The word is out. Americans are angry. It appears large numbers of the populace ride a roller coaster of rage throughout their day, with a whopping 68% of the population at least once a day reading or hearing something that makes them angry. A recent Esquire-NBC research study, entitled American Rage, studied the many manifestations of anger rippling across our culture, and the study paints a picture of a peevish population. From the outraged crowds attracted to Donald Trump’s stump speeches, to the prickly supporters of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, to the irked activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and the annoyed armed men occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, it seems we are increasingly a nation of angry people.
The study found a spectrum of triggers for the nation’s anger, revealing a fragmented population that is annoyed about a lot of different things. Some Americans are angry about the inactivity of Congress, others the encroachment of government into the marketplace and industries like health care. Another segment of the population directs their ire on corruption on Wall Street, and still others on the role of money in manipulating the political process, while more than half of the nation (52%) is angry that the “American dream” is no longer attainable.
According to the study, the magnitude and focus of our anger rises and falls along fault lines of ethnic, racial and gender differences – 73% of whites are angry at least once a day, but only 56% of blacks, and 66% of Latinos. Women are angrier than men—not only by the way they are treated but by the way others are treated just as much. Middle-aged white men are the most angry of all, seeing life “through a veil of disappointment,” and a “perceived disenfranchisement,” a bitter sense that the dream of their life did not pan out because of external factors.
Curiously, there are a few issues that we rally around with a common irritation. One of the larger percentages of Americans (78%) are aggravated by their perception that elected officials enact policies that favor only the wealthy, and an even larger percentage (more than 90%) are outraged that shootings are happening in our schools. As the researchers summarized the study: “We the people are pissed.”
Over the years, anger has motivated humans to mobilize politically around their dissatisfaction with the conditions of life or those in power. James Cone’s, The God of the Oppressed, explored this righteous anger in relation to centuries of American enslavement and oppression and the African-American community’s struggle for human rights. In The Artistry of Anger: Black and White Women’s Literature in America, 1820-1860, Linda Grasso travels similar ground on women’s issues. She sees anger as an “arsenal” against personal and institutional oppression and believes that anger can elicit courage, growth, and common cause, becoming a profound source of energy that can direct progress and change.
Cone and Grasso are undeniably right. Throughout history angry people have changed societies and cultures by channeling the energy of their rage into constructive engagement with unjust or ineffective social, political and economic systems. In the musical, Les Miserables, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg captured the motivational potential of this affective reaction to injustice. The revolutionary character Enjolras channels the passion of centuries of revolutionaries refusing to yield under the boot of oppression in the song: Do You Hear the People Sing?
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
Because rage has been a part of the human condition from the beginning, the human race has learned a lot over the course of history about emotion, what it can do to us, and how to work with its energy in constructive ways. In a frequently cited psychological study comparing 47 non Indo-Europeans, Hupka, Lenton, and Hutchison found that in most cultures anger is the first emotion humans identify with a label (guilt runs a close second). Whatever else is going on in our inner world, we’ve always been able to recognize anger at work. And, whether you look at the animal and human sacrifices to appease the gods in preliterate societies; Poseidon’s jealous anger at his brother, Zeus; the Roman Furies and their retributive anger toward human arrogance; or the unleashing of God’s wrath on the antichrist in Revelation 16, many of our ancestors have assumed God is just as angry as we are, and about the same things. You still see this assumption operative in contemporary religious circles. After Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes in New Orleans in 2005, some Christian leaders attributed the devastation to God’s judgment on a sinful nation. Similarly, when an earthquake killed more than 90,000 people in Pakistan the same year, the Pakistani news media blamed the tragedy on Allah’s anger and punishment of sinful behaviors.
But, some people with deep spiritualties have always seen the dark side of this powerful emotion. They recognized that anger is not just a tool of transformative change, and it doesn’t always promote “insight, artistry, and action,” as Grasso documents in regards to the fight for women’s rights. Anger is an emotional labyrinth that can swallow us whole and become corrosive and toxic before we’re aware of it. Throughout history, many humans have expressed their anger with no regulation or consideration of the emotion’s role and power to shape our world. In doing so, they have created the most brutal and hideous chapters of our past. One of the great threats to our age is that unlike the past, in which angry people had a difficult time finding each other, thanks to the Internet, telecommunications and travel technology, those awash in irritation can find each other fairly easy.
