The Seven Deadly Sins in a Digital Age: 6. Wrath
December 15, 2014
As we come to Wrath in a Digital Age, we must once again begin by asking, "what is this vice exactly?" Is Wrath a vice like Gluttony - too much of a good thing, or wanting a good thing in the wrong way? Or is it more like Envy - intrinsically disordered, and purely destructive?
At first glance, Wrath looks more like Envy in this respect, a desire for nothing good, but only destruction, destruction of the person against whom we are angry. And indeed, many have argued that it is impossible to be angry without sinning, which would be true if anger was directed first and foremost against a person. But it isn't; that would be hate. Of course, anger can lead rapidly to hate, whether in a moment of uncontrolled passion or by allowing it to simmer for years at a slow boil. But it is not precisely the same thing; indeed, sometimes I am angry at someone's mistakes because I love them. This is where Aquinas's thorough taxonomy can help us out again. Hate, like Envy, is a sin against charity, and of course there is no appropriately measured way to act against charity. Wrath, though, is classed among the sins against temperance, along with lust and gluttony, sins that err by pursuing a good without self-control.
So what good does Wrath inordinately aim at? Why, justice of course, one of the highest of goods - specifically the rectification of injustice (this includes the important injustice of telling falsehoods, which is of particular concern to writers like myself). It is this that can make anger such a difficult sin to diagnose and tackle. After all, if wrath arises out of a sense of violated justice, then the emotion behind it (which we will call anger, reserving "wrath" for the sinful form of it) it need not always be wrong. Indeed, even a personal affront can in theory prompt a just anger at the injustice of the act committed (on which basis we can justly seek redress in court, for instance), though it is hard to keep this from degenerating into a sinful vindictiveness in defense of one's personal honor.
If our anger is on account of an injustice committed against another, it is more plausible that it may be without sin. So how does it become sin? Aquinas distinguishes two ways: by desiring unjust vengeance (i.e., upon someone who doesn't really deserve it, or for more punishment than they deserve, or for personal satisfaction, rather than vindication of justice), or "in relation to the mode of being angry, namely that the movement of anger should not be immoderately fierce, neither internally nor externally" (ST IIaIIae Q. 158 a. 2 resp.). In other words, we want the potential good of vengeance for the wrong object, or in the wrong manner (namely, without self-control), much as we might similarly sin with Lust or Gluttony. The key to just anger, then, in Aquinas's account, is that it be "in accord with reason," a phrase he uses over and over throughout this section (and indeed, his whole treatment of the vices and virtues). Although in other contexts we might worry that this smacks of a detached intellectualism, when it comes to Wrath, this is surely apropos. We all know the frightening sense of losing control of our faculties when we succumb to wrath, the experience of being "out of our minds" with rage. In such a state, there is no telling what evils we might thoughtlessly give into, and how disproportionate our response to the perceived injustice might be. Wrath is thus one of the "capital sins" in Aquinas's terminology, the head from which any number of other sins might easily flow.
So, what of Wrath in our digital age? Here, as with many of the vices we have considered, we may be inclined to think that, whatever sins we may be prone to engage in online, only the hyper-scrupulous would get too worked up about them, since they can't do all that much harm really. Online lust doesn't involve anyone getting raped, online gluttony won't make you obese, online greed, as we've described it at least, doesn't involve anyone getting stolen from, and online wrath isn't going to get anyone sent to the emergency room with a broken nose. Better to blow off steam in front of a computer screen than in a bar brawl, right? And there is some truth to this, to be sure. It is an odd and often-observed characteristic of the internet that it seems to turn otherwise lovely people into complete ogres, but only while they're online; once you see them in person, they revert to normalcy.
But if it is virtues and vices we are concerned about, not just immediately quantifiable interpersonal harm, then we cannot lightly ignore the habits of soul that we may be forming with patterns of uncontrolled wrath, even behind the "safety" of a computer screen. Nor is it the case that no one is ever harmed by ill-considered words. In fact, quite the contrary; in many contexts, much less harm might have been done by a quick fist-fight and a couple of bloody noses than by the careless casting of slanders that, once released into the endlessly replicable world of the internet, take on a life of their own, engendering suspicion and bitterness for years to come.
