Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Extremism and the concept of righteous anger

I wrote in July 2014 this post about radicalism and extremism and that already seems a very long time ago indeed. Since then there has been a very visible (and audible) growth in extremism in two groups which, for all their apparent difference seem to me oddly similar: Trump supporters and Daesh.

Similar?!? I hear you ask. Well, I am certainly not claiming any sort of moral equivalence between a a conglomeration of brutally fanatical jihadists and a bunch of whooping American bigots but there is certainly one thing that they (and other groups) have in common. They are, it seems to me, fuelled by what they would regard as righteous anger.

So what do I mean by righteous anger?

Society has always distinguished between two different sorts of anger. First there is interpersonal anger of the sort that inevitably arises between people who live in close proximity to each other. Societies have generally regarded this as unfortunate and unproductive and have evolved more or less successful ways to contain it, from ritual and religious practices to systems of law and order. This sort of anger has been at the root of much of the crime and violence in human society from time immemorial (look at Cain and Abel) and civilisation has as much as anything been a means of keeping it in check.

The other sort of anger is what I have called righteous anger. This is anger not directed at someone one knows well and not generated by close contact but prompted by some larger cause or some more abstract concept. It is anger at a group of individuals, a nation, a system or even an idea. When I say 'righteous' I do not imply any sort of moral approval (anti-semitism falls firmly into this category), but am referring to how the anger is experienced by the people who feel it.

In the early days of human society this sort of righteous anger would have been a positive asset to a group or tribe, because its likeliest focus would have been members of an opposing neighbouring tribe so it would have had the effect of binding the group together with a common purpose. Indeed conflicts between neighbouring tribes have often become formalised and ritualised over time, presumably as a way of harnessing and making safe this sort of righteous anger.

Outward-focussed righteous anger became a major asset to national leaders with the rise of the nation state- it was the power-source for the sort of patriotic jingoism that had endless generations of young men sacrifice their lives in pursuit of glory in an a series of pointless European wars for instance. Probably it was the First World War that began its demise, not so much because of the mechanised slaughter (nothing like a few deaths in war to fuel righteous anger) but because soldiers in the trenches began to question the way they had been suckered by the concept of righteous anger into miring themselves (literally) in a futile battle against individual Germans they found it less and less easy to see as their personal enemies. Indeed the clearest focus of anger in soldiers' poetry seems not the German soldiers but rather the British generals and public at large:
"You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye.
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know.
The hell where youth and laughter go."

This was far from the end of state-sanctioned righteous anger of course. It was Hitler's trump card, and the force that transformed 1930s Germany from a broken and demoralised failed state to a hyper-efficient blitzkrieg and genocide machine. Differently expressed it was the force behind the resolve Churchill saw in the British people after Dunkirk and articulated in the immortal lines, "we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

However the Twentieth Century saw a growth in a different sort of righteous anger too, directed this time by oppressed minorities against their own national leaders. There were the suffragettes in Britain, the civil rights movement in the US and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, to name but three. This is the sort of thing most of us would be happiest to call righteous anger- the struggle for justice in an iniquitous system- but is it really that different to the forms of righteous anger that preceded it? There was a coherence to the groups motivated by it and a clarity as to its target that calls to mind the anti-Bosch jingoism of Britons in the early years of the first World War, and if we now see the latter as lacking a moral justification that is to forget the stories of baby-massacring and the like that were used to whip up fury in 1914.

It is more recently that what one might call righteous anger has begun to morph again into something altogether less clear and immediately comprehensible, and this is where Daesh and Trump come in. Because it seems to me that both islamist jihadism and tea party republicanism are fuelled by a powerful but inchoate wave of anger against someone or something 'out there' that its supporters want to bring down by any means possible.

And to be clear about how this is different from either the anti-apartheid movement or even Nazi anti-semitism it is important to understand that we seem nowadays to be living in a post-nation state era and enemies are no longer so easy to define. Sure, both groups have their bogey-men- for the Trumpers Obama and for Daesh the Great Satan (ummm, Obama)- but their anger is, in both cases, more wide-ranging than that. The Trumpers can be whipped up into fury on a whole range of issues from Mexican fruit-pickers to muslim women in headscarves or from healthcare insurance to US foreign policy. Daesh direct anger not just against Western interventionists but almost as strongly against Arab Christians, muslim apostates or women without headscarves (what is it about head scarves that seems to prompt such fury?)

Yet for all the differences it seems to me that the fundamental motivation is exactly the same as when righteous anger was used as the justification either to smash windows in Kristallnacht or to march unarmed into the live ammunition of the South African police. Anger, it seems, operates almost independently of morality. Indeed if anger is powerful enough then it provides its own moral justification: if one feels that one's entire way of life- one's existence even- is threatened by some distant collection of unindividualised strangers then one's anger can seem to justify almost any actions against that 'other'.

It used to be that this powerful force was kept under control and directed (for good or ill) by even more powerful social structures- first tribal customs, then nation states and then idealistic movements or causes. But in the interconnected twenty-first century those sorts of social structures have less and less force. We have seen the little man who hides behind the Wizard of Oz's thunderclaps and we no longer care much what he says. Instead, people turn to self-selected groups of the like-minded and there their anger is not contained but amplified; not directed but inflamed.

So anger has (for me) emerged as the most dangerous threat to society today, leading to everything from the brutal death-cult of Daesh to the mainstreaming of neo-Nazi xenophobia on US TV. And the problem is that the populist media, and particularly the tabloids, seem hell-bent on whipping anger up further all the time. What else could be the intention of headlines like "One out of every five killers is an immigrant" (a genuine headline)?

Which is why I am becoming increasingly distrustful of any attempt to whip me up to anger, and that too is a problem. Because righteous anger, for all its dangers, has been an immensely powerful force for good and there are still plenty of issues that are easily iniquitous enough to prompt such anger- violence against women for instance. It is just that so long as Trump and Daesh make so free with it righteous anger no longer holds the attraction for me that it once had.


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