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Rage and Reason an Eternal Ambivalence
Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.
They have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
On the train to Brindavan a Swami sits beside a common man who asks him if indeed he has attained self-mastery, as the name "Swami" implies.
"I have," says the Swami.
"And have you mastered anger?"
"Do you mean to say that you have mastered anger?"
"You mean you can control your anger?"
"And you do not feel anger."
"I do not."
"Is this the truth, Swami?"
After a silence the man asks again, "Do you really feel that you have controlled your anger?"
"I have, as I told you," the Swami answers.
"Then do you mean to say, you never feel anger, even "
"You are going on and on what do you want?" the Swami shouts. "Are you a fool? When I have told you "
"Oh, Swami, this is anger. You have not mas "
"Ah, but I have," the Swami interrupts. "Have you not heard about the abused snake? Let me tell you a story.
"On a path that went by a village in Bengal, there lived a cobra who used to bite people on their way to worship at the temple there. As the incidents increased, everyone became fearful, and many refused to go to the temple. The Swami who was the master at the temple was aware of the problem and took it upon himself to put an end to it. Taking himself to where the snake dwelt, he used a mantram to call the snake to him and bring it into submission. The Swami then said to the snake that it was wrong to bite the people who walked along the path to worship and made him promise sincerely that he would never do it again. Soon it happened that the snake was seen by a passerby upon the path, and it made no move to bite him. Then it became known that the snake had somehow been made passive and people grew unafraid. It was not long before the village boys were dragging the poor snake along behind them as they ran laughing here and there. When the temple Swami passed that way again he called the snake to see if he had kept his promise. The snake humbly and miserably approached the Swami, who exclaimed, 'You are bleeding. Tell me how this has come to be.' The snake was near tears and blurted out that he had been abused ever since he was caused to make his promise to the Swami.
"'I told you not to bite,' said the Swami, 'but I did not tell you not to hiss.'"
Many people, like the Swami's cobra, confuse the hiss with the bite. It is an understandable mistake, for ambivalence about anger permeates our society. Once thought to be a destructive emotion that should be suppressed at all costs, anger is now widely thought to be a healthy emotion that costs too much when it is suppressed. In the abrupt transition from Puritan restraint to liberated self-expression, many people are uncertain about how to behave: Some overreact angrily at every thwarted wish, others suffer injustice in silence. We are told in one breath not to rock the boat, and in the next that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Some people take a dose of anger like a purgative, to cleanse the system; others dread any ripple on their natural placidity and fear the loss of control that the demon anger, like the demon rum, might bring.
One friend of mine, a forty-year-old businesswoman, illustrates perfectly our culture's conflict about anger. She won't express feelings of ire, she said, unless she is really "boiling."
"What do you fear about expressing anger?" I asked.
"Retaliation I don't want that. Or open warfare very frightening. There's a fear that once you start screaming at people you'll end up like one of those hollerers on Forty-second Street. If you start, where's it going to stop?"
"But surely you've been angry at people before, and I don't see that you have lost all shreds of self-control."
"Actually, I think I'd be perfectly willing to get angry if I thought people would put up with it. But they don't. That's the kicker. They fight back. When you express anger, the person receiving it doesn't simply say, 'Point well taken!'"
"Well, then, what do you do when you are angry?"
"I retreat and sulk. Anger lust sits there, like an uncooked doughnut."
It is instructive, if also comical, that two popular embodiments of anger in America are antithetical types Superman and the Incredible Hulk. Clark Kent never really gets angry at injustice, merely impatient: "Oh, gosh, I'd better save the city again." Then he chooses to jump into his flying suit and charge off to right wrong. When David Banner gets angry, he becomes, uncontrollably, a giant green id, a bilious beast. He is not a man at all, super or otherwise. These incarnations of anger represent dual attitudes: is anger handsome or ugly, righteous or dangerous? Is it under our control, or do we have as much chance of telling it what to do as of regulating the carotid artery? Is it a human blessing, or a bestial sin? (The Bible does not answer, now recommending the furious smiting of the unjust, then the ameliorative turning of cheeks.)
