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West Point Cadets
West Point cadets and instructors

West Point Cadets

A group of 13 cadets and four instructors from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point take on the weekly 'On Leadership' questions. Who better to explore the gray areas of leadership than members of The Long Gray Line?

Managing anger and fear

Question: Vitriolic political rhetoric is on the rise for one simple reason: it works. In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, what can political, business and community leaders do to change the political dynamic so that demonizing opponents is not a winning strategy? How do we end the rhetorical arms race?

This week's post is written by Col. Thomas Kolditz, a professor and head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Our country, while objectively strong and resilient, is less robust in its emotional footing. The recent tragic shootings in Tucson created healthy debate about the consequences of angry, aggressive messages directed at people and groups. A volatile and uncertain economy and its impact on housing values and jobs have left many Americans feeling apprehensive and fearful about their futures. Such conditions are talk-radio nirvana, perfectly suited to the rise of charismatic leaders with angry transformational messages. Collective anger provides people temporary respite from the loneliness of their individual fears. The classic historical example of this phenomenon is Germany in the late 1930s, when vitriolic political rhetoric became simultaneously successful and evil.

At a micro level, commanders in combat units have to manage anger and fear routinely, and become practiced at managing collective emotions and controlling subordinate leaders who may succumb to the temptation of fanning the flames of dehumanization, rage and anxiety. Our best private- and social-sector leaders have done the same in crisis. Three specific strategies are common to such in extremist contexts and can inform our way ahead to bring down the vitriol in political rhetoric.

First, refocus on one of our finest American values, courage, and its antithesis, cowardice. Simply put, it's cowardly to attack a public figure in a personal way, and it's cowardly to play on the fears of others.

Somehow it's become accepted to publicly manifest one's anxiety, especially through anger. This is not to say that we won't face significant challenges in the years that lie ahead, but giving way to fear is the first self-indulgent step toward giving up. Those who use anger to gain advantage are adept at influencing the fearful, often because they are cowards themselves. They inspire the less educated, the disenfranchised, even the mentally unstable. We have to recognize that confident, courageous leadership--such as was exemplified by Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who had the courage to speak up for civility--best serves the common good.

Next, increase public accountability. If you tolerate vitriolic speech, you endorse it. Change the channel and change your vote. Respectfully reflect people's words back to them and to others. Outrage is usually overstated and inaccurate, and is betrayed by the passage of time. Use the power of the information age to turn back the clock and expose shrill, angry rhetoric for what it is: a shallow emotional appeal that leads to unrealized promises. Don't limit speech or debate, but be a good consumer and analyze it. Hold those who incite hatred, fear and bigotry accountable by continuously shining light on both what and how they communicate--whether a talk show host, a politician, a school bully or your neighbor. This accountability is particularly relevant for dire predictions that could manifest as a self-fulfilling prophesy. Leaders must be held accountable for their predictions, especially when they bet against their own people by predicting organizational or national failure.

Last, one of the most effective antidotes to vitriolic rhetoric is humor. Among confident, thinking people, there is real power in neutralizing the disproportionate angst associated with vile rhetoric by finding the humor in it all. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity was pure genius. But for everyday Americans, a little dry humor is a simple way to undercut the vitriolic rhetoric without being negative in return--a very important strategy for parents and schoolteachers who interpret the
political theater for young people.

Use the memory of one such young person, a nine-year-old who went to Safeway to learn a lesson in democracy and lost her life to evil, as the catalyst for your own exploration in how you can disarm those shallow cowards who use the weapon of intemperate speech in public discourse. The First Amendment makes us immune to censorship, but not to popular accountability for the consequences of our actions and words.

-Col. Thomas Kolditz

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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By West Point Cadets

 |  January 12, 2011; 6:43 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Ethics , Government leadership , Making mistakes , Military Leadership , Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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As a member of the US Army for 23 years and a combat leader, I appreciate COL Kolditz’s argument for managing anger and fear. We in the Military enjoy a culture that has been inoculated to these challenges because they are the constant emotions of a combat force. As part of our training as leaders we are taught to separate the emotion from the event, deal with the facts and encourage open discussion. When that discussion diverts to the extreme, we are taught how to address difficult and emotional topics in a considerate manner and how to challenge extreme thinking with logic. When logic and consideration are cast away in pursuit of vitriol, then we as Military leaders have the moral responsibility to confront those challenges and if necessary, refer those outliers to professional help.

