On the Pleasures of Humanitarian Anger

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I never see the International Herald Tribune except in airport lounges or in the lobbies of hotel where it seems to be given away like improving literature or left as missionaries were once said to leave tracts on trains in the hope of converts. And thus it was, the other day, that I happened upon a copy and, having a few minutes to wait, read it.

The cartoon in the paper was what mainly sparked my interest. It showed Pope Francis, arms outstretched in a gesture of ecumenical welcome, his face beaming with self-approbation, denying that he was one to judge a homosexual. To his side and slightly behind him was a woman demanding to know about his attitude to women.

If cartoons are supposed to raise a laugh this one failed by quite a wide margin but there was nevertheless a certain amount of irony in it, though I suspect that it was unintended. For the woman was dressed in a T-short, her body was pear-shaped and her countenance, framed by a pudding-bowl coiffure of black hair, was that of an angry, belligerent and above all self-righteous termagant. She was really most unattractive, the kind of person one would go to some trouble to avoid at a gathering, at which she would probably get you in a corner and harangue you about the sexist nature of Così fan tutte, or apply the methods of literary deconstruction to a cheese soufflé. In short, definitely an academic in the ever-expanding department of Grievance Studies.

This set me thinking about the nature of modern anger: for never have so many people, highly privileged by the standards of all previously existing humanity, been so wrathful about matters which hardly touch them personally.

Doctor Johnson said that public affairs vex no man, and though I know what he meant and am an admirer of his thought and character, I do not think that he was quite right. To deny that human beings can be sincerely and generously angry on behalf of the unjust treatment meted out to others, to imply that they can feel real anger only on behalf of themselves or of the people very close to them, is to enclose them in the tiny world of their own personal soap opera and to deny them the power of imaginative identification with others. Actually the bon mot does not even apply to Doctor Johnson himself, who wrote movingly, and with a blindingly obvious sincerity, about the horrors of slavery and the unjustified depredations of Europeans abroad, including of his own countrymen.

The great Cham of literature is often taken, as Voltaire took him, to be the archetypical and unthinking reactionary, but he was really nothing of the sort. Rather he demanded that people should examine what he called the motions of their mind, that is to say the true origin of their thoughts and feelings, including of course anger; where he differed from modern psychotherapists is that he believed that with enough determination and honesty people could do this for themselves without the need of any other procedure than honest introspection. He himself was a practitioner and proponent of self-analysis, an eighteenth-century believer in the ancient injunction above all to know yourself.

If outrage on behalf of others can be genuine and generous (Orwell in his essay on Dickens refers to that writer’s generous anger), what distinguishes it from the bogus sort, the shrill from the deeply-felt, that is good faith from that in bad? Is there any acid test that will distinguish between the two?

There is no doubt in my mind that anger can be both pleasurable and addictive, because I have known the pleasures of anger. When, as I repeatedly but unsuccessfully resolve not to do, I grow angry at some minor inconvenience caused by someone’s failure to do what he ought to do, or what I think he ought to do (not always the same thing, of course), a still small voice at the back of my mind, which seems to have a surprisingly precise geographical location within my cranium, whispers to me that I am actually rather enjoying my fury. Indeed, I have occasionally even caught myself hoping that something will not be done to my taste so that I will have the opportunity to exercise my ire and being disappointed when, to the contrary, the opportunity is dashed from me.

What, then, are the pleasures of anger? (I first suspected that there were such pleasures by observation of my father, who would become utterly enraged by what in Othello are called ‘trifles light as air’ – though in the play they justified jealousy rather than anger.)

I think – though I cannot prove – that anger is often a defense against feared insignificance, the fear or even awareness that everything we say, and everything we think, and everything we do, is writ on water. Strong emotion counters that fear, at least while it lasts, and anger is one of the easiest and strongest emotions that we can conjure at will. Speaking for myself, I can do it easily enough ex nihilo while sitting in my study, but even more easily when subjected to a minor frustration caused by someone’s incompetence, obtuseness or obduracy. One of the pleasures of anger, then, is reassurance that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, our life is not fleeting, insignificant, and meaningless.

There is another anger, however, the pleasure to be derived from which is of a different sort, or rather additional to that already described. It is the kind of anger that the woman in the cartoon displayed, an anger supposedly felt on behalf of, or about, a large and abstract human entity (such as the female half of the human race).

Anger allegedly felt on behalf of vast numbers of people who are believed to suffer because of a single characteristic that they have in common is deeply satisfying to those who feel it because it assures them that they are, at heart, generous and open-minded people, capable of empathizing with a large proportion of suffering mankind (the larger the better), despite their own personal good fortune.

But why should they require such assurance in the first place? Because they know in their hearts that they do not care half as much for humanity as they think they ought, and therefore compensate for the coldness of their love by the warmth of their wrath. They are angry that they are not as good as they would like to appear in a world in which a person’s goodness is often measured by the strength of feeling he expresses on behalf of others. Hence the shrillness of anger; this also explains the oft-noted paradox that those who love humanity or some very large portion thereof seldom love individual humans, to whom indeed they are frequently outright hostile, while those who make no claims to love humanity en masse are kind and considerate in their personal relations.

There is no generalization about human beings, however, that is free from exception. And there is no definitive test to distinguish between generous anger on the one hand and the bogus variety on the other. Both exist, with every shade between. All one can say is that the grosser and more obvious the injustice done to the group on behalf of which the outrage is felt the more likely it is to be generous, albeit that an injustice that is self-evident to the people of one age is not self-evident to those of another. A rule of thumb, however, is that if you enjoy your anger there is something ungenerous and insincere about it.