Although my friend occasionally berates herself for her ambivalence about anger and spends a lot of time in therapy trying to "resolve her feelings" she is in fact part of a long and noble debate in Western tradition. In the eighth century B.C., Homer's Iliad offered an epic story of a man's anger indeed, The Anger of Achilles is the title of Robert Graves's beautiful translation of the saga. When the Greek King Agamemnon appropriates Briseis, a girl whom Achilles has won in battle, Achilles' masculine pride is wounded. Stifling his angry impulses to kill Agamemnon at once, Achilles retreats to sulk in his tent and pamper his rage. But Achilles feels better about sulking than my friend does. "How delightedly I nursed my grudge against the High King Agamemnon!" he recalls. "It smouldered in my heart, and was as sweet to me as trickling honey." The tragic events of the Iliad unfold when Achilles stops sulking and acts to avenge the killing of his friend Patroclus.
In contrast, The Trial of Sören Qvist, written in the 1940s by Janet Lewis, is an exquisite novella about a peaceful parson who is roused to fury by his stupid, arrogant servant. When the servant is found murdered, Qvist is arrested; and the trial that ensues for him is both legal and spiritual. At last, although he knows he is innocent of the deed, Qvist convicts himself of the desire. He remembers an earlier time when anger had defeated him, an experience that I expect is familiar to modern readers:
No sooner did he feel himself alone than his anger disappeared. His bones seemed to turn to water, and a most awful sickness took possession of him. He sank to his knees, shaking, and covered his face with his hands....This anger, which came upon him so suddenly and with such absolute power, had been the greatest trial of his life.
Memories rushed upon him. The face of a young German student, blond, arrogant, and opinionated, rose before him. He felt again the sword in his hand, and in his heart the furious desire which had possessed him to kill that young man. The reason for the quarrel escaped him.
Two more unlike stories you could not find, for the anger that is sweet to one hero is anathema to the other; Achilles nurses his anger and Qvist curses his; one uses his anger and the other feels used by it. Over the centuries, the pendulum of opinion has slowly swung to the Qvistian position, a result of profound changes in our attitudes about the nature of humankind.
About as soon as man could think, he thought thinking was superior to feeling. (I use the word "man" advisedly, and not generically, either. I'm afraid man also thought thinking was not a female capacity.) The battle lines were drawn early for what Pascal would call the "internal war" between reason and emotion, and for most of our history a brave confidence in reason prevailed. Reason, or at least religious faith, gave man a fighting chance to control anger, pride, lust, covetousness, envy, gluttony, sloth, and any other deadly sin that happens to be his weakness; philosophers and theologians sought to distinguish man from beast, and from woman, by praising his intelligence, rationality, and upright posture (in both the moral and vertical meanings of "upright"). And so, for most of the twenty-five hundred years since Plato, the healthy individual was someone who did not fly off the handle, who was not, in Hamlet's felicitous phrase, passion's slave. Far from advising emotional self-expression, our predecessors came down firmly on behalf of self-control:
Hesitation is the best cure for anger....The first blows of anger are heavy, but if it waits, it will think again.
In the march towards Truth, anger, selfishness, hatred, etc., naturally give way, for otherwise Truth would be impossible to attain. A man who is swayed by passions may have good enough intentions, may be truthful in word, but he will never find the Truth.
To behave rightly, we ourselves should never lay a hand on our servants as long as our anger lasts....Things will truly seem different to us when we have quieted and cooled down.
The principal use of prudence, of self-control, is that it teaches us to be masters of our passions, and to so control and guide them that the evils which they cause are quite bearable, and that we even derive joy from them all.
Short temper is a loss of face.
It is only in the last two centuries, just yesterday by historical standards, that confidence in the power of reason yielded to doubt, a transformation midwived by the work of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. Whereas Plato assured us that reason (ego) could control our worst impulses, Freud and his followers bet gloomily on the id, on the sway of instinct. Plato and his intellectual heirs tried to show that man was better than beast; Darwin showed that man was just another species of beast, and many of his successors now argue that most beasts are wiser and kinder than man. Popular ethologists (students of animal behavior such as Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and Desmond Morris) and lately the sociobiologists (such as E. O. Wilson) make an impassioned case that man is not a reasonable creature.