So why is it that online displays of wrath are such a ubiquitous fixture of our digital age? After all, even if you have a particularly well-behaved set of friends, you've seen those times when two guys just went at it on Facebook till 2 AM, trading increasingly nasty insinuations on some disputed political issue, neither willing to back down, or when a theological blogger got a bee under his bonnet and let loose a torrent of ill-considered accusations. And lest we despair too much of how badly-behaved we theologians can be, we can perhaps take some comfort in observing the barbaric streams of vitriol that populate the comments sections of most mainstream online news articles. Does all this just tell us that the human race is a far nastier and more ill-tempered breed than we might have imagined?
Well, in part, yes. "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks," and the mouth speaks the more freely the less consequences it fears. If a speaker is wrong in the pulpit or in a convention hall, I'm unlikely to have the gumption to stand up and say so right there. Or if I think I need to let someone have it, but they're twice my size, I'm unlikely to let loose a stream of insults to their face. This is where reason steps in and controls anger, by reminding us that it may just not be worth it. Online, though, we are insulated from the consequences of our words, and the voice of reason is thus easily overruled; indeed, we often feel invulnerably anonymous, even when we are not actually anonymous. Not only that, but the person that we are lashing out at feels strangely anonymous to us. Wrath becomes more sinful, and comes closer to hatred, the more we dehumanize the person with whom we are angered (if he is human like myself, I can empathize with his errors; if he is not, I need not forgive them). It is hard to dehumanize the person standing right in front of me, but very easy to dehumanize a bundle of pixels containing some text and a little avatar. To this extent, the digital medium, precisely by putting so much distance between ourselves and others, enables us to freely indulge the Wrath we might have already felt.
But in that case, wouldn't letter-writing, and ordinary print publication, be just as bad? Why is it that people seem willing to be far nastier in online media than in other forms of mediated communication? Well, it is because the internet offers us a paradoxically immediate form of mediation. We feel both infinitely distanced from the faceless fellow on the receiving end of our verbal blows, and at the same time immediately in his presence, trading insults in real-time. Fifty years ago, if I heard of someone doing something stupid, I might sit down that moment and write up an angry letter. Chances are, even in the fairly slow act of writing it, I would burn off some steam and start to reconsider; if not, I would probably have ample opportunity before it was actually in the mail. And even if I didn't, the person on the other end might reconsider, before escalating the conversation. Not anymore. Now we can pound out that blistering Facebook comment in a few seconds or minutes, and hit "Send" on impulse, and to the person receiving it, it comes with all the immediacy of an insult shouted in a crowded room - a crowded room with a potentially limitless audience, no less. In such a setting, injured honor is unlikely to allow for any quick de-escalation of the conflict.
To be sure, part of all this is simply the growing pains of a new communication medium. Most of us have learned to be much more careful about the wording of our emails, and about trying to read tones into others' emails, than we were in the earliest days. Blogs and forums too have introduced etiquette rules and moderators to bring civility to discussions, and it is to be hoped that eventually, online discourse will be brought under the discipline of all the rules of good manners that restrain our indulgence of Wrath in most other day-to-day settings. But overcoming this vice, both in itself and in its particularly tempting digital forms, requires conscious effort as well, a reorientation of our attitudes toward others, and toward God.
First, towards others, we must recognize the temptation toward dehumanizing the perceived offender. The less we see our own loves and fears and failings reflected in him, the less we will care about the destruction of his sin (righteous anger) and the more we will care about the destruction of him, and his dignity and reputation. We must learn to see ourselves in others, even when they commit injustices and falsehoods, and only then will we be capable of the kind of righteous anger that seeks to correct their errors with charity and self-restraint.
Second, towards God, we must remember that vengeance is His, and He is sovereign. The little comic at the bottom of this article betrays that lack of faith which so many of us (especially writers and ethicists like myself) so easily fall prey to. Someone is wrong, so I need to do something about it. Well, not necessarily. There are millions of foolish and sinful and false things being said on the internet (not to mention off it) every day, and I cannot possibly correct them all. If I cannot learn to step aside and give place to the wrath of God, I will be forever consumed with my own.
Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com