Living in an Age of Anger

Living in an Age of Anger October 30, 2017

Let’s talk about anger. We seem to be living in an Age of Anger, so it seems like a good idea to try to understand it better.
It’s central to a lot of literature and stories, including movies and television dramas. The Iliad starts with it. Robert Fagles translates the first few lines like so:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurtling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds …

Achilles and the rest of the Achaeans are there because of rage. It’s like this, see: Zeus threw a dinner party on Mount Olympus and invited all the gods and demi-gods except Eris, the goddess of strife. Obviously, right? You don’t want angry Strifelady messing up your party. But on the other hand, what’s going to happen if you invite everyone except Strifelady? She’s going to be angry, in fact enraged, and bang goes your party again.
Eris threw the golden Apple of Discord inscribed “for the most beautiful” into the party, and they got strife after all. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each thought she was the most beautiful, so they asked Zeus to choose. Yeah right, Zeus was really going to get in the middle of that, so he handed the job off to young Paris, son of Hecuba and Priam of Troy.
Paris was happy to oblige and told the goddesses to get their kit off, but then he was still stumped. (Sure he was. He just didn’t want to bring the contest to an end, that’s all.) Each goddess offered him a bribe and Aphrodite offered the love of the most beautiful human woman, Helen, who was married to Menelaus; Paris chose Aphrodite and absconded with Helen (who of course had no say in the matter) – and there’s your Trojan war started. Anger all around.
By the way what is the source of Achilles’s rage at the beginning? Agamemnon has helped himself to Briseis, Achilles’s slave woman/war captive. Diddums. Briseis’s possible rage or grief at being a slave woman/war captive is not discussed.
There’s King Lear, which is all about frenzied anger destroying everything in its path. The fairytale beginning is another contest of threes: Lear challenges his three daughters with “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” so that he can split his estate among them according to which gushes the most wetly. Goneril and Regan flatter him as energetically as Donald Trump’s cabinet flatters him, and Cordelia declines to compete with them.

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

His response is to declare her not his daughter.

Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee, from this, for ever. The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter.

Shakespeare had two daughters. He wrote a number of plays in which fathers failed to trust their daughters and treated them badly, and then were reunited and reconciled in the end. On the way there, he portrayed a lot of stupid irrational cruel anger, and especially so in Lear.
Anger and rage have become more conspicuous in daily life with the advent of social media, especially Twitter, home of the rage-fueled dogpile and of Donald Trump’s furious id. We need a certain amount of social anger to organize against oppressive institutions and customs, but interpersonal anger is another matter.
The social psychologist Carol Tavris wrote Anger: the Misunderstood Emotion to dispute widespread but evidence-free ideas about anger as catharsis and the like. Many therapists (and many non-therapists who pick up the conventional wisdom) claim that anger needs to be “expressed” or put into action in order to dissipate it, but Tavris cites studies that find the opposite.

Leonard Berkowitz, who has studied the social causes of aggression for many years, likewise finds that ventilation-by-yelling has no effect on the reduction of anger. “Telling someone that we hate him supposedly will purge pent-up aggressive inclinations and will ‘clear the air,’” he observed. “Frequently, however, when we tell someone off, we stimulate ourselves to continued or even stronger aggression.”

I noticed that in work environments years ago: we would be summoned to meetings at which people would bring up a fraught issue and “clear the air”… with the result that everyone left a good deal angrier than they had been before.
I still know too many people who think that a really scorching telling-off will both set the recipients straight and make the teller-off feel terrific, and yet it never works out that way. The people scorchingly told off turn out not to like the exercise, and they scorch back, and a few minutes later everyone feels like shit. It’s funny how people don’t learn.
Last week Donald Trump had a chance to pay back journalists for not praising everything he says and does, and he seized it.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Donald Trump had a Halloween event with reporters’ children in the Oval Office on Friday, expressing shock that the press “produced such beautiful children.”

“I cannot believe the media produced such beautiful children,” Trump said. “How the media did this, I don’t know.”
He pointed to members of the press and asked the kids, dressed up in Halloween costumes, if they knew who the reporters were.
“They’re the friendly media,” Trump said. “That’s the press.”
He looked over at one of the kids to his left.
“Are you crying for me sweetheart?” he asked.
He added “these are beautiful, wonderful children,” asking if they are “going to grow up to be like your parents?”
He expressed tepid disapproval for that idea, but said the kids should not “answer” because “that could only get me in trouble, that question.”
“You have wonderful parents, right?” he asked.

That’s where untamed anger gets you.

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  • Cali Ron

    A similar phenomenon happens with the anger that fuels mob mentality. Most people can contain their anger, but when it gets reinforced by others it becomes easier to give in to your baser emotions and physically act on them. I see this in the crowds of Trump supporters who are emboldened by Trump and do in public what they never would have done alone without the group mentality normalizing their egregious behavior. Enough with the hate and anger, can we bring back peace and love ins?

  • Jim Baerg

    “I still know too many people who think that a really scorching telling-off will both set the recipients straight and make the teller-off feel terrific, and yet it never works out that way.”
    For an interesting discussion of how that makes anger/hatred worse & what the reverse strategy does, see either of these.

  • John the Drunkard

    Indignant self-righteousness seems to be the fallback emotional tone. Are the Bernie-bros, the perpetually enraged ‘trans-activists,’ etc. really all that different from the gun-nuts and Murdoch swallowers?

  • Steve

    And in the end the thing that anger prevents is the one thing that could actually make the world better – rational dialogue.

  • I would put it more broadly than that. Anger prevents dialogue that is decently empathetic as well as rational. We need both.

  • JD

    It’s an Age of Narcissism, not Anger per se.
    Narcissism leads to class conflicts and Haves vs. Have-Nots which Creates anger. The modern American Republican way is all about Selfishness (Ayn Rand crap): billionaires wanting to rake in even more money…
    It is of course reinforced, and interacts with, Fear.
    And ultimately it’s all about Ignorance.
    The beauty of it all is that it fuels Capitalism/Consumerism.