Deborah Hill Cone: Feel the anger but don't go overboard

Anger is addictive. And with an online environment that encourages us to vent, it could be making us angrier. Photo / Thinkstock
Anger is addictive. And with an online environment that encourages us to vent, it could be making us angrier. Photo / Thinkstock

Sometimes I open my laptop in the manner of Harry Potter opening The Monster Book of Monsters, that particularly vicious textbook. Harry had to placate it by first throwing his shoe at it and then stomping on it. The correct way to subdue the book was to stroke its spine gently. If only such fondling worked on my Macbook.

Everyone is so angry lately. ANGRY! Angry and foaming at misogynists, slow walkers, Lorde-haters, John Key, Roast Busters and, really, what else have you got? I suppose I should be okay with this. Being choleric is a columnist's favourite state. The best ones, anyway. Christopher Hitchens: "It doesn't take much to make me angry."

But during the last couple of weeks with the news agenda dominated by the Roast Busters story, it feels redundant or gratuitous to join in with more angry venting when everyone else is already doing it for you.

Anyway, the reaction to the Roast Busters scandal seems to have become a "thing" in itself, so if you don't react with the approved tone of righteous fury, you risk being labelled a monster who failed to "tell the difference between who is evil and who is just naughty".

It is dangerous to be outraged in a non-conforming fashion. Beware: "People who say 'everyone grieves in their own way' are really saying 'you're grieving like a dick'."

CK Stead called the mob hysteria an "embarrassing contagion" but groupthink is possibly more sinister than embarrassing. It is dangerous, partly because moods are highly contagious, now more than ever.

There are trends in expressing emotions. The 1970s let-it-all-hang-out culture encouraged people to vent and share their anger, the theory being that if you keep it squashed inside it festers but if you let it out - free the doves, man! - then it will dissipate and everyone will be happy.

That is no longer current thinking. These days it is recognised that attitudes follow behaviour as well as vice versa. Researchers have found if you make people clamp a pencil between their teeth to simulate a "smile" they will feel more cheerful than if they frown. If you behave as if you feel an emotion then you will start to feel that; if you act angry you will get angrier.

That has led to new trends like mood freezing - the suggestion to shut your negative mood down rather than being cathartic and letting it all out.

Anger is also addictive. With an online environment, and media, that encourages us to vent - everyone is a columnist these days - it could be making us angrier. The wrath might be worthwhile, of course, if it achieves something - stopping rape, for example - but I'm not sure this is the case. And all this toxic anger is not so good if it causes group polarisation, making furious people more furious.

New Zealanders already have something of a one-note emotional palette. Our dour European culture doesn't make it easy to show a repertoire of feelings, especially negative ones. In lieu of being able to show that you feel fear, sadness, guilt and shame, we all just get very cross. Not that we are often aware of this. People often get disconnected from their primary emotions by diluting them and giving them another name.

For example, instead of saying they're afraid, which is wussy, many people will say they feel anxious or worried, which is much more acceptable. Instead of saying they feel sad (or even knowing they are sad) many people will say they feel tired or sick. If we find it so alluring to be angry, maybe we should look at whether it is really anger we are feeling or perhaps something else?

Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz in his bestselling book, The Examined Life, talks about "the bigger the front, the bigger the back" as a way of describing how we unconsciously put aspects of ourselves we find shameful on to another person or group.

Like Grosz, I am curious when I see so much self-righteousness - or "front" - on display. It is good that we can see a monstrous act, such as rape, and identify it as monstrous. But some monsters, such as the glamorous thrill of righteous anger, might be better off being shut away before they can do more damage.

Or as a columnist might say, just leave it to the professionals.

- NZ Herald

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