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20 April 2008

Reconsidering Anger

All of my life I've been afraid of anger - afraid when it's directed at me, afraid when it explodes near me, and afraid to express it openly. This fear, I believe, stems from a mythology in our culture which tells us that anger is bad, uncontrollable, and should be repressed at every turn (just think of Star Wars). To a certain extent, that's true; anger is a powerful emotion which can cause enormous harm if applied inappropriately. However, lately I've begun to reconsider this mythology of anger, where it comes from and what it means to my life.
We live in an oppressive and destructive society. If you need proof of it just look at US foreign policy, or the destruction of the environment. I would never diminish the suffering of people in the South or the lower classes, but those of us who seem to be free because we are more affluent or prosperous are also oppressed, though in a different way. We are oppressed because we are trapped within a system that is devouring the richness and beauty of the world. We are oppressed because we are forced to work for this system, to promote it and expand it throughout the world - just try to escape, I dare you!
In this context it only makes sense to be angry - it's a perfectly natural and reasonable reaction to the conditions in which we find ourselves. Why, then, don't we see more people joining revolutions or fighting against environmental destruction? The answer, I believe, lies in the mythology of anger.
Anger is dangerous. When it's mis-directed it can bring harm to innocent people, and when it's properly directed it can bring about the disintegration of the prevailing power structure. So again and again we are told, by the media, by loved ones, through religion, by psychiatrists and in a hundred million other ways to suppress our anger, to keep it inside and not allow it to escape. If we burst out someday at work, we are sent to a counselor for 'anger management' - if we try to fight back we are labeled as lunatics and sent away. But anger is a powerful emotion and it demands expression; we are torn between our natural sense of frustration and oppression and the mythology that tells us that this anger is bad.
So what becomes of it? A few people (mostly men I suspect) re-direct it onto those around them who they perceive as being weaker - they beat their wives and children, they rape a woman on the street, or they take a gun to school or work and shoot up the popular kids or the executives before turning it upon themselves. This is unfortunate.
Most of us, however, internalize the anger; that is, we re-direct it toward ourselves instead of toward the system that oppresses us. We become fearful, depressed, and give in to despair. We demean, devalue, condemn, punish and, in the worst cases, mutilate or even kill ourselves. I know because I've been there - in many ways I still am, but I've been lucky to have found people out there who have been through the same thing, who have seen through the mythology of anger and lifted the veil from before my eyes. I understand now that what I felt was not despair, but anger turned inward. I also know that this anger is not a bad thing - it gives me the power and the courage to fight against oppression, as long as I am conscious of where it's directed and how it is used.
Does this make me an angry person? Maybe. But it's this anger that keeps me going in a world dominated by a destructive and oppressive system. I'm not about to join a revolution or buy a gun - those of you who know me also know how ridiculous the idea is - but I will fight, with whatever weapons that I do possess and I refuse to give in to despair.


btmc said...

I think of all the mean little bumper stickers and t-shirts that demean women or men or gays or blacks or rednecks or drivers from massachusetts or loved ones. these cruel little meaningless slogans are often directed at the wearer or displayer, though this is sometimes lost on the displayer. I consider this now, along with cruel gossip and pointless fear mongering among friends about people and places and things that are different or just not present at the moment. I also consider your examples, dear jeremy, of abuse both physical and mental taken out on those weaker, and of course the weaker ones abusing themselves.
So I guess in a purely selfish sense, here is my question, how do I change my ways, to no longer waste time and energy hating what is close and obvious, my family, my self, the other people in town, the new celebrity victim of a scandal, how do I redirect this anger towards the source of my oppression and frustration?
the abstraction of online petitions and political action groups leaves me with a hollow feeling, as if my energy is again being redirected and wasted.
As possible options for ways to fight back, what comes to my mind right now is picking up garbage, or bio dieseling a car, or burning down a wal mart, but I'd like your thoughts.
one more thought: of the examples I just gave for ways to "fight back", two I would consider fairly passive and intended to rest your own individual conscience by removing yourself, by degrees, from the system of oppression and destruction. the third was an example of direct action against that system, and I don't mean "direct action" the catch phrase thrown around by committees and snake oil salesmen, but actual destruction of a piece of the greater web of oppression. I don't mean to call you out or incriminate you, or even put you on the spot. But simply for discussion's sake, given these general examples, which way, passive or active, which way is the best way to express our anger back to the source?
thank you for posting, your thoughts always make me think.

Jeremy Trombley said...

