Part Two: Where Does It Hurt?
Preface: This is Part Two of a longer project on the topic of American anger. Part One was entitled “Use Your Words.” Subsequent entries will be posted throughout the coming year.
From Part One: As you’ll no doubt quickly note, my take on American anger (at this time) is a rather personal approach; your take on the topic may differ. Despite that, I’ll be using terms like “Americans “ and the first-person-plural pronoun “we” rather liberally throughout the entries. I do this merely as shorthand, fully aware that it’s literary sleight of hand, both a contrivance and a conceit. I don’t intend to suggest that there are absolute universal truths here, especially since the insistence on universal absolutes in society tends to generate the very anger I’ll be analyzing.
As always, thanks for reading, and even more thanks to those who respond to provoke or inspire further insight and discussion.
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John Lydon of Public Image Ltd., from the video "Rise"
“Anger is an energy.”
(from the 1986 song “Rise” by Public Image, Ltd.; John Lydon and Bill Laswell, cowriters)
Taken from the words of interrogation victims during the height of South African apartheid, the Public Image, Ltd. (PIL) song “Rise” was originally entitled “South African Song.” The track features ex-Sex Pistol John (“Johnny Rotten”) Lydon screaming the above sentiment over an insistent drumbeat and the jangling guitar playing of Steve Vai. Speaking about the victims’ reports, Lydon said, “I put them together because I thought it fitted in aptly with my own feelings about daily existence.” (interview with Smash Hits magazine, February 1986) Though ostensibly a song of angry protest, the title of “Rise” refers to a Celtic blessing, sung as a sort of counterpoint chorus: “May the road rise with you.”
For a number of America’s pogo-ing punks back in the 80s, the British import “Rise” struck a deep chord. That inner rage and turmoil—that combination of moral outrage and confusion—led to many a spastic outburst on the dance floor, my own included. Though a mild-mannered college student by day, my inner id emerged on summer nights in Boston clubs like Spit and DV8. For me, music was a possible form of protest, a bullhorn for the bullied.
Many of us may not have known what we were lashing out against at the time, but it felt great, perhaps even (dare I say it?) cathartic. Lydon himself admitted that he had never been to South Africa and had appropriated the material because it could “apply to lots of other situations.” (New Music Express, February, 1986) When he sang that “anger is an energy,” he made the emotion as generic as the title of the album on which “Rise” can be found: “album.” (If you had the cassette, the release was called “cassette,” and the compact disc was subsequently titled—oh, never mind; you already guessed. Anyway, the video for the song, entitled “video,” can be seen here: http://www.pilofficial.com/video.html#promo) Anger became a catch-all word, something that all the young punks could experience and translate for themselves, whether thrashing about on the dance floor or pounding the walls at home.
Parents of nearly every generation are probably quite familiar with this sort of behavior. The constant complaint from young people is that parents and society “just don’t understand.” When you press for details, they’re few and far between. You can flash back in time to the film “Rebel Without a Cause” or flash forward to teen literature’s current obsession with marginalized monsters and dystopian societies to see this dynamic in play. In some instances (books dealing with racism, poverty, and homophobia, for example), claims to anger and alienation are valid and justified. In many, however, it’s a hyperfictionalized affect, a pose as phony as Holden Caulfield, narrator and self-appointed arbiter of phoniness in the book Catcher in the Rye. Despite all the care, cash, and comfort provided by the typical parent, teenagers feel compelled to rebel and revolt.
This brings me back to my original question: Why are Americans so angry despite our claims of being the best at nearly everything in the world? Is it that we, as a nation, are still stuck in some sort of cultural adolescence? And if so, why?
"SYR" by James "Mayhem" Mahan; artwork inspired by listening to Sonic Youth Recordings from the collection "Convoluted Noise" and available here: http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/328357 (You can also just click on the image.)
Numerous articles during the presidential primaries have noted that Republican candidates are trying to “tap into” the anger of American voters as if it were some kind of electrical current. In many instances, both the media and the campaigns are working feverishly to hype and stoke that anger. If anger is indeed an energy, it’s readily available, highly combustible, and (for all you environmentalists out there) renewable to boot.
For the sake of argument—and at the risk of derailing my own train of thought here—I’m going to challenge the assumption that this electoral “anger” even exists. Given the world’s current political and economic uncertainties, I’d argue that “angst” is a better word to describe most people’s basic concerns and insecurities.
