Notebook June 2020
The choleric outbreak
On anger and its contemporary causes.
Not long ago, I was invited to deliver a talk at Cambridge, the bulk of which is below. I was disappointed that night not to be no-platformed. I feel as if I must have been too conciliatory or pusillanimous in the expression of my opinions never to have attracted such negative attention; but of course, in order to be no-platformed, one must first have been platformed, which I very rarely am.
But though I have never been no-platformed, I have witnessed a speaker at a literary festival be prevented from speaking by means of aggressive and violent protest. The speaker was presenting her recently published memoir. She was the final speaker of the festival, and I spoke immediately before her. During the last quarter of my talk, there began to be shouting outside the hall and banging on metallic boxes. All this was aimed not at me, but at the next speaker, a journalist called Katie Hopkins, of whose work I had not previously been aware. I subsequently learned that she was famed for her forthright, and sometimes extreme and distasteful, comments on public affairs.
By the time I finished, the audience and I were virtual prisoners in the hall, a deconsecrated church. A crowd, or perhaps I should call it a mob, of a hundred or two hundred had gathered outside. The police, all four of them, were completely outnumbered (though they had had plenty of notice that a violent demonstration would take place) and did very little, except advise us to stay inside the hall and not to leave, eventually escorting us out in the dark, as thieves in the night, through the muddy churchyard to avoid the mob. We left as one or two of the demonstrators broke into the hall, causing damage to the building and assaulting a person inside. The police had previously advised Ms. Hopkins that they could not assure her safety and encouraged her to leave, and indeed I have little doubt that had the mob actually had access to her they would have assaulted her physically and possibly injured her very seriously.
“I’m angry, therefore I’m good.”
One or two of the police were covered in eggs thrown by children who had been given them by their parents. Of course, this was done with complete impunity, and in fact no one was arrested during the whole episode. The demonstrators were not from the town in which the literary festival took place but had come expressly to demonstrate in this fashion. They were from the group known as Antifa (short for anti-fascists), though perhaps Pro- or Simil-fa would be more appropriate names.
What seemed to me to be perfectly obvious was that the demonstrators, who appeared superficially to be angry with or about Ms. Hopkins, were in fact enjoying themselves hugely. They were acting in a kind of bad faith, in some sense dishonestly, by disguising from themselves their real emotions. They were stoking themselves up into an agreeable state of fury, believing in a distorted form of Descartes’ cogito, namely, “I’m angry, therefore I’m good.”
Anger in our times seems often to be taken by the angry themselves as justified in itself; and as if, being auto-justified, its expression cannot be disproportionate. It needn’t even be vented on those responsible for whatever is supposed to be the occasion of anger.
Sometimes, indeed, no one need actually be angry for fury to be said to exist. “Fury at . . .” say headlines in British newspapers, the subsequent story not informing the reader who, exactly, is furious. The fury is like the pain described by Mrs. Gradgrind, from Charles Dickens’s Hard Times: “I think there’s a pain somewhere in the room,” she said, “but I could not positively say that I have got it.” Fury is like a miasma in the miasmatic theory of malaria before the discovery that malaria was caused by a protoplasmic organism spread by mosquitoes. You breathed in the miasma and contracted the disease. It sometimes seems as if we live in an atmosphere in which we inhale fury and exhale outrage.
Why should this be? We are, in many respects, the most fortunate people who have ever existed—not that many people know this. Their standard of comparison is always people more fortunate than themselves, or who appear to be so, and if it is true that there is always someone worse off than oneself, it is also true that there is always someone better off as well.
Celebrity culture no doubt plays its part in the stimulation of anger. In his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey says, “If a man whose talk is of oxen should become an Opium-eater, the probability is that . . . he will dream about oxen.” One might adapt this slightly to read, if a man whose talk is of the rich and famous, the probability is that he will dream of being rich and famous.
The concept and existence of celebrity is hardly new, but I think that what is called the celebrity culture plays a greater role in our mental economy than ever before, with a concomitant feeling of disappointment (for virtually by definition not everyone can be rich and famous, Warhol’s dictum notwithstanding), and therefore of resentment, especially where the person picked out to be rich and famous often appears to have no particular ability of a completely different order from that of many others.
We are, in many respects, the most fortunate people who have ever existed—not that many people know this.
Another important contributor to a state of mind susceptible to fury is the inability to distinguish unfairness from injustice. Injustice can, rightly, infuriate us (though we are never free from an obligation to see things in proportion). But there are kinds of unfairness that are, so to speak, natural evils. When I walk down a street, I often see people whom fate, or whatever you want to call it, has dealt a poor hand of cards, by definition through no fault of their own. They may be physically handicapped, deformed, ugly, or lacking in intelligence. This is cosmically unfair, so to speak, though even here we should bear in mind the fact that fate and destiny (if by destiny we mean outcome) are not quite the same thing. You will remember what Richard III said to explain his own villainy:
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity;
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain.
