This war against anger makes me see red

The powers-that-be promote happiness and demonise anger because they prefer us to be little lambs rather than assertive firebrands.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘I’m a bloody billygoat trying to screw the world, and no wonder I am, because it’s trying to do the same to me.’ So said Arthur Seaton, the hero of Alan Sillitoe’s angry young masterpiece Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958). Seaton was a womanising wideboy, who worked in a Nottingham factory by day and drank himself stupid by night, and spent the rest of his time, fuelled by booze and fury, ‘fighting with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers, army, government…’ (1)

These days, Seaton would be carted off for a short, sharp dose of anger management therapy. He wouldn’t be given the respectful title ‘angry young man’ – he’d be labelled a ‘victim of the rage epidemic’. Anger, or at least the unmediated expression of it, has effectively been outlawed. The emotional police have declared war on anyone who remotely resembles an angry young man (or woman). The aim, it seems to me, is to turn the ‘billygoats’ into sheep, yet barely an eyebrow has been raised in response to this insidious campaign of mental manipulation, emotional conformism and spirit-dampening.

If the Fifties were the ‘Angry Decade’ (the title of Kenneth Allsop’s 1958 study of the Angry Young Men of British letters), then the 2000s are the Anti-Angry Decade. This week, the UK Mental Health Foundation (MHF) published a report, Boiling Point, which described anger as the ‘elephant in the room of mental health’. The MHF argued (or rather claimed – to argue is surely far too angry) that, if left ‘untreated’, anger can cause family breakdown and physical and mental sickness.

It’s not enough, said the MHF, that courts increasingly force those who have committed crimes of passion or crimes of aggression to undergo anger management treatment – no, we need ‘earlier intervention’ into people’s lives if we are to address the problem of top-blowing rage across British society: ‘In a society where people can get help for depression and anxiety, panic, phobia, eating disorders and a range of other psychological and emotional problems, it seems extraordinary that we are left to fend for ourselves when it comes to an emotion as powerful as anger.’ (2) The MHF says we need an army of anger-aware GPs and ‘talking therapists’ to fix the problem of anger amongst the British populace. That should weed out any ‘bloody billygoats’ who respond to being screwed over by the world by trying to screw it right back.

It gets worse. Apparently your anger can kill you. The MHF says chronic and intense anger ‘has been linked to’ – ah, that magnificent trick of cheap, dimestore epidemiology: the catch-all phrase ‘has been linked to’ – heart disease, cancer, stroke, colds and flu, as well as depression, self-harm and substance misuse (3). This follows an American study in 2004 which said that ‘angry teenagers are risking their health’ (apparently furious teens have higher body mass indexes than their calmer counterparts, and thus risk a future of heart disease and diabetes), and a 2002 study that said ‘a bad temper can lead to a risk of premature heart attack’ (4). The warning couldn’t be clearer: get angry, and you will die.

The MHF report has given rise to a flurry of handwringing reportage about Britain’s ‘rage epidemic’. ‘SEEING RED’, screamed a headline in the Independent, above an article claiming that Britain is ‘in the grip of an anger epidemic, with a quarter of the population now struggling to keep the lid on their feelings of rage and resentment’ (5). The London Evening Standard’s resident doctor, Mark Porter, warned that ‘anger is eating at the fabric of British society…’ (6) His piece was titled ‘Control yourself’. That could be the slogan of today’s burgeoning anger-management movement, which hawks its wares – expensive videos, tomes packed with tips on how to ‘cool down’, one-on-one sessions with ‘anger experts’ which can cost a whopping £120 per hour even if you do them over the phone – everywhere from colleges to workplaces to prisons.

This all-out war on anger is driven by the authorities’ deep suspicion of edgy or assertive emotions. It may dress itself in the caring language of protecting the population from breakdown, sickness and heart failure, but in truth the demonisation of anger – more than that, the borderline criminalisation of anger – is part of today’s new insidious, intimate policing of the emotional mind. The wholesale management of anger is an attempt to enforce conformity, spearheaded by politicians, police, officials, judges and health practitioners who seem to prefer a populace that resigns, fatalistically, to the problems it faces, rather than one that asks awkward questions and kicks up a furious fuss.

Anger was once seen as an understandable reaction to unpleasant experiences or less-than-civilised living and working conditions; it was a rational, sometimes even dignified ‘strong feeling of displeasure’ (7). Now, in the Anti-Angry Decade, it has been psychologised: anger is looked upon as a condition, a disease, a moral failing on the part of individuals which must be treated and corrected.

It is striking that the MHF and numerous commentators use the disease-linked word ‘epidemic’ to describe the alleged spread of anger, and continually conflate anger with rage. Traditionally, a distinction was made between ‘rage’, which referred to an individual losing control and lashing out explosively, and ‘anger’, which was considered a passionate, even high-minded expression of displeasure with the state of things. As Thomas Aquinas put it: ‘Anger is the name of a passion. A passion of the sensitive appetite is good in so far as it is regulated by reason, whereas it is evil if it set the order of reason aside.’ (8) Today’s blurring of the boundary between the reasoned passion of anger and the unreasonable expression of rage, so that everything from having arguments to committing a crime to getting agitated in the workplace can be labelled part of an ‘epidemic of rage’, shows the extent to which anger has been reworked as a psychological disorder.

