Yves here. Our discussion of anger and the rising prohibitions against expressing it (at least interpersonally) in the US and particularly among the young led a reader to send a e-mail that he’s agreed to let us feature as a post.
Needless to say, the finger-wagging over getting heated in public, and particularly in institutional settings, stands in sharp contrast with Internet vitriol. Are people simply finding new outlets? Or is this something darker, as in sadistic pleasure in getting nasty towards presumed actual individuals, whether they know who they are or not? One of the things that is both obvious and deeply disturbing about the Democratic Party’s revolving cast of contempt targets is that the gang leaders clearly enjoy the idea that they are (hopefully) inflicting pain, just as girl bullies view reducing their victim to tears as a badge of honor rather than shame.
Some of the readers in our last thread recommended the Stoic approach. But what does that do for, say, a persistently enraged newborn (like moi back in the day?)
Animals use anger as part of a threat display (think of videos of cats chasing off bears). They can’t control their register like humans. But even for someone who is trying to use anger tactically, as a show rather than a reaction, how many can actually divorce their feelings from their supposed play acting?
By Erasmus, who has been in and around academia
The topic of anger is huge and very important. I read long ago that anger is the result of unfulfilled expectations. Whether those expectations are justified and reasonable is a different matter, but various people have written and thought deeply about anger, including Greeks and Romans in antiquity.
Anger is dangerous (to the ancients) because it can be full of passion, which can dominate a person and ruin everything, override reason, lead to disorder and violence and madness, etc. Philosophical stoicism (not the same as the popular simplistic definition) is one way to handle it, though I find it unappealing. Depression can be internalized anger (not always, but definitely worth reflection) – anger at oneself, at external circumstances, other people, systems, etc).
I am very angry about various things. It is easy to say, well, you can change yourself, but come on, realistically there are limits to that. Many people are angry, but they don’t necessarily understand the systems oppressing them, in which responsibility is diffused and obfuscated on purpose, and contrived complexity hides much corruption. They understand they are screwed though.
Anger that becomes rage can be toxic. Establishment media propaganda sets forth approved targets for the blame cannons (e.g., the unvaccinated, the Jan 6 supporters, “domestic terrorists,” those who criticize “woke” ideology, etc), but nothing will change when people obediently focus on that and on the Dem-Rep slugfest (with discreet collusion to serve the plutocratic and corporate interests).
Some people retreat into drugs, booze, pot, drug prescription stupor, conspiracy theories, video/music/show/movie entertainment, overeating, compulsive shopping, gaming, gambling, etc. Some of that is very angry and violent, but it is vicarious (you watch/listen/absorb/participate within the framework). People feel powerless and irrelevant, look around and assume there is nothing they can do, that nothing will make any difference.
If no one gets angry, nothing will change, but what matters is what one does in response to the situation, and whether it works. Anger is not necessarily constructive – it depends on how you react to the cause (is the cause even identified accurately?). We are responsible about how we respond in situations – but that is difficult when it involves serious abuse or violation if one has little power or recourse.
Neoliberalism cultivates the passive response and isolation as if we are merely individual consumers, because solidarity and effective action can counter managerial bullshit.
Obviously it is madness to have lax policies on guns and militarization of police.
The young people, and I speak here from many years of direct experience working with them and teaching them, are full of anxiety (fear) and insecurity. It is acceptable to get angry, but only about certain things (like if you needed approval on some form by a deadline and the office failed to provide it).
They are merely trying to navigate the world as they find it, and they did not create the current mess. They have been surveilled and indoctrinated their entire lives by parents, schools, phones. Many of them have been addled with prescription drugs for years. They have short attention spans and don’t concentrate well, and peer pressure to conform and avoid painful humiliation/ostracism/rejection is magnified by cell phones and social media.
At this point they do not know what life was like prior to Sept 11, 2001 and prior to cell phones. They sometimes flake out on commitments, but in fairness, they have not necessarily been treated well either.
It is true that criticism is not generally handled well, although it depends on the social/economic class of the person (more privileged = more sensitive, fragile). It depends on personality and acculturation too.
They know the job market is difficult, and they are oppressed by student loan debt and pressure to achieve in a very flawed system. Many of them get special dispensation through the campus “disability services office” and get comfortable circumstances to take a test with double time, not in the classroom, deadline extensions, etc. Universities indulge this, and it is very patronizing.
Students haven’t learned how to study or manage a long-term project or handle deadlines because the schools have not educated them. (I don’t blame the teachers, who are not in charge of running the schools or imposing policy. Teachers put up with a lot of crap.)
The Midwest and West coast disapprove of anger, there is not the same cultural response to it but neither handle it well. The south is hypocritical about it, and only certain people are allowed to experience it. I find in the Mmidwest you are not supposed to rebel against authority, and I think that is ridiculous when “authority” is so often wrong, stupid and/or corrupt.
Italians, Jews, African and African-American, Latin cultures, etc do not respond to anger in the same way as WASP-y Anglo-influenced US elite cultures. None of these are monolithic, and authoritarianism can crop up almost anywhere. If it is tolerated and indulged and tacitly accepted, it will only grow.
There is so much corruption – NJ, NY, PA, DE, VA, MD, DC, TX, FL, CA obviously are rotten with it. How do we change that? How should we clean up the huge messes across professions and industries and sectors, when small efforts are sabotaged and undermined by threats or propaganda or ineptitude or apathy? At this point, many of the competent and responsible people have been driven out, so you have the irresponsible, grifting, self-serving, opportunistic careerists failing upward and in charge to the detriment of the rest of us. Where is the honest assessment? Honesty is the first order of business.
People everywhere also deflect responsibility from themselves – anything can be rationalized, even if your job or role carries explicit responsibility for certain functions. There are sanctioned channels for people to direct their anger, and Orwell’s “two minutes hate” in Nineteen Eighty-Four is an example under totalitarianism. Participating in that will never resolve the big problems. It is well known that people need to vent and entertainment is usually a means to channel that energy, with its violence and contrived plots.
The US Northeast (like NYC) with Jewish, Italian and other immigrant heritages has more argumentative, lively, confrontational, direct communication and venting in the cultures and communication styles, but it all depends on context and social level, and it varies.
Glenn Greenwald has consistently advocated for freedom of speech and the right to discuss to try to figure out what is true and valid – how else can we figure it out? We must be allowed to disagree, to dissent, to argue (we can be civilized about it, though we have lost that skill and habit), and to think independently. This is what is under persistent attack on various fronts by various vested interests. There is righteous anger at injustice and abuse, but this society does not punish the biggest criminals at the top of our hierarchies, and systemic problems are not resolved; they just fester and ruin everything over time. Anger does not automatically bring positive, warranted changes.
Also, people often resist reason and evidence when it invalidates their beliefs. (Oh, how I have tried to persuade …) There is pressure to “be grateful” and “be kind” and not make trouble, not have the wrong attitude, yet people are also being fleeced by predatory looting and grifting by the FIRE sector, big pharma/health industry rent extraction, fun practices like civil asset forfeiture, skewed and dysfunctional and mismanaged governments, corporate surveillance, incompetent governance. So many choices for one’s anger! I have found that the most adept bullshitters at deflecting responsibility are at the top of a given hierarchy.
The origin of feminism is women being angry at injustice and mistreatment. The abolition and civil rights movements channeled anger at injustice and mistreatment. Labor movements fight injustice and mistreatment. So anger can find productive outlets. Are we up to that now?