But his explanation of his own villainy—perhaps to himself, perhaps to others—is false, for in a matter of a very short time he easily seduces a woman, and not just any woman, but a wife whose husband he has just killed or had killed; and therefore the therefore of his speech is false, whether or not he believes it to be true. Despite what he says about his own incapacity, he is perfectly capable of being a lover, indeed a remarkably successful one. This, I think, illustrates an important principle of which we should never lose sight: namely, that mechanical explanations of human conduct, for example that hunchback equals evil, are neither sufficient nor even necessary.
Nevertheless, no one could deny that natural unfairness exists and (to whatever degree) is ineradicable. It is, however, often confused with injustice. I will give you one small example. I recently read a review of a book by a well-known journalist who died of cancer at what now seems to me the early age of fifty-seven, before the publication of her book. The reviewer finished her review by saying that her death was an injustice.
Of course it was unfair, in the sense that she had done nothing to deserve her early death, but it could not be said to be unjust, the fault of human arrangements or of someone’s wickedness. The confusion of the two is, in my estimation, important, for the kind of cosmic unfairness to which the dead author was subjected was properly the cause of sadness but not of anger. If, on the other hand, she had died of mistreatment by a wilfully careless doctor, we might be angry, at least momentarily, though not so angry that it would justify us, say, in burning down the Royal College of Surgeons. And no doubt our anger would, and should, be in some way proportional to our involvement with the deceased, though of course no precise formula can be given for this proportionality.
There are, of course, occasions when anger is justified and even generous. I recall Orwell’s words in his essay on Dickens, as he tries to imagine or encapsulate what Dickens was like:
He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry: in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
Well, I do not think anyone would say that we are nowadays free of what Orwell calls “smelly little orthodoxies”; indeed, the latter seem to have proliferated since the end of the Cold War. One might even say that we live in a golden age of smelly little orthodoxies, if that is not too absurd or self-contradictory a phrase. Orthodoxies breed heresies and heresies breed anger, or at least a simulacrum of anger.
Let us now consider the psychology of anger and the public expression of outrage. Here let me say a few brief words about the kind of psychology I shall adhere to. It is my belief (and I have written a book to this effect) that psychology as an academic study has contributed very little or nothing to human self-understanding in the century and a half in which it has been in existence, at least if by self-understanding we mean that which conduces to knowing how to live. Indeed, I think overall its effects have been negative, for in its most general theories it has erected a distorting lens between the self and self-reflection: people now often seem to talk of themselves as if they were but the instantiations of a theory.
I prefer the attempt to do what Dr. Johnson recommends (and practices). It is he, he says, who will examine the motions of his own mind. And that is what I think we should try to do.
I will mention a particular result of my own self-reflection. Of course, its value will depend on whether or not I am unique in what I am about to describe. You and I are both unique as individuals and have characteristics and propensities in common: if we did not, communication between us would hardly be possible. I doubt that I am unique in the following respect.
Something makes me aggrieved. It is often something that is trivial but which genuinely inconveniences me—let us say, a train is late. My anger is further stoked by an apology over the public address system apologizing for the inconvenience to my journey. But it is not my journey that is inconvenienced, it is I who am inconvenienced.
Anger in our times seems often to be taken by the angry themselves as justified in itself.
At some point I recognize that I am beginning to enjoy myself. I am not genuinely angry any more. (My initial, true anger has dissipated, I have a book with me to read, another half hour on the platform is not very important even on the petty scale of my own existence, and I recall the time when I and the other passengers were angry because of the late arrival of the train, only shamefacedly to learn that it had crashed and one person was killed—as it happened, an editor of the British Medical Journal who had commissioned some articles from me and with whom I had always had friendly relations.) My anger has been replaced by its psychological near-neighbor, something immensely gratifying, namely self-righteous outrage and a sense of victimhood. Self-righteousness, by the way, is one of the few states of mind that will never let you down, another being resentment.
I don’t know whether you have ever experienced a still small voice at the back of your head—mine is located just behind my right ear, or so it seems—telling you that you are enjoying your own anger, an enjoyment which renders it dishonest, but even more do people enjoy being angry in a supposedly good cause. Their anger gives them, at least in their own estimation, rights which they do not possess in a state of equanimity. Their righteous anger allows them with a good conscience to do what they would not normally do, especially when they are in the anonymizing company of many others of like mind. Their righteous indignation gives them the locus standi to throw a brick through a plate glass window.
No one who has witnessed a riot can fail to recognize the pleasure rioters take in destruction. There are few more grateful sounds on the human ear than that of the tinkling of glass smashed for the good of humanity. There is, I am afraid, a joy in itself in destruction; when it is united with both impunity and a sense of righteous indignation, of outrage, it becomes delicious and unstoppable, at least for the person who experiences it. And this is so even when the anger is, in some sense, justified.
