This is sort of an open letter to some librarians I’ve encountered in the last year or so. The encounters left me puzzled as to what the librarians thought they were accomplishing.
For example, not long ago, I had an encounter with a librarian who leapt into a conversation with no understanding, injected irrelevancies with aggression, and grew belligerent and resentful when I reacted critically. He felt the need to interject angrily and repeatedly, as if repetitious anger would somehow win the day. Perhaps that sort of thing might work to quiet and frighten a dog or a small child, but all it does for me is bring some slight amusement at the combination of preening arrogance and rhetorical ineptitude.
Such librarians perhaps consider themselves merely passionate, but, from the outside, passion often passes for anger and aggression for irrelevant ranting. I bring this up because there are a lot of passionate, indeed even angry, librarians out there, and I would like to offer some advice on how to persuade other people rather than alienate them, if persuasion and not intimidation is your goal. Some of us aren’t easily intimidated.
First, I want to turn to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which I’ve addressed in Library Journal on another occasion. Smith writes about sympathy, but there are some emotions we simply can’t be sympathetic to, such as anger. After acknowledging the social utility of some passions, Smith writes:
[T]here is still something disagreeable in the passions themselves, which makes the appearance of them in other men the natural object of our aversion. The expression of anger towards any body present, if it exceeds a bare intimation that we are sensible of his ill usage, is regarded not only as an insult to that particular person, but as a rudeness to the whole company. Respect for them ought to have restrained us from giving way to so boisterous and offensive an emotion.
While we may be sympathetic to the cause of someone else’s anger, we can’t be sympathetic to the anger itself, which is why when angry people aren’t frightening (e.g., when they’re merely librarians ranting at other librarians), they come off as slightly ridiculous and offensive to everyone else. If we aren’t angry about whatever it is the angry person is angry about, then their anger distances us from them and makes us less likely to listen to them. The mere presence of anger or aggression hinders communication, and if communication is the goal, then uncontrolled emotions are a problem.
Unfortunately, this is true whether their cause is just, or whether they’re merely online trolls who want to “set the record straight” about whatever triviality they’ve worked up in their mind to be worth ranting about. If we want to persuade other people, rather than just vent our feelings, we need to curb, or at least hide, our anger. For the troll, that’s not necessary, since the anger is the point, but for everyone else it’s a necessary and difficult task.
Suppressing anger is rarely easy, especially if you’re passionate about your cause and it’s something that makes you understandably angry. But the alternative is to be ignored. It doesn’t matter how right you are or how righteous your cause. Anyone who doesn’t already agree with you is going to find you unpleasant and be more concerned with avoiding you than listening to you or supporting your cause. Repeated exposure just increases resistance.
This plays out mostly online, which is why I rarely read the comments to any online publication, but it can also show up in the workplace. If the general impression people have is that you’re an angry curmudgeon, they’re going to pay less attention to you, even when you’re absolutely right about whatever it is you’re angry about. It’s even possible that being ignored when you’re angry and absolutely right will just make you angrier, worsening the situation. Then you’ll just be ignored even more. It’s a cruel irony. That’s just not fair, you might say, but if anything can be conclusively proven, it’s that the world is not a fair place.
In the world of librarians, some handle this very well. Their equanimity and composure, sometimes in the midst of real injustice or ludicrous disorganization, is remarkable. They often become influential leaders of whatever movement they’re part of because of their ability to negotiate with people and direct people’s attention toward problems and away from their own emotions.
Myself, I sometimes find this a struggle, as a calm temperament never came naturally to me. When I find myself growing angry over trivialities, I often turn to the wisdom of the ancients, especially Epictetus, who teaches us that with practice we can learn to maintain equanimity even in the face of calamity, much less the relative insignificance of someone else being completely indifferent to our concerns. (FYI: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is a recent and very readable philosophical work on Stoicism, and Epictetus’s Enchiridion is a good, quick read.)
Most likely my advice will go unheeded by those librarians most in need of it. People lacking calm don’t want to be told to calm down, even if their lack of calm is actually undermining their goals. They’ll think (angrily), who is this guy to give me advice!? If that’s so, there’s really nothing I can do about it other than ignore them and go about my business. The only good thing about dealing with angry ranters is how easy it is to stop listening, stop reading, stop responding, or just walk away.