First of all, to the question about what to do - I think you're absolutely right about online petitions and PACs and voting too - it leaves me feeling hollow as well. There's no single answer to your question though - we all do what we can with what we have. I suppose if all you can do is sign a petition, then that's what you do, but there are lots of other things that need to be done - building communities, planting a garden, picking up garbage, bio-dieseling cars, writing books, burning down a Wal-Mart, fighting for those who can't fight for themselves and so on. Some things are legal others are illegal or extra-legal - some are violent some are not - some are more effective than others - but all of them are necessary. The only thing I would ask is that you always try to take one more step - so if you are signing petitions right now, then consider putting together a reading group, if you're part of a reading group then consider planting a garden, if you've got a garden then consider writing a book, and so on.
As for passive versus direct action, like I said above there are lots of things that need to be done and some are certainly more passive and some are more direct, and, again, you do what you can. Also, burning down a Wal-Mart might be less effective in certain circumstances than, say, teaching a class on edible wild plants. It's all conditional, and we all have to look at our own particular situation and decide what can we do, and what's needed right here, right now.
The first step, however, is to recognize the true source of our anger and frustrations and to direct it appropriately. As Derrick Jensen would say - we first have to decolonize our hearts and minds and then we have to take action.

Anonymous said...

This reunion brought to you by “Random Google Searches Conducted to Kill the Monotony of Work”.

Hey Jer…it’s Lyndy (Liverpool, NY). I stumbled across your blog this A.M. Originally I was checking out the Fortune 500 list and ended up with your name in my head…funny how that happens (what I call “a slippery-slope search”). You’re still as intriguing as ever, loved hearing your view on anger. Can’t say I support 100% …( the mention of any type of violence as a solution is asinine…IMO, it’s simply a weak continuation of the vicious circle you have come to hate.)…but this is exactly the thought-provoking stimulus I was looking for this morning. I’m a fan, I’ll keep checking back.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Lyndy, I'm afraid you might have the wrong Jeremy Trombley. In any case, I don't remember you - but I could just be losing my mind. I'm glad to have you aboard, though, and I'm happy that my post interested you.
As for your opinion - you're entitled to it. I see no reason to try to change your mind. My intention was only to show that the mythology of anger holds us back, and causes more harm than it cures. I have no intention to convert people to a revolutionary cause - but I don't think violence should be written off as a means (one of many, I would add) of fighting against an oppressive system. If I were being attacked by somebody with an ax and I had a gun in my hand, I doubt I would hesitate to use it - if my girlfriend were being raped and I had a baseball bat, you can bet I would hit that guy with it until he stopped. Why should I do any less for the land that I live on?

btmc said...

I think it's funny how violence and anger are so tightly interwoven in our minds. I'd have to agree with you jeremy, violence is always an option, it always has been an option and it will likely continue to be so. we are animals after all.
but let's try to delve into what violence means, and how it is connected to anger. anger will often lead to violence, if it is not curtailed, whether against an inanimate object or a person or yourself. but violence can exist without anger, it could be argued that the holocaust is an example of cold, clean violence completely removed from anger, passion, or even a desire to kill. this form of violence, compared to the violence of a riot or a lynching, could also be argued as far worse, if for no other reason than scale. economic warfare, or violence you could say, leaves millions starving and dying, children picking up arms, but there is no anger, no passion behind this warfare. it is calculated, it is abstracted, and it is atrocious.
I'd be interested to hear what you gentleman have to say about this, as I have not really thought it through, but I feel like I'd prefer our violence to come from a place of anger. this seems a bit more primal, maybe "natural". the institutional violence is really what scares me.
this is, of course, all assuming that violence is inevitable. violence comes regardless of our desire for amicable relations, Ghandi's India stands on the brink of Nuclear holocaust, Martin Luther King lies 40 years dead with racial inequality worsening by the day. non violence has a place, but so does violence, both forces fill up our history as the marrow fills our bones, denying any aspect of human potential is limiting your ability to make the world a more habitable place. that's my opinion anyway.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy - Sorry about the identity confusion…but I’ll continue to tango in this conversation, if you don’t mind. (Nevermind that I already have instilled the mental pic of the Jeremy I remember….sorry.)

I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not sure using extreme examples helps to strengthen the case in this matter. Almost anything can be justified when taken to the absolute extreme (i.e. violence, murder, abortion). I assumed we were talking about everyday actions, everyday anger and everyday violence, which makes for more intriguing conversations. Of course violence is always an option…but is it really the best approach to prove the point you are trying to make?

