Mark Kingwell is the author of 17 books, including Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface.
One of the best-ever Simpsons episodes concerns Homer’s attempt to build a backyard barbecue pit. He mangles this so comprehensively that the result is a tortured mess of brick, metal, mortar and umbrella.
When a pretentious local art dealer, voiced by Isabella Rossellini, sees this craziness, she decides to champion Homer as an outsider artist. “Art isn’t just pretty pictures,” she tells the yellow man. “It’s an expression of raw human emotion. In your case: rage.” Homer’s aesthetic fame is brief but brilliant.
Homer, regularly given to throttling his vexing son Bart, endures a basic condition: He’s a rageaholic. The term actually has a Wikipedia entry, so it must be valid, even though I doubt it’s entered in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; Homer just enjoys a taste for rageahol.
Don’t we all? Well, according to a just-released Gallup poll, 22 per cent of surveyed people worldwide reported regular feelings of anger, up from 20 per cent in 2016, setting a new benchmark since this poll began in 2006. The same poll reported elevated worry levels but, oddly, slightly lower stress levels. Gallup might want to do some refining there, since I am now extremely angry about the conceptual slippage between worry and stress. Come on, man!
There were some strange results in the survey. Estonia, for example, had very low anger numbers. This makes sense: Tallinn, the historic Estonian capital, is a gem of art, culture, food and architecture. It also offers a regular drunken ferry service to Helsinki, which is fun. And yet, nearby Lithuania reported extremely high anger numbers, close to those of Yemen and Afghanistan. I’m willing to bet that life in Vilnius is far, far better than in Yemen, where war and disease will, according to United Nations figures, claim more than 200,000 lives by the end of the year. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the death toll among soldiers and police alone in the past two years is approximately 45,000, with twice as many casualties.
Emotions are obviously very subjective. But rage, especially the political variety, has become a species of Western luxury good, an envy-driven indulgence of the birth-based lucky. When a middle-aged white man declares that his hate-speech newspaper is based on the needs of “angry men,” that’s luxury. When a spluttering white, male U.S. Supreme Court nominee whines that he’s been targeted for criticism, that’s luxury. When people complain that universities don’t respect what they personally consider free speech, that’s luxury.
Consider the radical idea that sharing public goods and losing high office, secure employment, social status or personal wealth is not the same thing as being actually oppressed. Anger about these potential deficits is, like privilege more generally, invisible to those who enjoy it. For what it’s worth, “angry white male” has a Wikipedia entry, too – though that, too, is not yet in the DSM.
Challenges to status provoke anger and envy, sure – and then sometimes hate, and then sometimes hate crime. That is a slippery slope, one made worse by isolation and political division. But the universe is indifferent to our narcissism and special interests. If we want to be decent global citizens, we need to acknowledge our cosmic insignificance and engage in some focused anger management.
A.A. Gill, a Scottish “foreigner,” wrote a very funny 2005 book, The Angry Island, about England and its undeniable rage-ramp since the new century dawned. More soberly, the sociologist Michael Kimmel published a prophetic 2013 book called Angry White Men. If anyone imagines that this dumb-bot, white-guy anger is not part of the so-called Trump “base,” they have not been keeping score. Manufactured rage is the fuel of the MAGA mob, happily heedless of the lies spewed from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Here’s my slice of amateur psychology, based upon walking my city’s cellphone-zombified streets (I won’t cycle any more, too enraging), plus a lot of time watching angry people yelling at each other on television: In the land where everybody’s somebody, nobody’s anybody. There are 7.7 billion of us now. People who post things online, consider themselves social-media influencers or appear as small-time hoods in the Mueller report just want to be seen and cherished. Mostly, alas, they won’t be. That’s the deal, here on planet Earth.
You can rage against the machine, but the machine is just the world. Psychologists understand that anger, unresolved, turns to depression, an even more toxic drug. Don’t drink the rageahol, friends. Just live. Turn off your phone or screen. Go outside. In most cases, as my mother used to say, worse things happen at sea.