Our Anger Complex



When Trevor Noah came to this country, he sensed more hate than he had experienced in apartheid South Africa. He shrugged it off on 60 Minutes last week: “That’s welcome to America, you know. . . .  There’s a lot of hate in America because there is a lot of anger in America.”

Put us on a couch, and a shrink would be scribbling “anger issues” before we finished introducing ourselves. Mother issues too, in our simultaneous adoration of and rebellion from Great Britain, and a little sexual confusion, courtesy of the Puritans, but mainly, we do anger. People came here because their life chafed. Sinners (not them though) in the hands of an angry God, they worked up enough rage to justify seizing land from the First Nations and seizing freedom from Africans. Their most vicious war was fought against their own countrymen. They hero-worshipped cowboys and vigilantes, segregated and lynched freed Blacks, bullied Japanese citizens into internment camps, rounded up intellectuals and branded them communists.

“All that is over now,” the shrink would say gently. “You don’t have to let it dictate your emotions.” And then he would ask what we do to relax, and we would tell him about brain-injury football and angry cartoons and heavy metal and DMX and Insane Clown Posse and Venom: Let There Be Carnage and the video games where you get points for hiring and then killing sex workers; killing little girls who have mutated into monsters; spitting acid down an enemy’s throat and pulling out their stomach; slicing your opponent in half with a chain saw; gunning down innocent civilians as you fight terrorists. (Japan and Germany made the game end if that happened; we did not.)

What does it mean to live in a country where anger is both entertainment and power, a country where fights break out on airplanes and people shoot strangers for disagreeing with them? Some of this rage is by now a cultural habit; the rest is raw and fresh. All of it is contagious. Once a handful of angry men led ragtag militias or went on sprees. Now we are all angry—the bakery ladies, the art history professors, the crossing guards. . . .

We are angry either that virulent racism will not die or that people who are not White keep getting in our way. We are angry either because the anti-vaxxers are letting more and more mutations occur, paralyzing the world and killing people, or because suddenly our government, employer, and family are all telling us to cover our faces and inject a brand-new RNA code into our bodies and it may not even keep us well and who knows what it will do in the long run. We are angry either because the world we knew is changing too fast for us to feel employable, useful, and relaxed, or because people around us are so terrified of change that they grab guns, shout hate, and storm the sacrosanct center of democracy in a fit of false nostalgia.

Our shrink might point out that we lack an outlet for our anger. Those swollen with rage used to be able to take it out against people who were different from them. Now, instead of being able to swagger, they are scolded. They can no longer kick the dog (a neighbor will call PETA) or chop down a tree (the forests have shrunk). The Cold War was a giant binkie—are we now condemned to a second civil war because we have no foreign war to channel all this wrath?

Some analysts set aside existential psychology and blame Fox News flat-out. It rose because it let viewers hear their anger spoken at top volume by a host who knew exactly how to whip up outrage. The fundamental message was fury at the damage liberals were doing to America: how they had stolen the election, and how they were threatening Christians, White people, men, gun owners, innocent children, and unborn babies.

So there is Fox and its ever more virulent spawn, joined by social media, the dark web, and extremist groups. The shrink would know the dangers of all this venting: once thought to be therapeutic, it is just the opposite, keeping the arousal level high and preventing calm reason. “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit,” Ecclesiastes warns, “for anger resides in the lap of fools.”

A CNN poll this September found that 74 percent of respondents were either very angry or somewhat angry about the way things were going in the country today. We have all been provoked into a heightened state of folly, but for very different reasons. Some of it is guilt we refuse to own, a history we cannot be proud of and so must deny. Some is last-straw, for people sick to the bone of being treated unfairly. Some is White terror, because politicians have deliberately spread the notion that anti-White bias is increasing. Some of it is general terror, because the world has changed faster than we could keep up. Some of it is cultural, familial, peer-pressured. Some is the chagrined entitlement that comes from consumer capitalism, because nobody ever feels like they have enough. Some is the permission granted by Trump and those like him to toss facts overboard and seethe with delusion. Some seems like the only way left to feel powerful. And some is pure frustration at the effects of all this rage.

Anger, as an emotion, does not have to eat democracy. Exploring American rage for The Atlantic, Charles Duhigg talked to James Averill, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts. Years ago, Averell studied people in a serene little American town and found that they became mildly to moderately angry several times a week, sometimes several times a day. Anger was not an atavistic hangover from the cave days, he announced. It could be healthy and cathartic.

But the anger he found was specific and personal, and those with sufficient maturity could express it to someone and reach a resolution.

Today’s anger is a generalized helplessness.

Having lost faith in the fairness and reliability of our institutions, we do not trust civilized discourse; in fact, we feel less and less obligation to be civil at all. Our anger’s targets are either too elite and insulated or too stupid to be reasoned with. So we go to extremes. We storm our Bastille. We hate even louder.

“I watched what wrath does,” Chris Hedges says, talking about his decades as a journalist covering wars and terrorism. “It begins with the dehumanization of the other, of course, but it rapidly becomes you dehumanizing yourself.” He is speaking with Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf in a series on the Seven Deadly Sins. Nodding, Yusuf murmurs that “courage is what counters anger.” Then he adds ancient advice: “If you are angry and standing, sit down. If you are still angry, put your cheek on the earth.” Let humility, which is real courage, replace your fear.

Instead, we have let our fury boil, fed it poisoned toads, worked up a magnificent outrage that, when thwarted, turned into what researchers call “the revenge impulse.” Instead of focusing on solutions, an alarming number of us have decided to saddle up and take matters into our own hands. Own the enemy. Destroy them.

We remind me of a pair of schnauzers I once knew. Because they did not trust their vague, timid human to protect them, they turned vicious, taking on this overwhelming task themselves and botching it royally by alienating the rest of the neighborhood.

They enjoyed snarling. And so do we. Fear crumbles the ground beneath us, but anger turns us into superheroes. I write “us” because I am part of this mess of a nation, but I leap no tall buildings. I hide in the basement. Anger has always terrified me. After listening to just a sliver of the national debate, I give up and shut down, refusing to be dragged into all that uncomfortable, useless vitriol.

This always struck me as civilized, if passive; why take part in the brawl? But if the core of the problem is feeling that healthy outrage can no longer have positive consequences, then—it now occurs to me—by withdrawing, I have just proved that true.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.