Why are we living in an age of anger – is it because of the 50-year rage cycle?

Why are we living in an age of anger – is it because of the 50-year rage cycle?

From passive-aggressive notes on ambulance windscreens to bilious political discourse, it feels as though society is suddenly consumed by fury. What is to blame for this outpouring of aggression?

‘Unprocessed anger pollutes the social sphere. Every outburst legitimises the next.’

By Zoe Williams Wed 16 May 2018 01.00 EDT Last modified on Wed 16 May 2018 06.52 EDT

A neighbour objected to a young couple from Newcastle being naked in their own home. “We are sick of seeing big bums, big boobs and little willy,” was the core message of the note, crescendoing to: “We will report you both for indecent exposure.” It is such a small thing, banal, without consequence. It connects to no wider narrative and conveys nothing but the bubbling discomfort of human beings living near each other. Yet when Karin Stone (one of the nakeds) posted the note on Facebook, 15,000 people pored over it. An Australian radio show interviewed her. I have got to be honest, I am heavily emotionally invested in the story myself and I do not regret a second of the time I have spent reading about it.

There is a through-line to these spurts of emotion we get from spectatorship: the subject matter is not important. It could be human rights abuse or a party-wall dispute; it does not matter, so long as it delivers a shot of righteous anger. Bile connects each issue. I look at that note, the prurience and prissiness, the mashup of capital and lower-case letters, the unlikeliness that its author has a smaller bum or a bigger willy, and I feel sure they voted for Brexit. The neighbours are delighted by their disgust for these vigorous, lusty newlyweds, I am delighted by my disgust for the neighbours, radio listeners in Australia are delighted. We see rage and we meet it with our own, always wanting more.

There was the mean note left on the car of a disabled woman (“I witnessed you and your young able-bodied daughter … walk towards the precinct with no sign of disability”); the crazed dyspepsia of the woman whose driveway was blocked briefly by paramedics while they tried to save someone’s life. Last week, Highways England felt moved to launch a campaign against road rage, spurred by 3,446 recorded instances in a year of motorists driving straight through roadworks. Violent crime has not gone up – well, it has, but this is thought mainly to reflect better reporting practices – but violent fantasies are ablaze. Political discourse is drenched in rage. The things people want to do to Diane Abbott and Luciana Berger make my eyes pop out of my head.

But what exactly are we looking at? Does any of this have a wider social meaning? Does it place us at a perilous point on the curve of history, on the tinderbox of a grand explosion? Or is it that some things – cars, social media – are really bad for our mental health?

There is a discipline known as cliodynamics, developed at the start of the century by the scientist Peter Turchin, which plots historical events by a series of mathematical measures. Some are obvious – equality – and some take a bit of unpacking (“elite overproduction”, for example; as a consequence of inequality, there are periods in history when there are too many extremely rich people for the positions of power that extremely rich people typically occupy. This results in them going rogue and buying themselves into power by hosing money at elections.

Donald Trump is the ultimate human face of elite overproduction.

These measures yield a map of history in which you can see spikes of rage roughly every 50 years: 1870, 1920, 1970 (you have to allow a little wiggle room to take in the first world war and 1968). Cycles of violence are not always unproductive – they take in civil rights, union and suffragette movements. Indeed, all social movements of consequence start with unrest, whether in the form of strike action, protest or riot. Some situate economics at the heart of the social mood: the Kondratiev wave, which lasts between 40 and 60 years (call it 50 and it will correspond neatly with the cycle of violence), describes the modern world economy in cycles of high and low growth, where stagnation always corresponds with unrest.

David Andress is a professor of history at the University of Portsmouth and the author of Cultural Dementia, a fascinating account of how the slash-and-burn rage of the present political climate is made possible only by willfully forgetting the past. He counsels against what could become an indolent understanding of history – if everything is a wave and the waves just happen, what is there to discover? – but he allows that “everything has to come back to economics unless you’re rich. Economics is about scarcity and insecurity turns very quickly into anger and scapegoating.”

“As a historian and as a teacher, I’m always trying to get people to understand that societies in general are violent and hierarchical places,” he says. “People like you and me have wanted societies to be less violent and hierarchical and we have worked at that. We’ve never actually succeeded. We’ve managed to persuade people to take their foot off other people’s throats, when they felt secure enough.” Anger is remarkable not in and of itself, but when it becomes so widespread that it feels like the dominant cultural force. What is notable to Andress is the counterfactual – the periods in history not marked by fury. “Antagonism never goes away. That is what has made the postwar project quite exceptional, the EU project quite exceptional.” Ah, the EU. Perhaps another time.

