Addicted to Rage: an age of certitude and conviction 

Photo credit: Dylan Pierpont
Photo credit: Dylan Pierpont

The autopsy found “Alea iacta est” faintly written on Karl Pierson’s left arm. The phrase translated means the die is cast and is used to suggest the inevitable. My brother was part of that “inevitable” day. He was in a student-singing group performing Christmas carols in the hall when his teacher heard the echo from the shotgun fired on the opposite end of the school and rushed him and the other students into the dressing room for safety where they sat for over an hour until the swat team found them. Today, over a year later, my family seldom thinks of the Arapahoe shooting, though others are still haunted by it daily. But we are all reminded of it sometimes, as I was recently.

In this case, I was reminded of the event as I was scrolling through my Google feed and realized all of the articles were polemics that offered opinions I felt were erroneous and, as a result, would upset me. This struck me as bizarre because Google’s algorithm is supposed to be set up to supply me with what I want to read. While this may seem dangerously self-affirming, the suggested articles were articles whose premises would grate against my opinions, rather than affirm them. If we trust the algorithm to be functioning properly, this phenomena can be interpreted in a couple of ways. Perhaps I like to challenge my perspective, to see things from a different point of view. Or, perhaps on the contrary; perhaps, more than equanimity and harmony, I enjoy the feelings of rage: feelings of superior intellect and ethics, and a euphoria at vindicating my own perspective. Honestly, I think it’s probably the latter. And so I decided to doctor my feed to get a better balance.

This experience did not immediately remind me of Karl, not until I began to recognize the same phenomena in people around me. There is this person I call the “railer.” He’s the one who uses Facebook as a forum to vent his rage at any sort of perceived injustice—posting cute satires about sexual discrimination, political conspiracies, and racism. Most of his comments are written shrewdly in what he must only assume to be righteous indignation. When he does post with any sort of praise or gratitude, it is normally in affirmation of someone else’s jeremiad. In truth, the “railer” could describe any number of my friends—people, like me, who seem addicted to rage.

The growing awareness of being surrounded by rage reminded me of what my brother, Daniel, had told me about Karl. Daniel had two classes with Karl the semester the “inevitable” transpired. He tells me that Karl was an idealist. Someone who criticized government, capitalism, racism, and injustice anywhere he could see it. And he too must have thought it was righteous indignation until he snapped under the weight of his own rage and became a strange sort of post-modern villain: aware of his crimes, calling himself a mad-man, diagnosing his own mental disorders, prescribing his own medicine—unlike Dr. Jackel and Mr. Hyde, he was a monster at the very moment he was a sane, or, as we will see, it was his rage that created his sanity. 

I do not mean to use Karl as a case study as he is far more the exception than the rule. Rather, I hope to use him as a metaphor, a way of visualizing our cultural addiction to rage. Karl’s shooting was part of a justice project. He believed he had been “unfairly” dismissed as captain of the debate team, and decided one day to make things right. In his words, he wanted to be “judge, jury and executioner.” Certainly, there is great irony in this sort of “justice.” But can’t we all relate? The history of America we seem to treasure most, judging by our curricula, is a history of revolution—one justice project after another.

From the beginning, America was built upon the principles of the Enlightenment and Protestantism—two expressions of rage against traditional hierarchies. These expressions of rage have continued through the civil war, race riots, various women’s rights issues, and contemporary marriage and sex discussions. These sorts of rage many psychologists call “constructive rage” as opposed to “destructive rage.”

It is constructive because the rage was funneled into action and created change that most of us believe was for the better. There can’t be many who believe America would be better off if people had raged less against the institution of slavery. What would one even say? “If only the North had controlled their anger and shown more understanding towards the South, things would have been better.” The phrase is unimaginable in the mouth of any self-respecting millennial. Yet many historians have claimed that, following Lincoln’s assassination, the unforgiving reconstruction of the South heavily influenced the racial problems of the next 100 years. Even so, we can’t help but admit that rage has at least occasionally been effectual in producing positive change.

In schools we learn all about the brutality of the monarchies of Europe, the plight of the Native American, the subjugation of women, etc. We choose heroes like W.E.B Dubois instead of Booker T. Washington. I’m claiming nothing about whose social program is better. I only mean to show that it naturally follows from our curriculum that if we are going to fit into our own historical narrative and stand side by side with our role models, we must be in the business of hunting down and annihilating injustice. Just like Karl, who glared at his debate coach, his eyes full of indignation—he knew what he had to do.

Where would we be without rage? Rage cements a person’s mind and gives him the conviction to do what he has to do. Carol Tavris in her book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, shows how the forces of anger can stabilize our worldview and “allow people to act with confidence” even when their conclusions are illogical. This is the sanity of insanity: as with Karl, rage brings clarity to the complexities of life, policies, morality, etc. Chemically speaking, rage originates in the amygdala which releases stress hormones similar to those involved in the fight or flight response. These hormones hijack the pre-frontal cortex, the area of reason, and mobilizes the body for immediate action. The result is the absolute conviction necessary to perform a dramatic act.

If we are always second-guessing ourselves, how productive can we be, and how can we garner the necessary support of others to accomplish change? And so it is no surprise that we seldom see politicians questioning their conclusions. Instead, they must find a way to be certain; and in our age, the answer is most often rage. The irony is that the conviction that feels so certain, unshaking, and “inevitable” feels that way because it is emotional. Rage ossifies our logic into certitude so that we can be willing to die for the cause.