Because the legacy of Darwin and Freud has so profoundly shaped contemporary attitudes about anger, I would like to offer a few reminders of what they did, and did not, have to say about this powerful emotion. I do not wish to imply a "great man" theory of historical change here. It takes countless intellectual contributions to chip away at an establishment view of the world, before it falls; and although Darwin and Freud are the best examples of the theories they promoted, they were by no means the only ones. Further, scientific and theoretical ideas must fall on fertile ground if they are to take root, and the social and economic conditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have surely buffeted human self-confidence, making the world ready for evolution and psychoanalysis.
But Freud's and Darwin's theories represent a crucial pivot point in Western thought: for once the belief that we can control anger indeed, must control it bowed to the belief that we cannot control it, it was then only a short jump to the current conviction that we should not control it.
THE FALLACY OF THE SWAMI'S SNAKE
My neighbor describes a family crisis that she watched unfold on her patio. A baby bird, struggling from its nest, has made its way to a precarious perch on her clothesline. Terrified equally of flying and falling, it does not budge, but whimpers piteously. The mother, chirping her support and encouragement, shows her baby how to take off, flutter around, and land. No luck; baby doesn't move. The mother becomes chirpier. No reaction. She flies off, leaving baby in panic. Suddenly, from a nearby tree, comes an angry, unmistakable paternal note, a deep squawk: FLY! Baby stops whining at once and soars away.
The Bird Family scene seems so familiar to us that it is almost impossible to describe it without using anthropomorphic terms: The fledgling is "terrified," "panics," and "whines"; the mother "encourages," the father remonstrates sternly. Charles Darwin, for all his powers of observation, likewise had no difficulty in seeing human emotions in the animals he studied. In Descent of Man, he wrote that animals feel pride, self-complacency, shame, modesty, magnanimity, boredom, wonder, curiosity, jealousy, and anger in short, all the blights and delights of the human species. "There can, I think, be no doubt that a dog feels shame, as distinct from fear, and something very like modesty when begging too often for food," Darwin wrote. (He was talking about dogs that live with people.) And one day, while walking in the zoological gardens, he observed a baboon "who always got into a furious rage when his keeper took out a letter or book and read it aloud to him; and his rage was so violent that, as I witnessed on one occasion, he bit his own leg till the blood flowed." One wonders what the keeper was reading...and why he persisted.
Darwin's purpose, however, was not to equate people with baboons, in spite of what we call each other in the heat of anger, but rather to demonstrate that the origins of virtually all the human emotions could be found in lower animals. Emotional expression, he said, serves the same adaptive purpose. The smile, the frown, the grimace, the glare: all were biologically based, common to many animal species through the course of evolution. Darwin sought to establish a theory that applied to human beings and to other species, and in so doing he significantly tipped the balance between reason and rage in favor of the latter.
When animals are threatened or perceive danger, they do respond in ways that we liken to anger: Hair (if the animal has hair) stands on end, pupils dilate, muscles tense, fins flap, warning growls or chirps or rattles sound, and the organism readies itself to fight or flee. When provoked by another stickleback, a male stickleback must attack, for it is programmed to be a feisty fish. If a foreign wolf enters marked territory, the defending wolf is not going to be laid-back about it. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, written in 1872, Darwin argued that rage is a simple response to threat, which requires an animal to become aroused to defend itself. In fact, Darwin actually defined rage as the motivation to retaliate: "Unless an animal does thus act, or has the intention, or at least the desire to attack its enemy, it cannot properly be said to be enraged."
Because human beings so often seem to behave like stickle-backs, baby birds, and wolves, it seemed logical to conclude that the rage response is as programmed into us as into other species. Indeed, as Darwin's stringers in India, New Zealand, China, Australia, and Europe assured him, the symptoms of rage are identical in people throughout the world. The face of rage, for example, is not learned. It is as much a part of species equipment as a nose or a pair of eyebrows.
So far, so good, but then Darwin made a crucial error. Anger, he decided, was only watered-down rage. Anger and indignation "differ from rage only in degree," he said, "and there is no marked distinction in their characteristic signs." By lumping these three feelings together, however, Darwin severely restricted his analysis, for he was led to conclude that anger, like rage, is solely a response to threat and danger; and that anger, like rage, implies an instinctive aggressive response.
