Can We Afford Our Anger?

“The man who gets angry at the right things and with the right people, and also in the right way and at the right time and for the right length of time, is commended,” Aristotle wrote. He was teaching about ethics, and the value of moderation. Aristotle would ask today whether we can afford the anger we routinely indulge.

Consider the rage we have for punishment. Mother Against Drunk Driving are angry about the carnage that comes of drinking and driving, so they lobby lawmakers for harsher and more punitive penalties. It feels good, doesn’t, to lock offenders away. Yet when no one is looking, we admit that alcoholism is a disease. And isn’t the same schizoid dynamic at work in our treatment of drug offenders? Lock them up and throw away the key, the law and order crowd said decades ago.

Yet when the lights go down and no one is looking, we acknowledge that locking a person up and putting them behind bars because they are ill is morally obscene. We know it is wrong to punish the sick. But we get so angry when a drunk kills someone, or when a junkie pollutes a neighborhood. It feels good to do something, something bold, decisive and commensurate with the imperatives of our rage.

But unwise personal decisions make even worse public policy. We are coming to realize now that a bad economy has driven state economies to their knees that unbounded and unmitigated anger is too simple, and too expense. Why such anger becomes the drug of choice of the self-righteous. And we cannot afford to coddle the angry any longer.

National Public Radio reported this week that Governor Andrew Cuomo has targeted five prisons for closing. In Connecticut,  Governor Dannell Malloy has already closed one prison; another is slated for closing this June. One of Malloy’s top policy aides announced last week that another prison or two are on the chopping block. It is simply to expensive to warehouse misfits and the ill at the cost of $30,000 per year per inmate.

People are sentenced to prison for all sorts of reasons. We send some folks to prison because they make bad choices and could have chosen otherwise. We call these folks culpable, and imprisonment is intended to punish them, deter others and, we pretend, to give the offender a chance to see the errors of his or her ways. But far too many get one way tickets to the big house just because they lack the means to control themselves, whether by reason of classic forms of mental illness or substance abuse. Prison is less a place where people are re-formed than it is a rodeo at which the ill are forced through cattle chutes and ridden for a time before being release, still bucking and braying, into the unwelcoming world.

Releasing people from prison won’t make the world a better or safer place. There will still be folks careening out of control and causing harm to others. But effective social policy ought to focus on treating underlying illnesses and conditions that are closely associated with conduct causing harm to others.

We will always have prisons. Those institutions will continue to house those who are deviant by choice. But as budget woes force states to reassess the efficacy of warehousing the ill, we need to confront the reality all too apparent from one coast to another: the American dream is out of reach of far too many. The lifestyles we celebrate on television, in the movies, in the glossy advertisements of our upscale publications, all cast shadows roughly akin to those case by the ancient Greek’s conception of Olympian gods and godesses. We celebrate the irresponsible and the idle rich, while condemning millions to lives of quiet, and often self-destructive, desperation.

Closing prisons will force us to integrate people with uncommon needs into communities that are already failing to meet the needs of ordinary people. It is foreseeable that folks will be angry about this. But rather than focusing anger on the need to banish the different and the ill, the anger should be refocused on what makes possible a society in which we are so quick to declare folks dispensable. Our historic high rates of incarceration are a symptom of a society with values and practices out of touch with the rhetoric of equality for all. That should be the focus of well-tempered anger, the sort of which Aristotle would approve.


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