The interesting question that follows is, when do we allow rage to motivate us towards action and when do we second-guess our motives and conclusions? By acting irrationally we may cause a great wrong, but by not acting we may allow a great wrong. Indeed, this is the very question about which Edmund Burke and Mary Wollstonecraft disagreed in their polemics on the French Revolution. On the one hand, Burke, suggested that the radical idealism had not created a better world at all but, rather, he lamented, “Their liberty is not liberal. Their science is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.” In his diagnosis, they had acted too quickly, and as a result, they rejected valuable traditions without careful consideration for their hidden wisdom. In the end, they only accomplished the institution of a more oppressive tyranny. Burke thought it would have been better to change slowly, to be good-humored and compromising on behalf of the lower classes and to trust God to make all the temporary injustice right, rather than bidding the achievements of past ages a bloody and rapid adieu.

On the other hand, Mary Wollstonecraft published a (more commonly read) scalding rebuttal saying, “It is, Sir, possible to render the poor happier in this world, without depriving them of the consolation which you gratuitously grant them in the next.” She saw Burke’s response as a paralysis—an inaction that would wait for God and do nothing to help the poor and suffering now.

I mention this particular moment in history not because it is antiquated or unique but because it is very familiar. Today, we honor Wollstonecraft because she had conviction. But what of Burke? David Brooks has recently reminded the nation of Burke’s term “epistemological modesty” which suggests to us the limitations of what we can know. Burke believed things were often more complicated than one could ever understand and therefore we should be cautious about our convictions, particularly when they are in conflict with the traditions of the past—the wisdom of ages.

It is the great irony of our age that as we have spread our arms wide in acceptance of cultures, morals, and life-styles, we have simultaneously, and perhaps as a result, turned our backs on past ages. We stoke the fires of revolution but leave bare the fire of our own mantle.

I have seen this demonstrated in many college classes as students are taught to see history as an undeviating story of female subjugation—as if all that could be learned from the Victorian era is how not to treat women. Contemporary justice projects makes history an easy task for the students. It is always one thing (a great metaphysical thing) that explains everything else. Students seldom learn how to value the complexity of the history of sexuality. They seldom realize that the histories they read are only adaptations prone to confirmation bias. They seldom grant the past a crumb of charity. But they do learn how to be indignant. They learn how to bring railing accusations against the monstrosity of oppression we call the past. The past is sacrificed in order to affirm the feminist projects of our present age because, as history suggests, rage mobilizes the forces of political change. Now as always, Tavris believes “The story of the women’s movement in America is the story of the rise and fall, and rise and fall, and rise and fall, of anger.”

This is true for many other movements as well. The rise of anger begins, as with Karl, by our perception of ourselves. If Karl believed he was a poor team captain, his dismissal would have seemed fair. But instead, he believed he was the best person for the job, and perhaps he was. Karl’s justice project began with the assumption of his superiority and culminated with what can only be seen as “just” from a very narrow and narcissistic perspective. The conclusion is obvious—the more dignities, desserts, and rights we bestow upon ourselves, the more unjust the world seems. As we become increasingly enlarged by our own ego, we become enraged by the state of things, even as our perspective becomes increasingly narrow.

The reason enraged people feel so confident with themselves is because rage is a hallucinogenic drug. People under the influence of rage experience a clarification of perspective. It is as if all of history suddenly reconciles itself before them. Tavris gives some examples of these hallucinations:

“[N]ot only do people attribute their emotions backwards to what they felt years ago, they attribute them sideways, to what they think others should be feeling. Some attribute anger to women or minorities of previous generations and even centuries. When they wonder why a battered woman stays with a vicious husband, blaming herself for abuse, or why a slave does not rebel, or why the untouchables accept their caste of degradation,  they are assuming that these sufferers interpret the situation as they do—and see a way out of it, as well.”

Of course, it is not necessarily a bad thing to have a “more liberated” perspective. But what Tavris gives us are the tools to understand that anger and rage are not inherent to a situation but are the result of an interpretation, which is always necessarily simplistic but too often solipsistic as well.

The whole aim of this essay it seems now is to ask this one question: are we certain about our rage, or is our rage what makes us certain?

Karl’s justice project was sadly overconfident and I believe we suffer from the same overconfidence. While theorists have long ago questioned the inevitable progression of history, there remains in our curricula what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery.” We assume our society today is superior to societies of the past. Reactionary is used as a pejorative. We are ashamed to be thought outdated. The truth is, it is easy for us to see the erroneous assumptions of our ancestors, but much harder to see our own, particularly when clouded by the auspices of rage. The peccadillos and offences of our time we may never know because, as Lewis says, “They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

The past is our best ally in giving us pause and enlarging our perspectives—at helping us see ourselves and expose our own errors; it can be more than fuel for our rage. Sometimes I think we treat past ideologies like a strait jacket we are in the process of shrugging off. Perhaps it is as Burke said, “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.” It is my belief that we could do with a little less rage, a little less certainty. Yes, perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I am only holding the “inevitable” progression of history back with my uncertainty. Perhaps, if I, and people like me, would just let go and let the wheels of time turn, change would happen. But, I’m not certain all this political progressivism is inevitable. There is virtue in applying the brakes, in cooling the engine, in checking the map. That’s what a tragedy like Karl can be for us. It can jolt us from our assumptions of people and things and make us confused and uncertain as Socrates. Because sometimes I think the past is just a wise old man we’ve got in the prison, and he won’t run away.

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