Darwin was a brilliant ethologist, but a poor psychologist. He had animal rage down cold, but human anger eluded him. His account of anger was oversimplified: Someone offends you, so you dislike him; your dislike turns to hatred; brooding over your hatred makes you angry. This progression of events is certainly possible, but by no means inevitable, or the only origin of anger. (Maybe it occurs the other way around for you: You hate someone's values, and therefore dislike the person; your dislike turns to anger; your anger causes him to offend you.) Further, it seems that Darwin did not have to deal with inept bank tellers and surly checkout clerks, for he assumed that "if the offending person be quite insignificant, we experience merely disdain or contempt." And he shared the delusion of his social class that a subordinate would never dare get angry with a superior: If the offending person is "all-powerful, then hatred passes into terror, as when a slave thinks about a cruel master." Clearly Darwin had never been a slave.
Because Darwin was interested in exploring the exciting similarities between humans and other animals, he understandably overlooked the differences. But in the case of anger, the differences are essential. The human symbolic ability and our enormously elastic capacity for learning give us a far greater range of choices than lower animals have. Human anger is not a biological reflex like the sneeze, nor simply a reactive display designed to ward off enemies. You may become roused to anger by memories and symbols as well as by real and present dangers, and you can maintain that anger for years. You may even decide retrospectively to get angry, which is the "more I thought about it, the madder I got" phenomenon. Beagles, in contrast, will know by your angry voice that you are displeased with them or about to punish them, but they will not bite you if you insult their intelligence or ancestors.
Further, human beings are able to lie. We can hide an emotional state if we choose to; and often, as on first dates and job interviews, we choose to. We can act as if we are caught in the throes of an emotion when we really feel quite cool; and often, when we feel obliged to show anger, sadness, or even sexual interest, we play a part. This ability is unique to us. A pouter pigeon's swagger reflects its biology, not its braggadocio. When a rabbit is afraid, it does not whistle a happy tune. But people know how to play angry for effect as a lawyer does during a trial, to shake up a witness; as an assertive customer does to get action from a shopkeeper.
Modern psychologists have supported Darwin's idea that extreme emotions great joy, rage, disgust, fear are registered on the face, and that these facial expressions are universally recognized (and therefore biologically wired in). We should be happy for this bit of adaptive advantage, too, these researchers add, because it means we will always be able to tell whether a stranger is happy or about to attack us in a fury. However, the emotions they are talking about are, again, extremes. When most of us are angry we do not go around frowning, growling, and clenching our teeth, and when we are sad we do not necessarily continue weeping for days; we do not necessarily weep. A Japanese is expected to smile and be polite even if seething inside; a Kiowa Indian woman is supposed to scream and tear her face at a brother's death, even if she never liked him. Cultural masks overlay the face of emotion.
The idea that our emotions are instinctive has suggested, to some modern writers, that they cannot be controlled; no use trying to suppress your fury, this view runs, for the body will out. But Darwin himself would have disagreed, strongly. "The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it," he wrote. "On the other hand, the repression, as far as this is possible, of all outward signs softens our emotions. He who gives way to violent gestures will increase his rage; he who does not control the signs of fear will experience fear in a greater degree." But self-control, especially self-control in the pursuit of emotional restraint, is a human choice, beyond the limitations of instinct.
By equating anger with aggression, Darwin committed the fallacy of the Swami's snake. In human beings, this link is by no means inevitable. You may feel angry and express it in hundreds of ways, many of which will be neutral or even beneficial (cleaning the house in an energetic fury, playing the piano forte, organizing a political protest movement) instead of violent. Conversely, you can act aggressively without feeling angry at all, as a professional assassin or soldier does, as an employer who fires a competitive subordinate does. The very term "murder in cold blood" implies the absence of the "hot-blooded" emotion, anger. The fact that anger and aggression do coexist in many situations does not mean that, like Laurel and Hardy, the presence of one automatically includes the other.
Some ethologists and sociobiologists like to point out that "primitive" brain structures, such as the hypothalamus and limbic system, are responsible for most emotional behavior, by which they usually mean rage, fear, and sexual desire. The fact that human beings share these structures with lower animals, they argue, must account for the human similarity to sheep, dogs, and rodents. (But human beings and dogs have noses, too, which does not imply that the evolution of the human nose has proceeded the same way as that of the dog's nose; I have yet to see a man outsniff a bloodhound.) The so-called primitive brain structures have evolved just as much as more "recent" brain structures have, and they reach their greatest development in human beings. Moreover, they are as vital to thought processes as they are to emotion.
