All my adult life I’ve smiled wryly as the parking attendant, unable to work out the limits of a yellow signed zone, claims he can’t void the ticket he hasn’t yet issued; I’ve spoken with an exaggerated calm as the fourth tele-engineer in a row asks if I’ve tried turning it “on and off again” – even as my internal pedant screams “it’s off then on” –; I’ve nodded and grinned as other parents wax about their kids’ Grade Six bassoon knowing mine struggled to be the understudy for the triangle part in the school orchestra.
But recently I have found myself less willing to take the deep breaths, less capable of blocking out the irritating, less inclined to hold back and not scream and swear and threaten and release the dogs of roar. I feel like an electric whore, ever ready to blow a fuse.
I thought it might just be middle-age frustration, years of suppressed exasperation finally bubbling up. As Dylan Thomas advised, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day / Rage, rage…“
But this year I discovered I’m far from alone. Trump, Brexit, Euro-Nationalism, Black Lives Matter, imploding political parties, race hatred, global terrorism: the whole world is angry and ready to show it. Fury is all the rage.
But why are we so mad? Who has lit our f***ing ire?
The fact that we’re all becoming polarised and incensed has not escaped the mainstream gaze. Brain Dead, a recent tongue-in-cheek CBS drama, blames our rising tide of anger on alien ants which, having arrived on earth in the 2013 Russian meteorite crash, are now crawling into people’s ears eating the reasonable parts of their brains. Obviously rising poverty levels and a growing global awareness of injustices was just a little too far-fetched.
Psychologists list the most common causes for anger as grief, rudeness, tiredness, hunger, injustice, being teased or bullied, humiliation, embarrassment, deadlines, disappointment, sloppy service, failure and infidelity. Which not only sounds like most of my family dinners, it’s also an emotional tick list for the inciting incidents of almost every film ever made.
Basically, anger is a toxic cocktail of pain and fear. And whether we own up to it or not, pretty much all of us are carrying it around, keeping it down, like model citizens… until some dick indicates left and turns right, and even though it’s Boris Johnson, we’re ready to jump out the car, right in the middle of the road, and thump him.
Pain and fear shortens tempers and weakens patience. So simple everyday incompetence, avoidable mistakes compounded by repetition, instead of the farce it actually is, becomes a massive challenge to our world and a reminder of our own blind impotence to stop it.
It’s not the pain or the fear that’s new. They’re as old as original sin, albeit nowhere near as fun. Some say that anger is our natural state. But our willingness to show our fear and pain, to act it out and react, that’s new. I mean it could be healthy. “Let it all out,” say the therapists. Which is great. Until everyone’s doing it.
When we lived in the pre-internet geographical world, thrust together with others purely by accidents of birth and postcode, we couldn’t escape our neighbours. We’re a communal species, we gather and share to survive. We learned to tolerate the outrageous views of the people who happened to be around us. We learned to bite our tongues and live and let live. We all learned to moderate. And though it clearly wasn’t democracy – intellectuals, ever in the minority, had a disproportionate share of the discourse through educated eloquence, more leisure time afforded by higher incomes and a sense of their own superiority – in the 50s it blossomed into a relatively peaceful liberal tolerance.
But now we’re living in a new and uncharted world. In our always connected networked universes, where different timezones have less and less meaning, who has the time for tolerance? Day or night, there’s always some part of the world on and broadcasting its most dramatic and compelling events. Most of them terrible terrible things. And if you don’t scream now it will be lost in the next atrocity and it makes you feel like your voice is so tiny unless you retweet or repost and traumatise someone else, as if the problem shared could ever be halved. It can’t. It won’t.
More of us are more aware of injustice than at any other time in history. Every day I see black people being shot in the US by the police, I see bizarre tortures in Syria, I hear the pleas of Native Australians and the breaking of bones. The Windows 10 Welcome Screen, that I never asked for btw, feeds me a different photo every day showing how incredible the natural world is but the babies crying in South Sudan, or the frightened schoolgirls undone by Boko Haram, are nowhere to be seen. How long can any of us patiently stand by?
Social media doesn’t connect us by geography, or the facts of our lives, but by the most vulnerable and unreliable parts of our identities, our beliefs and opinions. And no opinions are more powerful, capricious and ripe for persuasion than political ones.
So now I’m emboldened by an online community of millions who share my own stupid and skewed vision, I feel the strength in our numbers. As Michael Gove said, we’ve “had enough of experts.” And I don’t have to tolerate the frankly barking views of my neighbour (even if he’s got a million people around the world agreeing with him), in fact my online community simply supplies me with more and more ammunition, ceaselessly, that proves my neighbour’s wrong and eventually I’ll bloody well show him.
The erosion of geographical cohesion, not only in social and political terms, but also in globalised economics – such as Trade Agreements with clauses that override the sovereignty of nations so the wishes of corporations can overrule the political will of a country’s people – is, no doubt, next to Global Warming, one of the biggest problems the 21st Century faces. Right now countries and terrorists and the voters of America are all fighting, in one way or another, for the right balance between the freedoms of globalisation and the support of localised communities. As the stakes and the enemy get bigger and bigger, so does our individual sense of impotence – and there’s only one way we know how to deal with that: get angry.
Growing up after WWII, I was fine tolerating incompetent officials because, even if the parking attendants may be unsympathetic, stupid, jumped up, jobsworths, at least they didn’t wear jackboots.
But time has passed, I am witness to the mad injustices of the world and as an empathetic human they are mine too. Now, like an easily distracted window cleaner, it doesn’t take much to make me lose my rag.
The question, in the end is not why are we so angry? It’s why wouldn’t we be?
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