The psychotherapeutic perspective would not reject these economic factors, nor argue that anger is a new phenomenon. But there are elements of the human emotional journey that are novel and are driven by modern conditions. Aaron Balick, a psychotherapist and the author of a perceptive and surprisingly readable academic account, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking, says: “I think for sure anger is more expressed. What you see of it is a consequence of emotional contagion, which I think social media is partly responsible for. There’s an anger-bandwagon effect: someone expresses it and this drives someone else to express it as well.” Psychologically speaking, the important thing is not the emotion, but what you do with it; whether you vent, process or suppress it.

We are in an age where the trigger event can be something as trivial as a cranky git who does not like nudity. Thanks to Facebook, 15,000 people can get a righteous thrill of expressed rage. Wherever we are on the Kondratiev curve, ours is a materially different life experience to one in which you would only come together in fury for something serious, such as destroying a ploughshare or burning a witch.

“Hysteria is not a particularly politically correct term anymore, because it’s kind of misogynist, but it does have a technical meaning,” says Balick. “A hysterical emotional response is when you’re having too much emotion, because you’re not in touch with the foundational feeling. An example would be office bitching. Everybody in the office is bitching and it becomes a hysterical negativity that never treats itself; nobody is taking it forwards.” This has the hammer thud of deep truth. I have worked in only a couple of offices, but there was always a gentle hubbub of whinging, in which important and intimate connections were forged by shared grievance, but it was underpinned by a deliberate relinquishing of power. You complained exactly because you did not intend to address the grievance meaningfully.

Social media has given us a way to transmute that anger from the workplace – which often we do not have the power to change – to every other area of life. You can go on Mumsnet to get angry with other people’s lazy husbands and interfering mother-in-laws; Twitter to find comradeship in fury about politics and punctuation; Facebook for rage-offs about people who shouted at a baby on a train or left their dog in a hot car. These social forums “enable hysterical contagion”, says Balick, but that does not mean it is always unproductive. The example he uses of a groundswell of infectious anger that became a movement is the Arab spring, but you could point to petitions websites such as 38 Degrees and Avaaz or crowdfunded justice projects. Most broad, collaborative calls for change begin with a story that enrages people.

To distinguish “good” anger from “bad” anger – indeed, to determine whether anything productive could come of a given spurt of rage – it is worth considering the purpose of anger. “Its purpose is to maintain personal boundaries. So, if somebody crosses you, gets in your space, insults you, touches you, you’re going to get angry and the productive use of anger is to say: ‘Fuck off,’” Balick says.

The complicating feature of social media is that “someone might be stepping on our identity or our belief system”. So, the natural sense of scale you get in the offline world – a stranger could run over your toes with a shopping trolley but, being a stranger, would find it hard to traduce your essential nature – is collapsed in the virtual one. In the act of broadcasting who we are – what we believe, what we look like, what we are eating, who we love – we offer up a vast stretch of personal boundary that could be invaded by anyone, even by accident. Usually it is not an accident, though; usually they do it on purpose.

However, if it gives you a fillip to lie in bed checking whatever news or chat feed nourishes you, then experience a short thrill of indignation, is that a bad thing? Could it just be supplying the insignificant boost we used to get from smoking? There is certainly a hormonal response (“There’s always a physical manifestation; emotions aren’t a made-up thing,” Balick says), but it is not an obvious one: Neus Herrero, a researcher at the University of Valencia, “stimulated” anger in 30 men (with “first-person” remarks) and found a variety of apparent contradictions. Cortisol, which you would expect to go up, since it is the stress hormone, goes down; testosterone goes up and heart rate and arterial tension go up. Herrera discovered an oddity in “motivational direction” – usually, positive emotions make you want to get closer to the source, while negative ones make you want to withdraw. Anger has a “motivation of closeness”, which Herrera explains simply: “Normally, when we get angry, we show a natural tendency to get closer to what made us angry to try to eliminate it.”

Like any stimulant, it has addictive properties: you become habituated to it and start to rove around looking for things to make you angry. Rage has an illusion of power, the way the Incredible Hulk takes peculiar pride in the destructive potential of his strong emotion. “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” is such a curious catchphrase; the only logical response is: “I don’t like anyone when they are angry.” But it manages to make sense on a deeper, primeval level.

The important consequences are not for your own health, but rather for that of society as a whole. Unprocessed anger pollutes the social sphere. Every outburst legitimises the next. And we have landed – I like to think by accident – on a technology that perpetuates it and amplifies it, occasionally productively, but more often to no purpose at all. Writ large on a world stage – take Trump or Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, venting unmediated fury for political effect – we can see how denaturing it is, how it gates off all other, less exhilarating responses, such as empathy.

People getting so angry about traffic cones that they drive straight into them, while effing and jeffing at a workman in a hi-vis jacket, may or may not be a harbinger of greater social unrest, but I remember the John Major years and his cones hotline. Whatever cones signify, it is never anything good.


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