The Roman philosopher Seneca recognized the uniquely human aspect of anger nearly two thousand years ago. "Wild beasts and all animals, except man, are not subject to anger," he wrote, "for while it is the foe of reason, it is nevertheless born only where reason dwells." He meant that anger usually involves a conscious judgment that an injustice, insult, or idiocy has been committed, and a choice of reactions. James Averill, a psychologist who has extensively researched the social function of the emotions, agrees. Anger is a human emotion, he believes, because only people can judge actions for their intention, justifiability, and negligence. Each angry episode contains a series of split-second decisions: Is that fist raised in provocation or playfulness? Is that provocation dangerous or safe? Is that danger worthy of retaliation, a laugh, or getting the hell out of here?
Averill believes, and I concur, that animal aggression is reminiscent of human anger just as animal communication is reminiscent of human speech, but that the concept of "angry animals" is misleading and metaphorical. Human anger is far more intricate and serves many more purposes than the rage reflex of lower animals. We do not need to deny our mammalian, primate heritage, but we do not need to reduce ourselves to it, either. Judgment and choice distinguish human beings from other species; judgment and choice are the hallmarks of human anger.
Some people incorrectly assume that to emphasize the role of thought in anger is to strip the emotion of its passion and power. Just the opposite is true. As Robert Solomon, author of The Passions, observes, to say that emotions are generated by our thoughts and judgments does not "reduce the drama of emotion to cool, calm belief." On the contrary, our ideas, commitments, and values generate our grandest and most enduring passions: the social activist's sense of justice, the revolutionary's determination, the grudge-holder's sense of self-righteousness, the lover's lifelong devotion.
THE FREUDIAN LEGACY
Sitting in a café one afternoon, I overheard the following exchange between two women:
Woman A: "You'll feel better if you get your anger out."
Woman B: "Anger? Why am I angry?"
Woman A: "Because he left you, that's why."
Woman B: "Left me? What are you talking about? He died. He was an old man."
Woman A: "Yes, but to your unconscious it's no different from abandonment. Underneath, you are blaming him for not keeping his obligation to you to protect you forever."
Woman B: "That might have been true if I were ten years old, Margaret, but I'm forty-two, we both knew he was dying, and we had time to make our peace. I don't feel angry, I feel sad. I miss him. He was a darling father to me."
Woman A: "Why are you so defensive? Why are you denying your true feelings? Why are you afraid of therapy?"
Woman B: "Margaret, you are driving me crazy. I don't feel angry, dammit!"
Woman A (smiling): "So why are you shouting?"
It is not entirely easy to argue with a Freudian devotee, because disagreement is usually taken as denial or "blocking." If you do feel the emotion in question, you support the theory; and if you do not feel the emotion in question you also support the theory, because now you are demonstrating "reaction formation" or "repression." Such semantic contortions can themselves make one very cross.
We owe to Sigmund Freud, of course, the belief that our rational, conscious faculties do not know the half of what they are doing; that the unconscious, that seething cauldron of naughty instincts, guides so many of our feelings and actions. Freud regarded man as a creature at the mercy of his warring instincts the innate conflict between love and hatred, life and death, sex and aggression and he was pessimistic that the good side would win. Although Freud, like Darwin, regarded aggression as an ineradicable part of the human biological heritage, Freud emphasized the destructive, violent aspect of aggression, whereas Darwin saw aggression as self-defending and adaptive. Curiously, neither scientist paid much attention to anger. If they wrote about it at all, it was as a subcategory or weaker expression of the basic aggressive drive.
Yet, in the dark Freudian schema, so much unconscious rage and aggression! Everyone, at every age, is unwittingly furious with everyone else. Infants, for maternal abandonment. Toddlers, with the same-sexed parent who forbids incestuous lusts. Adolescents, for having to grow up and forgo childhood pleasures. Adults, for having to work and repress their instinctive passions. Freud penetrated the Victorian veneer of manners, to be sure; but, like prudes at a peep show, he was inclined to see more than was there.