Still, “angst” is a rather static and boring term. If you can recall your grade-school science, it’s the equivalent of potential energy. There’s energy there, but it’s not yet being utilized or expressed in any particular manner. “Anger,” the equivalent of kinetic energy, is the far sexier cousin. Anger has a vector; it moves with both direction and magnitude. In short, anger has a target. Because it is both lively and dynamic, it is also entertaining. Film critics might applaud a somber arthouse film focused on despair and frustration, but for packing American theaters on weekends, a shoot-em-up revenge-fantasy action flick will win out nearly every time.
To cycle back once more to the adolescence motif, today’s most popular films are marketed primarily to young males, those C-sized batteries of teenage angst. Likewise, a fair number of young adult novels (and, sadly, too many adult novels in the wake of Catcher in the Rye) employ the snarky, sarcastic protagonist to translate all that angst into the adolescent vernacular. Fewer verbose third-person snoozefests, please; more sexy “Snap!” in the fast-paced “me, me, me” narrative.
In the previous post, I noted that modern behavioralists advise teachers and parents to tell unruly children, “Use your words.” It’s a call to reason and civility, a redirection of energy away from the id toward the ego and developing superego. And yet, in most of the media to which children are exposed, the id runs rampant and reigns supreme. When you ask children to use their words, chances are good that you’ll hear a line quoted from a favorite movie or song. And when you ask an American voter to express his or her opinion on a political matter, chances are probably even higher that you’ll hear them repeat nearly verbatim some of the “talking points” that they’ve heard from this or that pundit or candidate. In planting their slogans and sayings into the minds of American voters, media mavens are effectively saying, “Don’t use your words. Use ours instead.”
When I was in high school, I had a talent that made me rather popular: I could write large amounts of information on incredibly small surfaces. When an unsuspecting physics teacher allowed students to bring “one sheet of notes” with them to an upcoming exam, I became the go-to guy for nearly everyone in class. With such popularity came this potential power: If I chose to, I could have provided some of my former nemeses with completely false and embarrassingly twisted information. I could have redefined the basic vocabulary of physics and rewritten the laws that govern the interaction of matter and energy in the universe. (In the literary world, this is often called “science fiction,” and yes, it was my initial genre of choice in creative writing.)
Luckily for them, I considered this vengeful fantasy to be unethical. Perhaps this is why I bristle so much when I see trusted public figures engaging in similar behavior with no hint of regret or remorse. Take politicians, for example. They toss off all sorts of terms and statistics with a carelessness that borders on criminal, and the lazy public laps it up. For example, if you’re caught in an argument with someone about the nation’s economy, ask them to distinguish between the debt and the deficit. The odds are high that they won’t realize there is a difference, let alone a huge one. Likewise, people engaged in politic punditry throw around words like communism, socialism, and fascism as if they were synonyms. They’re not. (Go look them up if you distrust me on that. I can wait.)
When politicians say and do such things, they’re not interested in promoting logic or reason. They are not making appeals to the brain. More often than not, they’ll claim they’re speaking “from the gut.” To be more anatomically precise in the metaphor, the appeal is to the spleen, the figurative organ of passion and outrage. (We could drag the heart into this discussion, too, but then we’d have to contend with “bleeding heart liberals” with their “heart-on-their-sleeve” sentiments, which just gets too gory too soon. We’ll get to all of that later.) To push the word into its adjectival form, “spleeny,” we end up with a term that means “peevish and irritable with hypochondriac inclinations.” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, 11th Edition) Now, it seems, we’re getting somewhere. You can’t make this stuff up without being accused of rigging the game.
Let’s stay with the biological metaphors for a moment. After all, when people are constantly angry, they often exhibit symptoms of stress and fatigue. Anger sickens us, both literally and figuratively. It keeps us awake at night, raises our blood pressure, gives us headaches, and has been known to provoke the occasional heart attack.
So when we’re sick, we go to the doctor. If yours is fairly typical, a comment such as “It hurts!” isn’t very helpful at pinpointing a diagnosis or arriving at a cure. A series of probing questions usually ensues: “Where does it hurt? When did it start hurting? Can you describe how it hurts? What activities ease or aggravate the condition?” And so on. It’s a pain (pun intended) to be so precise sometimes, but more often than not, a positive outcome depends on it.