Some now talk about ‘anger syndrome’, and in the US – the birthplace of psychobabble – serious anger has been relabelled Intermittent Explosive Disorder. Fittingly sharing an acronym with Improvised Explosive Device (IED), Intermittent Explosive Disorder is ‘a behavioural disorder characterised by extreme expressions of anger, often to the point of uncontrollable rage’. Apparently, 16million Americans suffer from IED (9). These days we don’t have ‘angry young men’ – we have Intermittent Explosive Disorder Sufferers.

It is striking that the handful of commentators who volunteered a defence of anger following the publication of the MHF report this week could only speak up for ‘righteous anger’ – by which they meant the quiet anger of decent liberal politicians or the angry demonstrations against the Iraq war (which actually were far more fatalistic than they were angry) (10). This, too, is an attempt to differentiate ‘good anger’ from ‘bad anger’, to distinguish between the measured complaints of well-to-do types and the spittle-making ‘rage’ of the bloody billygoats amongst the mass of the population. The former can be tolerated; the latter must be sought out and suppressed by the new priestly class of anger managers.

The psychologisation of anger has two consequences: first it separates our anger from the experience or the condition that gave rise to it, so that our ‘expressions of rage’ are always judged to be disproportionate, irresponsible and illegitimate. This can be seen in the relentless rise of rages, from ‘air rage’ to ‘golf rage’ to ‘work rage’. People who suffer from these rages, from the alleged psychological condition of losing the plot in airports, on golf courses or around the water cooler at work, are seen as irrational individuals with moral and mental flaws rather than rational actors expressing loud’n’rowdy displeasure with having been treated badly.

So apparently it isn’t the long queues at airports, the ceaseless security checks and the patronising treatment by airline staff that make some people angry at airports; it’s because they have a diagnosable condition: ‘air rage’. Even worse, it is not low wages, poor working conditions or smarmy bosses that make people angry at work – it’s because they suffer from ‘work rage’. A recent study claimed that 79 per cent of British workers suffer from this medical condition (11). In the past, anger at work was considered by many, not only to be understandable, but to be a powerful sentiment that might be motivated to force employers to improve pay and working conditions. Today, it is seen as shrill and divisive, something that must be treated by an army of anger managers. Indeed, even trade unions ‘are far more likely to organise anger management courses for their members than to incite them to feelings of resentment and class hate’ (12).

This leads to the second consequence of psychologising anger. In robbing anger of its social element, and transforming it into a personal problem that requires one-on-one corrective therapy, the anger-management movement nurtures a society that is obsessed with policing individuals’ inner lives rather than focusing on transforming the world around us. From the anti-angry worldview, society should devote its resources to correcting rage-afflicted individuals rather than fixing the things that made us angry in the first place.

This is most clear in the American study that claimed angry teenagers are more likely to be fat and thus to become diseased later in life. As one critical response to the study pointed out, fatness, at least in the US, tends to be a marker for social deprivation – so perhaps podgier children are angry because they are less well-off, and therefore have more to be angry about (13). Yet rather than explore this possibility, the anti-angry lobby simply medicalises young people’s anger and ignores the conditions – lack of choice, poor education, a feeling of being held back – that possibly gave rise to it. You know you live in a deeply authoritarian society when, Stalinist-style, political, social and personal disgruntlement is labelled a mental illness, and the powers-that-be focus on pacifying and even medicating angry individuals rather than listening to and meeting their demands.

The war against anger is not a top-down conspiracy. This is not Nineteen Eighty-Four, with faceless authoritarians decreeing that certain emotions must be outlawed. Rather, today’s nervous and insecure elite instinctively fears certain emotions and champions others; indeed, it is precisely because the authorities are adrift and directionless that they feel the need to police the mind and to pacify what looks to them like an unknowable, untrustworthy mass of people: the public. So governments promote happiness in schools and workplaces on one hand, and demonise anger on the other, because they would rather that we were contented little lambs, resigned and relaxed, rather than agitated, questioning and demanding individuals.

And yet there is still a great deal to be angry about, just as there was for Arthur Seaton, for whom, ‘when he was not pursuing his rebellion against the rules of love, or distilling them with the rules of war, there was still the vast crushing power of government against which to lean his white-skinned bony shoulder, a thousand of its laws to be ignored and therefore broken’. Or perhaps I’m simply suffering from Authority Rage Disorder?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi took a look at seven deadly personality disorders and expressed his anger at state sponsored happiness classes. Ken McLaughlin dissected a University guide to work stress. Kathryn Ecclestone analysed the prominence of self-esteem in education. Or read more at spiked issue Therapy Culture.

(1) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alan Sillitoe, 1958. Read Brendan O’Neill’s interview with Alan Sillitoe for LM magazine here.

(2) Anger ‘endemic in British society’, Independent, 25 March 2008

(3) Anger problems ‘left untreated’, BBC News, 25 March 2008

(4) Angry teenagers ‘risking health’, BBC News, 6 March 2004

(5) ‘Seeing red’, Independent, 26 March 2008

(6) ‘Control yourself’, London Evening Standard, 25 March 2008

(7) See the definition of ‘anger’ in the Online Dictionary here

(8) Quoted in Emotions in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, by Simo Knuuttila, 2004

(9) Anger syndrome underdiagnosed, BBC News, 5 June 2006

(10) Rage and its uses, Guardian, 26 March 2008

(11) Employers urged to get tough with work rage, Personnel Today, 4 March 2008

(12) p48, Therapy Culture, by Frank Furedi, Routledge, 2004

(13) Angry teenagers ‘risking health’, BBC News, 6 March 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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