The Question of What Provokes Anger

By Alan Chartock | March 25, 2023

There are many things that I just don’t get. At the top of the list is the question of what provokes anger.

Many people grow incredibly angry at some provocations that may not really be provocations. After all, we are human beings who sometimes fear phenomena that shouldn’t really get our backs up. Occasionally, someone will say something that is really quite benign but we may take offence and react in a manner bordering on violence. That kind of overreaction can be incredibly inappropriate and embarrassing.

We have all done it. There are times when we have reacted to a supposed provocation but even though the situation might demand a “take back,” it’s too late and you can’t un-ring that bell.

It is impossible to pick up a daily paper without reading about these sorts of altercations, some of which end up in the loss of life when no such action was close to being warranted. I remember once being in an airport and sitting down in one of those double rows of chairs. Somehow, my head leaned a little too far back and, by mistake, hit the head of the rather large fellow who was sitting directly behind me. To put it mildly, the other guy took offense to the things nearly came to blows.

When that happens, the best thing to do is extricate yourself immediately so that the situation doesn’t escalate into catastrophe. Whether it’s in an airport setting, or the subway or the fight over a parking space, once the misstep is taken as a provocation, things can spark into a fire. I’ve been in the middle of that kind of situation and my bet is that you have, too.

So what do you do then? The most direct route out of a more serious confrontation is an apology. “I didn’t mean to shove you, I am terribly sorry.” If that kind of direct apology doesn’t work and if it actually provokes a worse problem, you might find yourself without a good way out of a real dilemma. Now what do you do?

Regrettably, sometimes you may have to actually defend yourself. If you were not raised as a Chartock twin who could take on bullies and other louts, you could find yourself in a hell of a fix. Under the worst conditions, you might have to run for it or actually fight back. So, are you prepared to do that? If someone slugs you, are you prepared to defend yourself? What do you do? Do you punch an offender in the eye? Do you bite them in retribution? Maybe, in extreme cases, you consider kicking them in the private parts in order to protect yourself.

Unfortunately, there are times when you just can’t avoid a physical fight, especially when the other party has brought it to you. When I was a kid, there were times when I found myself with no way out of a physical altercation. Since I was always a short, thin, kid I was not in a position to fight the way “Hiram Holliday” of television fame might have done. That’s when you have to examine your options and go for the best way to protect your assets. You might actually have to aim for the cojones, that may turn out to be the only equalizer that you can employ in a fight. Your mother or your significant other might object to taking this approach but hey, sometimes you just gotta’ do what you gotta’ do. Best to avoid getting into these situations in the first place.

Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at [email protected].