Freud's theory and his language slowly filtered into the popular imagination through the writings and practice of psychoanalysts, but over the years Freud's disciples have diverged from the master's original arguments. In terms of the current thinking about anger, several of these discrepancies are significant:
The hydraulic model. Borrowing heavily from Hermann von Helmholtz's principle of the conservation of energy, Freud imagined that the libido was a finite amount of energy that powers our internal battles. If the energy is blocked here, it must find release there. As psychologist John Sabini put it: "Undischarged drives contribute their energy to the id, the reservoir of sexual and aggressive instincts. When the level has reached a critical point, overt aggression results." Freud chose all of his metaphors carefully, stating explicitly that although they were "incorrect," they were "useful aids to understanding" until the actual physiological mechanisms were discovered. Unhappily, many of Freud's followers confused metaphor with road map, and what was intended as a temporary concept assumed a life of its own.
Today the hydraulic model of energy has been scientifically discredited, but this has not stopped some therapeutic circles from expanding the "reservoir" idea to contain all the emotions jealousy, grief, resentment, as well as rage. These therapists still argue that any feeling that is "dammed up" is dangerous, likely to "spill over" and possibly "flood" the system.
Catharsis. Freud and his collaborator Josef Breuer applied the catharsis idea specifically to aggression, using it to explain why, if we are all governed by violent instincts, relatively few of us were attacking each other on a daily basis. Catharsis, they suggested, empties the emotional reservoirs. Their definition was fairly casual: "The whole class of voluntary and involuntary reflexes from tears to acts of revenge in which, as experience shows us, the affects [emotions] are discharged." Actually, as experience was to show them, blubbering catharsis was not very effective therapy, and they later abandoned it for the talkier methods of psychoanalysis and conscious insight.
Today the catharsis question is with us again, but often with no better definition than Freud and Breuer had. Which elements of catharsis are essential to treatment and which are extraneous; for that matter, which are harmful? Some therapists imply that nearly all ways of "releasing" an emotion have equal therapeutic effect. Anger, for example, may be discharged by talking it out, shouting and hurling dishpans, exercising, playing football, watching a vigilante movie, throwing pillows, or plotting revenge. Freud and Breuer had used "catharsis" sparingly, but today it is nearly synonymous with emotional ventilation, "letting it all hang out."
Repression, sublimation, and guilt. Freud's use of these terms likewise was narrow and precise, but some popularizers broadened their meaning. "Repression," for example, came to refer not only to the process that keeps objectionable material from consciousness, but to a general (negative) state of keeping the lid on. "Sublimation" now covers not only the displacement of sexual energy into productive work, but also that of every other biological drive or impulse into unrelated activity.
Freud described repression as the pathogenic process that produces neurotic symptoms; psychoanalysis was designed to counteract these symptoms by bringing repressed material into consciousness. But he never argued that suppression of the instincts was undesirable. On the contrary: their suppression and redirection were necessary for the survival of the social system. Without repression, who would mind the store, build the bridges, create the Mona Lisa? Sublimation of sexual energy, while perhaps detrimental to the individual's wishes, served the greater good of society. And without guilt, the grease of civilization, hedonism would prevail. Society would disintegrate into anarchy.
Thus Freud was horrified by those who interpreted his descriptive statements as prescriptive, who wanted to expunge the controls of authority and guilt and "liberate" mind and body. "It is out of the question that part of the analytic treatment should consist of advice to 'live freely,'" he wrote, "if for no other reason because we ourselves tell you that a stubborn conflict is going on in the patient between libidinal desires and sexual repression, between sensual and ascetic tendencies. This conflict is not resolved by helping one side to win a victory over the other."
Yet that is exactly what many of Freud's successors attempted to do. Having decided that repression, sublimation, and guilt were merely Victorian cobwebs, they set out to sweep them away.
THE ANGER BUSINESS
There's a book by a female therapist who, in the name of feminism, admonishes her clients (and readers) to stop being nice. When you're angry, she says, just let it right out or you will channel your anger into overeating, overdrinking, skin disorders, colitis, or migraines. Late in her book, we learn where her data on psychosomatic symptoms come from:
What affected me most adversely as a girl was my family's illusion that nice girls (indeed, all nice people) didn't have and certainly didn't reveal hostile feelings. Although I was in many respects a normally nasty little girl, I always felt extremely guilty about my bad temper and "selfish" behavior. Only recently have I been able to experience my average nasty self without feeling that I must produce, along with the awareness of my hostility, punishments such as headaches, rashes, and fatness.
