Download audio (MP3)
There's something satisfying about being on the delivery end of a good scold. Mac Clayton tries to understand why.
By Mac Clayton
I have a friend who, if you wrong him, will not rest until he has repeatedly pointed out the error of your ways. Sometimes he gets so worked up he seems to lose consciousness of everything but his self-righteous fury. It's like an orgasm of hectoring.
What is it about administering a good scolding that is so therapeutic? So cleansing? I don't think many of us believe we are changing minds. In moments of calm reflection, we surely know we are likely only provoking hostility toward ourselves and our point of view. So why do we do it?
My neighborhood crows may offer an answer. When I'm out with my dog, a big golden retriever, they follow us from tree to tree, squawking feverishly, staging dive-bombing attacks. They want to scare him off. They want to warn other crows of the danger they see in him. Maybe that's what we feel we're doing when we spin ourselves into a full blown storm of opprobrium: Warning! There is danger here!
Perhaps we aren't even speaking primarily to our nominal target. We raise our voice so others may hear. We mean to incite the righteous to burn the heretic. Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist, has for years been scolding those who favor economic austerity. "Deficit scolds," he calls them, without apparent irony. Looking back at some of my essays, I have to admit that I am no stranger myself to a good old sanctimonious admonishment.
If we are like my neighborhood crows, perhaps we can view our lapses into scolding as unselfish acts undertaken for the protection of our friends. But of course we aren't crows. We no longer live in the wild. Angry intolerance is a vestige of our tribal past. Once, it may have protected us, but at this point in our social development it only drives us apart.
With a Perspective, I'm Mac Clayton.
Mac Clayton is an author. He lives on the Peninsula.