Consider the chronically angry people around us, and their shared behaviors. Because they can’t regulate the emotion of anger they have a hard time listening, struggle to make important distinctions about complicated realities, and suffer from a deficit in empathy, which inhibits their ability to think in other people’s categories or “feel” the validity of the underlying concerns supporting other people’s opinions. The chronically angry are incarcerated in their thinking and feeling, some serving life sentences. This is one of the reasons such people return to the same talking points over and over again, and their narrow set of issues become superimposed over every situation and conversation. Those with unchecked anger may see a truth in the chaos and disappointment of reality, but they are almost always wrong in their overall diagnosis and prescription for the treatment of problems.
Perhaps the reason so many of us seem content to wallow in our rage is the influence popular culture has had on our values. In the past 50 or 60 years, our culture has often made the angry rebel, even if it is a rebel without a cause, into a kind of folk hero. Anger has become idolized–an end in itself, a last cry of resistance to the “rigged systems” that confine our life. Shouting at the darkness and the rain is not only acceptable, it is the superior response to a meaningless world. Dylan Thomas’s poem becomes a mantra taken out of context: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The pervasive role of anger in the Esquire-NBC study is reminiscent of an iconic scene in the film, Network, a post-Nixon era critique of television news. The aging TV anchorman, Howard Beale, has a nervous breakdown while reporting the evening news, and his brief moment of despair and honesty turns him into the superstar “mad prophet of the airwaves.” In a famous scene, Beale tells his viewers:
“I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write … all I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad… I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”
The scene ends with images of people sticking their heads out of their windows all over the country and yelling into the night: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
Sadly, we don’t have the luxury of “not taking it anymore.” Even if we are mad as hell, the world is going to continue to change at the rapid disorienting rate (which is one of the reasons we are so angry). If we’re going to make all of this anger really work for us, we need to reconnect with the kind of wisdom of the ancient power of redemptive anger that has driven all of the most effective social reformers in human history.
These saints, seers, philosophers and gurus caught onto the dark side of anger early. In the first few centuries of the Christian era, for instance, the desert mystics, fighting their inner demons in solitude, came to see the full force of the destructive potential of rage or wrath. By the fourth century anger took a prominent place in the list of the seven deadly sins, and by the time of Dante’s Inferno, anger was a sin that booked passage to the lower levels of hell.
The ancients came to realize by the 5th century that there are contrary virtues that can temper the cardinal sins. In the epic poem, “Battle for the Soul,” Prudentius may have been the first to suggest that patience is the antidote to anger. Patience allows us to not demonize others or their opinions. If gives us the strength to take issues into the messy commons of our shared world to fight out viable solutions to our problems, without allowing anger to suck us into its vortex. Patience helps us cultivate a long view on our life and human history. It assists us in building a suite of other virtues that are essential to world changing behavior: compassion and understanding, but also persistence and long-suffering. The angry people who will shape a new world must learn to channel their psychic energy not only to complain, but to resist withdrawing into a hive of rage with like-minded people. They need to build alliances across meanings systems in order to reform institutions. The angry people who have changed the world for the better were those motivated to change the world in incremental steps.
These angry women and men have moved nations and cultures toward all kinds of good things, and it is little wonder this emotion plays an outsized role in human efforts to understand our inner life and the things that motivate us to change the world around us. But, it remains to be seen if the sea of rage measured in the Esquire-NBC research will lead in the direction of positive social change. The results of the survey poses a troubling question for our moment in American history: Will our national expression of pervasive anger lead us to positive advancements in our common life, or will it drive us to each other’s throats with the cast of angry characters residing in Dante’s fifth level of hell? The cynics would say the latter, and the Esquire study might support them. But, I’m betting on the power of the human spirit to reconnect with the strength and insight of ancient wisdom and the virtue of patience. We’ve risen out of the ashes of our irritation more than once in the past, can we do it again?