Then there is the male therapist who, in the name of men's liberation, likewise advises his clients to abandon niceness, no matter how difficult this is to do: "It requires a constant self-awareness and sensitivity to himself in order to avoid the temptation to be the 'nice guy' rather than to do what is real and true for himself," he writes:
As a general rule, put yourself first, except for those occasions when you genuinely want to make your wife's needs primary. Assume the risks of owning up to who you really are, completely and joyfully.
The author does not discuss what you should do if you are "really" a wife-abusing alcoholic, a supercilious prig, or an aggressive bully.
Freud would be appalled by these two characters: by their desire to behave like self-indulgent children with no responsibilities to others, no guilts about antisocial behavior, no restrictions on what they want to do. But they are a measure of how far our attitudes have come in a few decades, and they demonstrate the intimate connection between a culture's values and the popular advice that passes for scientific wisdom.
Therapies today differ in the solutions they recommend for people with "anger problems" (displacement, catharsis, fighting with foam-rubber bats, sports, rational problem-solving, years of analysis) and they have different theories about the causes of anger (accumulated energy, a crisis in infancy or childhood, years of resentment at one's mother). There are, of course, many sensible, practical therapists and therapies that can help people get through angry times in their lives, as I will be discussing.
But some of the descendants of Freud and Darwin have established schools of treatment based on the principle that anger, aggression's handmaiden, must not be blocked or silenced. Social psychologist Leonard Berkowitz calls advocates of this view "ventilationists," because they believe it is unhealthy to bottle up feelings. "Many go further," he writes, "and argue that if we could overcome our inhibitions and show our emotions, we would eliminate disturbing tensions, conquer nagging aches and pains, and promote 'deeper' and 'more meaningful' relationships with others." In the 1960s and 1970s, encounter groups adopted ventilationist therapies as vehicles for the let-it-out theory: William Schutz and Frederick (Fritz) Perls at Esalen, George Bach and Frederick Stoller in Los Angeles.
Lest you think that these are merely the weird fringes of psychology, dangling far from the mainstream, consider the arguments of psychoanalyst Theodore Isaac Rubin. In The Angry Book, Rubin warns us, without supporting data, of the familiar dangers that await those who bottle up their anger (or who "twist it" or "pervert it"). A "slush fund" of accumulated, unexpressed anger builds up in the body, just yearning for the chance to produce high blood pressure, disease, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, sexual problems, and the blahs. Rubin acknowledges that he has not measured the influence of this "slush fund" exactly (and concludes that it is "impossible" to do so), but this does not stop him from offering advice to his unknown readers. At the end of the book he provides a list of 103 rhetorical questions designed to give the reader therapeutic guidance:
Have you ever experienced the good, clean feel [sic] that comes after expressing anger, as well as the increased self-esteem and the feel of real peace with one's self and others?
(Actually, studies show that many people say that their self-esteem drops when they have let themselves express anger, that they feel depressed for several days, and that a gloomy pall envelops them. It depends on the situation and the object of their anger.)
Are you solidly aware that the purpose of warm, healthy anger is to deliver an affective (emotional) message in order to clear the air and to make corrections and reparations if necessary?
(Yes, and I'm also aware that corrections can be made without anger.)
When was the last time you got solidly angry? Did the world cave in?
(No, but sometimes it does. Some people get angry with positive results; others find that anger makes matters worse. It is misleading and naive to argue that all expressions of anger are beneficial.)
Are you aware that your anger will not kill anyone and that no one's anger will kill you?
(Yes, but only because I am a woman who has never been beaten by her husband or father. I imagine that thousands of battered wives in this country would have a far different response.)
Are you aware that people can feel loving and make love after a "fight" because an emotional traffic jam has been cleared?
(Those are other people, then, because most people report that they need time to cool down after a quarrel before they "feel loving" again. Besides, the trendy notion that fighting is sexy produces an association between sex and aggression that I, for one, find abhorrent.)
If you cannot extricate yourself from the slush-fund morass, are you wise enough to seek expert professional help? This means going to a psychiatrist who is a graduate of a psychoanalytic institute recognized by either The American Academy of Psychoanalysis or The American Psychoanalytic Association.