But there are deeper reasons why outrage, especially when it is experienced in the context of an abstract cause, is pleasing to us, or at least to a great and perhaps increasing number of us.
No one will have failed to notice the rapidity with which the morally unthinkable these days becomes the acceptable and then, very soon afterwards, the unassailable. Once the formerly unthinkable becomes the unassailable, outrage is expressed by the guardians of the orthodoxy when the unassailable is in fact assailed by people who are deemed not merely mistaken in their views, but wicked or evil. The unassailability of the new orthodoxy inhibits free discussion, for while most people like to feel outrage, few people like to be the object of it, except perhaps for a few exhibitionists who enjoy notoriety for its own sake. Most people keep their heads below the parapet, not wishing to draw the fire of the defenders of the new faith.
I shall give you an example from my own experience. The Irish State Television channel, rte, contacted me and asked me whether I would be prepared to appear on a program about transsexualism. I was, of course, a last resort for them. They wanted someone to say that the current emphasis on, or hysteria about, the subject—for example, the sheer anger at the denial that a man who undergoes various treatments both surgical and medical thereby becomes a woman just like any other woman—is not straightforwardly a triumph of human enlightenment, progress, or liberation.
I told them that I was reluctant to appear, for two reasons. The first was that I was not an expert on the subject and that it did not really interest me much (though we live in times when ideas that are not intellectually very interesting, such as political Islam, force themselves upon our attention). The second of my reasons was that I had no desire to become the object of outrage, which seems all the nastier in its expression now that it can be expressed anonymously with such ease and immediacy. It is difficult to assess the seriousness of anonymous threats, but no one who has received a death threat can feel as safe as he was before he received it.
What the producers of the program told me was that they had found many people—university professors, specialists, people much more qualified to speak than I—who did not think that the sudden emphasis on transsexualism represented progress, but refused to say so on television or in any public forum. The cause had become, de facto and increasingly, perhaps, de jure, unassailable.
Causes of this kind seem to be more numerous, and they appear like clouds on the horizon, suddenly growing into storm clouds. We may ask why.
Self-righteousness, by the way, is one of the few states of mind that will never let you down, another being resentment.
I do not, of course, wish to deny that there are good causes: good causes are in fact myriad. Moreover, it is desirable that people do not devote themselves to them in strict order of their objective importance, if importance is something that can be measured objectively. If everyone devoted himself to causes strictly in order of their importance, many of the causes that are worthy, and which improve or add to the quality of life but are not themselves of the greatest importance, would be entirely neglected.
There are, for example, people in Britain who rescue injured hedgehogs. They believe in their cause, but they are harmless to others, and most of us would welcome their work; but no one would suggest that their work was the most important that could be done, and that everything should be subordinate to it, or people punished for saying that hedgehogs have fleas. In other words, this is a cause that is worthy, but is only one among many others and is far from the most important. Nevertheless, we are glad that some people interest themselves in it.
Causes, however, can consume and (what I believe is their function for some) become the transcendent meaning and purpose of people’s existence. Here I indulge in a little philosophical anthropology. I believe that many people, perhaps more than ever where tertiary education has expanded, require a transcendent meaning or purpose to their lives once their basic requirements for survival have been met—as they have been in Western societies (I once asked a Dutchman how someone could starve to death in the Netherlands other than by a determined effort to do so, and he could not think of a way).
There are a limited number of routes to the achievement of transcendence or of a sense of purpose larger than one’s own life. The first, which has satisfied the need for most of human history, is religious belief. But religious belief is almost dead in Western society. Certain political causes, such as Marxism, also satisfy the desire the for transcendent purpose, but since the downfall of the Soviet Union, although many Marxists claimed that its crimes and deformations had nothing to do with the doctrine, Marxism no longer provides that transcendence. Patriotism is likewise more or less extinct among intellectuals, except in small pockets of nationalists, and the young have been so separated from any sense of a past culture that contribution to that culture no longer provides them with any sense of meaning. What is left is a rather balkanized array of causes, often related to the group identity of those who uphold them, or some neo-pagan doctrine such as that espoused by the Extinction Rebellion.
The extreme anger and outrage with which believers in various supposedly transcendent causes react to criticism, opposition, or even mere skepticism, is far from evidence of the ironclad certainty with which they are held—rather the reverse. In this connection, it is worth remembering what an incomparably greater psychologist than Sigmund Freud, Agatha Christie, wrote through her character Dr. Shephard, the narrator and perpetrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:
It is odd how, when you have a secret belief of your own which you do not wish to acknowledge, the voicing of it by someone else will rouse you to a fury of denial.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 10, on page 78
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