The thing about rage only two decades into the 21stcentury is that it’s everywhere. In past eras it brewed in turbulent hotspots – the Middle East, India-Pakistan, the Balkans, the Congo, Nicaragua, among others – usually far away and, in consequence, far from our minds. But the individual and collective anger has spread to normally stable places around the globe – Germany, France, Norway, Britain and most obviously in the United States.
In his Meditations, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius cogently noted, “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.” It seems to me that some are coming to terms with this observation. The “age of rage” has been rolling on for years and the change which that kind of vexation is supposed to produce isn’t happening. No matter who triumphs in the revolution or wins in the election, things overall seem to remain the same. We’re starting to understand that seasons of anger frequently make us more miserable and ineffective – especially when nothing is altered as a result.
So, could it be that our representative democracies are in serious trouble due to our irascibility? There’s little doubt – not because the anger is so white-hot but because the conditions which produced that collective temper haven’t changed. Bill Gates has been venting recently that we can expect another economic recession in the near future, perhaps more serious than 2007. The moral of that story is that the financial sector learned little from that past colossal economic meltdown. Taxpayers bailed out the economic managers in numerous countries back then and they’re now back doing largely what got them into trouble in the first place.
Little is happening regarding the increasing flow of refugees or the encroaching tidal wave of environmental catastrophe. Middle-class wages remain stagnant. Jobs continue to disappear. Human rights injustices seem intractable. And citizens everywhere are fed up. Even in Canada the tensions between West and East regarding oil pipelines have threatened the very essence of harmony with provincial governments and, eventually, their federal counterpart.
With anger everywhere, solutions nowhere,and hundreds of millions looking for rescue from somewhere,collective anger has risen to new levels. The gentler voice of reason is growing rare, though in recent months fatigue with all that rage is causing some to seek something more measured. French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, touring America in the 1800s spotted something that its own leaders were on to:
“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
Yet those points of tension are growing, not being healed, not just in the United States, but in the developed nations of the West that once viewed capitalism and neoliberalism as their ticket to a better, more prosperous future. We haven’t repaired our abiding faults.
Many of us ventured forth into that quagmire with anger on our sleeves and impatience in our spirits and, in many cases, it was an impressive thing to witness or be a participant. But we are now exhausted and more calloused from a universe of anger that feels more like a cul-de-sac than a way forward.
Sometimes the old Greek fables are instructive, as when Theseus, the founder of Athens, volunteered to walk into the great labyrinth to save the captives kept by the great and devilish Minotaur. All the others who went in never came out, but Theseus, fueled with a sense of purpose prepared to enter the huge maze. At the last minute a woman offered him a ball of yarn so that he could find his way back out. And that’s just how it played out. He defeated the Minotaur and followed the yarn back to safety.
At times our justified anger leads us into places from which there is no escape, just as Marcus Aeruleius predicted at the beginning of this post. Anger without a path in and out never leads to progress, but a sense of frustration and ineffectiveness. All too many times our fury drives away the very people we need for compromise and solutions. Social justice is more impacted by collaboration than by anger. Right now we don’t know how to get out of a democracy that has become furious and at times harbours more hatred than healing. Democracy was founded by the belief that civilization was a verb, not a noun, but now that we have all taken our inflexible stands there is nowhere to go. We are trapped in a maze we partly helped to construct. The anger that got us into this situation will never get us out.