Monday, June 01, 2020

Pent-up Rage

Rage is one of the motivations identified for the recent riots.  Here are two reasons that’s not true.  There was a riot at Pumpkinfest  half-a-dozen years ago here in NH. It was 99% white people, largely college students. "It's just like a rush. You're revolting from the cops," he told the paper Saturday night. "It's a blast to do things that you're not supposed to do."  Rage?  People who are engaged in violence draw energy from the experience. That energy can be explained by the brain in a lot of ways, of which rage is only one.

Also, it looks like it’s the white leftists who are contributing a lot of the violence, even if the protestors in general are largely black. The only rage they fit is the narcissistic variety. For the others, I imagine it does feel that way to many.  But the media commentators may be mixing up the cart and the horse.  Bad feelings attract each other.  When one starts getting grousy and depressed, everything else you are upset about volunteers to come in and keep you company. When we see injustice, we get activated, and our brain automatically goes looking for “other things that have made me feel this way in the past.” This will include both just and unjust anger, both legitimate grief and feeling sorry for yourself, both deserved shame and undeserved. Some hurts lie in wait like hungry lions seeking prey.

If your life has been hard in any way you have a closetful of resentments that can be pulled out and put on every morning. If you are poor or have been mistreated you have more.  That’s not the same as “pent-up rage,” because the latter includes a theory of personality that is a little shaky. The idea that emotions “build up” in a person or a society carries some truth, but is not entirely so. There are physical containments that are frustrating, such as having to sit still or not having enough food, which can make people irritable and angry. Others can plateau for quite a while: sexual frustration is not that different on the physical plane after four days, or forty, or four hundred.  The psychological elements of resentment or loneliness are what make it worse.  When I climb a mountain after a long hiatus, I am so tired after half a mile that I fear right from the start that a ten-mile round trip will be far beyond me.  But the tiredness after one mile, though it is still causing me to breathe hard and worry a lot, is not any worse, nor is it worse at three miles or five.  There are degrees of tiredness depending on what one is used to, lines that we cross that signal real changes, but those are sometimes plateaus of their own. Ten miles might be much worse than eight, or not much different.

We adjust to a new normal pretty quickly, and that is true both physically and psychologically.  I objected a few weeks ago to all the dark warnings that people weren’t going to put up with this lockdown forever, that they were going to start busting out of it.  A lot of that is self-fulfilling, and pretty obviously so.  When we say such things we are giving permission for people to do them, the same as the news media is giving permission for people to riot now.  “I’m not saying rioting is the right thing to do, but you can’t expect people to put up with injustice forever.”  Sure.  Especially when you’re encouraging them to associate events that have nothing to do with them with their own personal struggles.  A jerk of a governor in Michigan causes people in Oklahoma to become angry, same as liberals in Connecticut get all in a lather when a state senator from Missouri proposes some law they think is ignorant.

Antifa knows this, and uses it.  White supremacists think they understand this, and keep predicting that a race war is just about to break out (“And we’ll be ready!”) but somehow it doesn’t seem to come to that.  They are less able to manipulate the crowds.  Or maybe there is less fuel for them to burn.

People with hard lives have hard lives. Not all tautologies are trivial, because we forget some of them too quickly. Skilled manipulators can convince us that what we are unhappy about is exactly what is convenient for them politically. That is the heart of any political campaign. We know why you are unhappy.  It is because Snowball destroyed the windmill! These days it is common to tell people that no one is listening to them.  It seems to be effective on all sides, leading again to the Tim Tebow effect, in which everyone is quite certain their point of view isn’t getting enough press. Yet the hardness of life is not entirely something that builds up inexorably over the years.  All of our ancestors put up with worse than what we see, but they didn’t all riot.  Very few of them rioted. A lot of rioting is opportunistic and generated in the moment. On the other hand, people with hard lives have hard lives, and they have a lot can attach to any magnet of misery you put in front of them.

1 comment:

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

"White supremacists think they understand this, and keep predicting that a race war is just about to break out (“And we’ll be ready!”) but somehow it doesn’t seem to come to that." Charles Manson used to believe this as well, and look where it got him!