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The culture of discontent

Robert Couse-Baker

A lot of people seem to be upset about a lot of things. It sometimes seems that a nation that was once famous for optimism has turned — or has been turned — into a nation of pessimists and complainers.

The media and social media (although not of course public radio) have a lot to answer for here. Nobody could be so angry about so many things for so long as some of these journalists pretend to be. In normal life they may be perfectly reasonable people, but as media personalities, they are the very incarnation of public indignation about problems that they, and you, and I, cannot possibly do anything about.

Like Howard Beale in the old movie Network they cry: “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.” But they do take “it,” whatever it is, because outrage is a fire that must never be allowed to go out. The ongoing battles in France about a small change in the retirement age are a good example of what can be achieved by hysterical propaganda combined with a low level of public trust. It almost doesn’t matter what the issue is if it is regularly stoked with the right amount of synthetic rage.

This public catharsis, it seems, makes some listeners and viewers feel good. Not only does it tell them what they should be angry about right now, so they can start each day in the proper spirit of seething indignation, but it gives them the reassuring illusion that something has been accomplished. How could so much noisy anger not accomplish something? They feel morally improved and self-righteous just because we heard about it and shared the indignation.

Politicians use the same device. Synthetic rage gets people on their side. It’s the oldest trick in the book: divide and rule. If some red-faced shouter on your screen is almost apoplectic with righteous indignation there must be a good reason for it. But probably there isn’t. The man — usually but not always a man — is almost certainly putting on an act that is all too-well calculated. The trouble with anger is that it is blind, like loyalty or faith. People performing anger don’t want to reconcile or negotiate, they want to silence the opposition or to fight. When they do fight it is about as convincing as a professional wrestling match.

This puts the more reasonable part of the population (you and me, and the vast majority of us), at a psychological disadvantage. We can’t reasonably be outraged about not being outraged. We can’t build a winning argument on the basis that things aren’t as bad as they seem, or that some modest improvements might be made. Any such thoughtful suggestions will be drowned out by the growls and shrieks of the professionally outraged.

Anger is always destructive and self-destructive. So, I offer a gem of wisdom on this subject from the 18th century conservative writer Edmund Burke, who knew a thing or two about extreme politics, and who lived in a century in which rational thought was highly valued. He wrote: “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build in a hundred years.” Burke was wrong about a lot of things but, for more than two turbulent centuries, he has been absolutely right about that.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.