There are two distinct premises I want to tackle in this piece. The first, a personal observation that I’ll validate with some external studies and analysis, is that contemporary society is being consumed by aggression and irritation. The second, a cultural prejudice and heuristic belief, is that anger is a negative emotion. One of these is true, the other is not.
I don’t think it’s a stretch by any means to say it feels as though we, as a global community, are being consumed by irritation and exasperation. We see it in righteously zealous social media posts, in our music, in rage-drenched political discourse – and, increasingly, in our own personal, mundane daily lives.
The discernible rise in minor incidents fueled by crazed dyspepsia affirms this claim. There was the threatening note left on the car of a severely mentally-disabled women, accusing her of faking her condition for priority parking access. There was the woman who, irritated that her driveway was briefly blocked by an ambulance as paramedics attempted to save someone’s life, left the emergency response team a menacing message on their windshield. There’s the Highways England campaign against road rage, spurred by 3,446 recorded instances in a year of motorists driving straight through roadworks.
Thematic trends in popular culture also confirm this premise. One study published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies last year asserts that the expression of both anger and sadness in popular music lyrics is on the rise, concluding that “anger, disgust, fear, sadness, and conscientiousness have increased significantly, while joy, confidence, and openness expressed in pop song lyrics have declined." Television shows featuring caustic, perpetually angry protagonists – think Bojack Horseman, After Life, or even Rick & Morty – are also increasingly popular and mirror the minor irritation so many of us experience every day.
More often than not, we see this anger as a threat. We blame it for endangering our relationships and inhibiting our ability to make rational decisions. There’s a reason we have the phrase ‘blind rage’: when we think about anger, we almost always contextualize it as a negative emotion. This is my second point of analysis, and the cultural myth I’d like to contend.
Anger is not inherently negative. Anger is a tool. At its most basic, primal level, it is an instinctive response to unfairness. We feel angry when something is wrong in our lives; it’s what gives us the energy required to make it right, to restore fairness and social harmony. It’s an emotion inextricably intertwined with our sense of equality and morality, and consequently one of the most powerful and historically prominent elements of social and political activism.
All animals have a built-in sense of fairness. Two dogs will fight when only one gets a bone; capuchin monkeys will refuse to perform tasks when they see other monkeys getting better rewards for the same effort. Fairness isn’t taught, it’s instinctual. Even as children, we know immediately when someone gets a bigger slice of pizza or cake than we do, and we complain.
As a biological response to inequality, anger is symptomatic to the larger problem of injustice itself. It makes sense, then, that we’re seeing an observable rise in anger working in tandem with unprecedented global inequality and malcontent. We’re angry because we have reason to be, because we feel in our heart of hearts that something is very, seriously wrong.
The difficulty, however, is that anger is omnidirectional. It tells us that something is wrong, but not how to fix it. Often, this complication is interpreted as inability to create change or obtain tangible fairness – and when we can’t find an outlet for our anger, it becomes corrosive, worming its way into our daily interactions. Because, of course, unproductive anger is a real thing. It can cloud our judgment, blind us to situational reality, or contaminate our social interactions. It can produce physical symptoms like high blood pressure or digestive problems, emotional symptoms like anxiety and depression, and social problems like domestic and workplace violence.
This is the paradox of anger. It’s a superpower that energizes us, that allows us to do great things and fight injustice everywhere, and yet it becomes abrasive and caustic if used too often. Righteous adrenaline is addicting and powerful, but it’s darkened by a lack of accompanying empathy and self-awareness (if you’re interested in the idea of using self-awareness as a tool to manage irritation and anger, I highly recommend listening to this commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College).
We’re angrier than we’ve ever been, and that’s a good thing. It would be borderline sociopathic not to exhibit some instinctive response to the exponentially increasing inequality and unfairness in the world. The trick, then, is making sure we use that anger for good – because if we don’t, it can backfire, further contributing to global injustice. In other words: with great anger comes great responsibility.