At some point during the examination, many doctors set down the stethoscope and become human thesauruses. “Is the hurt like an ache? A soreness? A tenderness? A burning sensation? A sharp, knife-like stab or jab? A stitch or a sting, a cramp or a pang?” (It suddenly becomes clear to me why so many of my favorite poets are also physicians.)
Like a patient parent (no pun intended), the doctor asks you not only to use your words, but to use them carefully. In a way, he or she is also asking you to define your terms. After all, we can only communicate effectively if the words we use have clear and consistent definitions. Without such a linguistic foundation, we’re reduced to hand gestures and babbling.
Webster’s dictionary defines “anger” as “a strong feeling of displeasure.” This is the first definition. The second definition—and surprisingly, there are only two offered in the Collegiate 11th edition—is, simply, “rage.” I’m always intrigued when a word is defined in opposition to another word—in this instance, pleasure. Anger displeases. It leads to uneasiness. To graft these branches back onto the medical analogy, anger is a form of dis-ease. See how language sometimes dances about in revelatory patterns?
In addition to the dictionary definition itself, Webster’s offers a rare, almost editorial side note: “ANGER…names the reaction but in itself conveys nothing about intensity or justification or manifestation of the emotional state.”
In sum, anger is vague. As a word, it doesn’t communicate much of anything. As a concept in physics, it would be rather useless. So much for defining our terms.
Luckily, in addition to its two definitions, anger has all kinds of synonyms. First, however, we should define that term a little further. A synonym is not an exact equivalent of a word, as we’ve seen with the socialism/communism/fascism example. (If you still don’t believe me and didn’t look it up the first time around, I encourage you to do it now, but this time I’m not waiting.) Contrary to what you may have heard in grade school, synonyms are not always interchangeable. They may be siblings in the same family, but not all siblings are identical twins.
Therein lies the inherent beauty and usefulness of the thesaurus. It inspires a sort of lateral thinking that can often surprise the curious reader with its insights.
This is especially true when confronted with a generic term like anger. Here are some relevant synonyms for anger (from Roget’s Super Thesaurus, Third Edition): rage, fury, irritation, annoyance, indignation, wrath, resentment, animosity, displeasure, peevishness, pique, bitterness, gall, soreness, umbrage. We could go further and list causes for anger (envy, spite, insult, revenge, etc.), but that would be confusing the symptom with the dis-ease.
Interestingly, you’ll note that though resentment and animosity are listed as synonyms, Roget (at least in the third edition) stopped short of including hatred. Other sources added it but stopped short of adding hatred’s seething stepsister, contempt. Anyone who has been involved in or paid attention to politics over the past couple of years knows very well that both of those sentiments are alive and thriving in American culture.
As we define and apply these terms, I also want to make clear that I’m not conflating anger with violence. Though they are no doubt related and will be discussed throughout this essay, there is a great deal of hope to be had in the dramatic decrease in violence in our society. For more on that, I strongly recommend the epic book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. Though the overall premise seems to run counter to conventional wisdom, it’s a well-researched and thoroughly documented analysis guaranteed to cure at least some small part of the darkest skeptic’s pessimism. Critics of the book also tend toward the redefinition strategy that I cautioned against above: They try to redefine the foundational word “violence” in order to undermine the book’s meticulous reasoning. It’s somewhat akin to those who wish to rewrite history (along with the here and now) in order to suit their own ideological inklings.
What I suggest for the moment is that we consider anger, ours and others’, and test it against the synonyms listed above. If we can refine (or more precisely define) the feelings that we’re sensing on any given topic, we might find ways to communicate about this so-called anger more effectively. As we do, we should bear in mind that words have both established denotations (their literal, “dictionary” definitions) and potentially unpredictable connotations (implied associations and feelings). After all, an article entitled “American Fury” would no doubt conjure different expectations and emotions in a potential reader than an article entitled “American Indignation” or “American Peevishness.”
That said, I’m eager to explore a number of these words and associations in the entries to come. Indignation, for example, with its linguistically internalized reference to dignity, dovetails rather nicely with a discussion of American feelings of self-righteousness and entitlement. The goal is not to locate anger in any given sector of society, nor is it to make quick or simplistic connections between any type of anger and a particular ideology. The goal, quite simply, is to raise awareness, and with that, the level of discourse about what actually and honestly displeases us.
As always, I welcome all thoughts and comments in advance, as well as any anecdotes that you feel might be useful in illustrating some of these ideas. I’m sure there will be many examples to come as this election year gets underway.