum. In A Bee in the Mouth, he traces the manifestations of this style through politics, music, film, personal relations, feminism, talk radio, sports, and the blogosphere.

New anger is clearly an element in contemporary higher education as well. Although most colleges and universities these days outwardly reject the idea that they are responsible for shaping the character of their students, they do in fact strongly encourage students to embrace the assumptions of expressive individualism. As the NAS has pointed out, numerous student life programs aim to “educate” students to become a certain kind of “citizen.” Typically this New Citizen has been liberated from traditional moral values, which are characterized as a tissue of “prejudices,” and has acquired instead a generalized anger towards America’s supposedly oppressive past. One of the most popular expressions of this attitude is the term “global citizen,” which evokes a set of loyalties to the world at large and to the oppressed everywhere and a dismissive attitude towards the claims of national identity.

MSNBC’s interest in interviewing Wood comes as part of the political controversy that swelled following the passage of the health care reform bill. Protest against the bill by “Tea Party” activists has been countered with claims by the bill’s supporters that the protesters’ anger amounts to “hate speech.” Yesterday former President Clinton warned that the anger of the protesters could well incite some individuals to acts of mayhem. Yesterday marked the fifteenth anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in which 168 people were killed.

In his book and in the interview, Wood argued that there is no necessary link between new anger and acts of violence. Wood regards new anger as corrosive to our civic discourse but sees it more as a flamboyant form of self-gratification than as an inducement to destructive acts.  

What role should responsible scholars play in the debate over the limits of free expression? In an article in the American Spectator, NAS member and legal historian Dr. Craig Klafter casts his eye back to the 1798 Sedition Act—an earlier episode in American history in which a governing party attempted to suppress dissent in the name of protecting public order. We wonder whether other NAS members have published insights into this troubled confluence of heated emotion, excited political rhetoric, and freedom of speech.

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