Personally, I avoid violence like the plague, I don’t see a justifiable reason for it, except for good ole’ ignorance. To me, the most rewarding and effective manner to fight [oppression] is to outwit and outplay {insert Survivor theme music}. Violence is a primitive manner to “resolve” conflict, humans are obviously evolving as more intelligent beings, as opposed to physical beings. Shawshank Redemption… Count of Monte Cristo…both excellent examples of the ultimate in intelligent revenge and it seems so much more satisfying.

Rising above, in spite of oppression, through education and calculated response….not violence.


btmc…very intriguing post…it is safe and far more comforting to associate violence with some sort of anger. To think that we can avoid violence by appeasing (or avoid instigating) others gives us control over the situation. Obviously, this is not always the case. While I’m sure that a large part of violence certainly is an outward expression of internal anger, there is an increase in teaching and instilling violence as everyday life (thus removing the staple of anger to incite violence).

Initially, I thought that violence without a thread of accompanying anger would simply be insanity (including paranoia)…is it really human nature to be violent without cause? But your example of the Holocaust was an excellent paradigm to explain an onset of violence and hate rooted in anger but evolving into second nature. By the end of the Holocaust, many Germans felt it more of a “job” to extinguish Jews, as opposed to killing because of personal anti-semetic views. It became a learned violence that needed no continual instigation. That is the scariest situation and something that we are seeing in the Middle East currently, generations of combat soldiers with hate born in their DNA.

Faceless anger…that’s what I’ll call it…. And maybe that’s the point I’m trying to make with Jeremy as well. Do you really know that face of whom you’re fighting…of those who are opposing and suppressing you…or is it a faceless anger that endangers the innocent because of the inability to directly associate that anger with the right people/person.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Lyndy, no need to appologize - I'm glad you stumbled onto my blog, and I'm happy to read your comments. I only wish more people would mistake me for somebody else. :)
I'm going to lay aside the issue of violence at the moment and save it for a later blog post. Mostly because it's a huge issue and deserves a lot more attention than I can give it now. However, I would like to make a couple of brief points.
Brendan, you're analysis is spot on, violence and anger do not always go hand in hand. There are two sides to this. First, as you explained, violence doesn't always arise from anger. The Holocaust is a great example of what Hannah Arendt called the "banality of evil." In this vein I'd highly recommend reading Zygmunt Baumann's Modernity and the Holocaust. I'll talk more about this in my later blog post.
The second side is that anger doesn't have to manifest as violence. This last post was primarily about anger and the harm caused by the mythology of anger in our culture. However, as I've mentioned before, the manifestation of that anger can involve many different activities - the manifestation of my anger is learning so that I can work to take down the dominant power structure and build something new in its place.
Lyndy, again, I don't want to directly address the issue of violence here because it would take too much time. If you want to know where I'm coming from I'd recommend Derrick Jensen's "Endgame." However, there are a few things I'd like to mention. First of all, I use extreme examples (murder, rape) because I believe we are in an extreme situation right now. The landscape is being raped, people around the world are being murdered largely to further the ends of the dominant system. You say you avoid violence like the plague, but the truth is, whether you admit it or not, that most of our way of life is built on violence - it's just that the violence is centralized or exported (again, Baumann is a good source on this one).
The second thing I want to address is the use of the word primitive and what I would call the fallacy of progress. I'm an anthropologist, so any reference to something being 'primitive' annoys me, as does any suggestion that we are somehow better (more intelligent) than 'primitive' peoples. I can give you a whole list of instances where 'primitive' peoples are far more intelligent than civilized peoples. In fact, a good case could be made that civilization has actually had a negative impact on our intelligence. In terms of violence, it's clear that non-civilized groups practiced warfare, murder, rape, etc. However, it was never as systematic or on the same scale as we see today. Any suggestion that we are evolving away from violence is simply wrong based on clear empirical evidence - if anything there has been a dramatic increase in violence worldwide, it's just that you and I don't see it in our daily lives.
Lastly, I agree that outwitting, or outplaying the enemy is a great idea, but sometimes it isn't enough - sometimes you've got to stand and fight. Writing off violence as a potential tool will leave you without any recourse in those situations. Additionally, I'll bet you anything that, when push comes to shove, the tactics involved in outwitting and outplaying the opponent could be easily redefined as violence and just as easily condemned by the powers that be.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Shit, how's that for not talking about violence? :)

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