(No other form of therapy will do? Actually, studies find that cognitive-behavioral and family-systems therapies are demonstrably more effective than psychoanalysis in helping people control and manage angry feelings, learn constructive new anger habits, and break out of repetitive family banes.)
The ventilationist view is widespread not only among clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, but also among the general populace as well. For her book The Cycle of Violence, sociologist Suzanne K. Steinmetz studied the attitudes and experiences of typical families, and she found that a majority of adults endorse the catharsis notion. "This myth is widespread in both popular thinking and among certain social scientists," she wrote. "[For example, Bruno] Bettelheim suggests that the excessive training in self-control, typical of American middle-class families, denies the child outlets for the instinct of human violence and thereby fails to teach children how to deal with violent feelings."
But Steinmetz hardly found "excessive training in self-control" in the families she observed. Instead, she found a common belief among parents that it is better to spank a child than to restrain one's anger; that siblings should "fight it out" (even though parents hate it when they do); that screaming matches between husband and wife, and between parent and child, are normal, healthy, and good for the relationship. One father thought that the regular use of physical punishment "lets out the parent's frustration." One wife who used to be "very quiet" when she was angry said, "Now we get into loud discussions where I just get things out. It doesn't solve anything, but I do feel much better."
"I do feel much better." Is this what it comes to, then, the ultimate rationale for emotional release? Never mind whether your emotional release makes those around you feel worse, or fails to solve the problem. If you can do what you want, it must be good for you. That's the American way, after all.
THE USE AND ABUSE OF ANGER
If anger is not only a biological reflex or an unconscious instinct, why has it persisted? One answer, I believe, is that anger survives because anger works. Preaching against it, like preaching against the other deadly sins, has not had much luck in the West. In America, the judicious application of a furious speech or a determined roar often gets the results that kindness, unfortunately, does not. Anger in America restores the sense of dignity and fair play ("I told that crook off good"), it feeds ambition and competitiveness ('I'll show the bastard how the job is done"), it asserts the individual in an anonymous world ("Listen to me").
But fair play, competitiveness, and individualism are by no means universal values. Try getting angry in front of an Utkuhikhalingmiut Eskimo, as anthropologist Jean Briggs did, and you will be ostracized for your childishness. Try demanding your rights in England, Japan, or Peru in the irate tone that would be effective at home, and you will be regarded as just another uncouth, noisy American. In highly cooperative small societies like the !Kung-san of Africa (the ! represents a click sound in their language), the provocations of anger that we take for granted no, that we take for instinctive are unknown. It is not that feelings of anger are unknown in such societies, rather that whether and how one acts on those feelings are managed by culture and by learning. The rules that govern anger do not spring arbitrarily from the brows of local shamans, witch doctors, and therapists; they serve their culture.
In some unspoken sense, most people understand this. In spite of certain gurus' admonitions to stop being nice, they know that niceness makes society possible. In spite of certain glowing promises that anger will make you feel good, they know that anger can be an uncomfortable emotion, for it means that something in your life is wrong. But this attitude is not bolstered by a society that praises aggressiveness, or rewards it tangibly when it condemns it verbally. We are ambivalent about anger not because of an "internal war" between reason and emotion; we are ambivalent about anger because sometimes it is effective and sometimes it is not, because sometimes it is necessary and sometimes it is destructive.
I dislike pop-psych approaches that persuade people that anger is buried "in them" because I think such notions are dangerous to the mental health of the participants and to the social health of the community. Such views get people ventilating and agitating, but they rarely recognize or fix the circumstances that make them angry in the first place. When Aesop's lion roared, no one thought the lion had a hostility complex or a problem with temper control; they knew a net had trapped him. No amount of chanting or shouting or pillow pounding will extricate us from the many nets of modern life.
Anger, therefore, is as much a political matter as a biological one. The decision to get angry has powerful consequences, whether anger is directed toward one's spouse or one's government. Spouses and governments know this. They know that anger is ultimately an emphatic message: Pay attention to me. I don't like what you are doing. Restore my pride. You're in my way. Danger. Give me justice.
As the Swami knew, anger is the human hiss.
Copyright © 1982, 1989 by Carol Tavris