I would offer that COL Kolditz missed a fourth and critical antidote: Education. Incorporating a curriculum that discusses differences of opinion and how to manage fear and anger without resorting to senseless violence may provide for a more meaningful discourse and prevent future calamities. This program could be incorporated to varying levels of complexity/maturity throughout public education in order to challenge conventional wisdom, develop an acceptance to divergent opinions, teach the ability to cogently articulate an argument, and the humility to accept that others may not have the same perception, belief, or interpretation.

I do not mean to infer that the Army’s way is better; I just want to point out that we have identified a problem and addressed it in the manner best suited to our culture. I am not so naiveté or altruistic to believe that our Military culture is without fault – the heinous Fort Hood shootings by an Army Major who was also a psychologist is a prime example – but we do have the benefit of a corporate program to educate leaders and tackle these issues. I recall being taught at an early point in my career that ignorance is curable and stupidity is terminal, and as a leader it was my purpose was to understand the difference.

Major Kevin Perera, Student, Command and General Staff College, Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this posting are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.”

Posted by: kjperera | January 18, 2011 12:37 PM
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The preceding remarks are a good indication of why hate speech will never go away. It's too much fun! Haters are just indulging themselves with the fantasy that they're better than somebody else. Nobody can disagree with them. Anyone who doesn't spout the correct words must be part of some evil conspiracy to enslave somebody, including the hater, thereby justifying the hatred. This is why we are failing as a nation, not just because we hate, but because so many of us are so incredibly stupid and incapable of any sort of self-reflection. We deserve idiotic leaders who start wars for no reason and bankrupt the country. We deserve to get what we want.

Posted by: DaveHarris | January 16, 2011 11:36 PM
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Dear Historian1:

I am surprised that you, as a historian, would be so dismissive of the role language can play in motivating others to take violent action. The fact that Col. Kolditz mentions this is reassuring, and makes me grateful West Point cadets are getting this deep level of understanding.

No, among talk radio show hosts there is no Hitler and no Stalin. But someday, there could be.

If it is already acceptable, even business-savvy to use scapegoating, stereotypes and dehumanizing language, then why would it not be acceptable for another Hitler to use the same language to persuade.

As the leader of the German people, Hitler never killed anyone with his own hands. Col. Kolditz understands words have consequences, especially words used in the political sphere to paint opponents as enemies, parasites, leeches, maggots, etc.

And metaphors of gun violence also promote "bullet-action" to rid opponents from the political scene.

The question is not whether vitriol caused the Tucson mass shooting. It is whether such terms are ever, under any circumstances, appropriate to a "City on the Hill".

We can all (right and left) do much better. The Sheriff (the" flack" as you label him, Mr. Historian) understands something you do not. America can be, and has been, a much nicer place.

Posted by: post-it2 | January 14, 2011 2:08 PM
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Well, I guess we now know how the good COL Kolditz votes. Pure Democrat. Let's see, equating evil with talk show hosts, inserting Nazi Germany, complimenting the good partisan sheriff Dupnik as a courageous leader and not the partisan flack that he is, and finally, talking about what great people Stewart and Colbert must be based on their humor. Wonderful. Did he miss ANY of the Dionne or Krugman talking points? I have no doubt his politically correct, and left leaning sentiments, were a part in his selection process as the head of BSL at West Point, and that his cadets now know what they have to write to receive a passing grade. They shame of this essay, however, is that he actually made good points about leaders should do concerning units. Unfortunately, his partisan mindset brings into question his own ethics and professionalism. Sure, the small disclaimer at the bottom says these are his remarks, and not the Army, but it does not work that way Colonel. You have tarred West Point, and the Army, with taint of your political bias. Very unprofessional behavior on your part. Keep your politics to yourself and your fellow COLs in your private discussions. r/ Historian (Heidelberg)

Posted by: historian1 | January 13, 2011 4:07 PM
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