The Angry Brigade

Scott McLemee reviews a crop of upcoming books focused on anger.

February 21, 2020

One thing you notice while going through the spring university press catalogs is all the anger.

For example, there is On Anger (Boston Review, distributed by MIT Press, February), edited by Agnes Callard, well as Barbara H. Rosenwein’s Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion (Yale University Press, June). The first collects essays on the causes and effects of anger, with an emphasis on whether it's morally valid to hold on to the feeling, and for how long. The editor “argues that anger is not righteous rage; it is not an effort to solve a problem.” (All quotations in this article are taken from the catalog descriptions.) Rather, anger "reflects a cry for help -- a recognition that something shared is broken,” so that “only in acknowledging the value of that shared project … can we begin together to repair it.”

It sounds like Callard and the other contributors are concerned with anger that comes to the fore in public or civic life, rather than with the full range of its manifestations. Anger is a probable reaction to discovering that an unknown dog has pooped on my front porch, and the feeling could turn to rage if it happens a second time. My reaction might then become a concern to my neighbors. In any case, such anger will be of limited social significance and (let’s hope) no long duration. But the philosophers, theologians and sages who interest Rosenwein have, over the centuries, offered a range of interpretations and assessments of anger, from “its complete rejection to its warm reception,” from classifying it as a deadly sin to regarding it as a concomitant of honor and self-respect. She also considers how the discourse on anger “has been gradually handed over to scientists -- with very mixed results.”

And now it’s the province of the economists as well. Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth’s Angrynomics (Agenda Publishing, distributed in North America by Columbia University Press, June) posits a “mismatch between how [people] experience the world with the increasing day-to-day pressures they face and the model used by economic elites and politicians to explain and justify it.” And in the gaps, anger builds: “faith in the workings of markets and politics has been undermined and rapid and seemingly ever-accelerating economic change has become something to be feared.” Advertising copy for the book maintains a discreet silence as to the possibility that, in some circumstances, fear, anger and a loss of faith might be entirely appropriate responses. The authors are said to have in mind “a set of radical and innovative policies that cut across tired party political lines.”

Turning from the dismal science to confounding technologies, we have Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt’s Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings About Technology, From the Telegraph to Twitter (Harvard University Press), published last year but out in paperback this July. Part cultural history, part interview-based report on contemporary developments, it takes the long view of how communications technologies have influenced expressions of emotion. But they also find the social media of the past decade or so to be the matrix of an anxious, impulsive, narcissistic condition amounting to a new experience of personal identity. While keeping anger in check at the workplace is a condition of gainful employment, the anonymity of life online means never having to keep all that rage to yourself.

As if in response, Gillian “Gus” Andrews’s Keep Calm and Log On: Your Handbook for Surviving the Digital Revolution (MIT, April) counsels us on “how to adapt the techniques our ancestors used to survive hard times.” The challenges at hand include “fake news” (much of it designed to infuriate) and “‘creepy ads’ [that] seem to follow us online,” as well as “feelings that we are ‘bad at technology.’” None of which seems on a par with wartime rationing or blackouts, though it does get old. As a saying now making the rounds suggests, it might be a good idea just to turn off the internet for a couple of years. On a smaller scale, Andrews “provides tools for unplugging occasionally … and taking charge of our security and privacy” -- steps toward “work[ing] to rebuild the trust in our communities that the internet has broken.”

Based on a quarter century of psychological research, John T. Jost’s A Theory of System Justification (Harvard, July) implies that trust is actually part of the problem. The author maintains that our “fundamental psychological needs for certainty, security and social acceptance” push us to “feel good not only about ourselves and the group to which we belong, but also about the overarching social structure in which we live, even when it hurts others and ourselves.” It will be interesting to see Jost’s evidence -- and whether his “system justification theory” accounts for the cognitive dissonance that builds up while trying to justify an injustice. Enduring hurt repeatedly without feeling anger is a spiritual attainment in some traditions, but malice, scapegoating and revenge come a lot more naturally.


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