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Anger is the new default setting

by
29 July 2016

Trevor Barnes considers the prevalence of rage in contemporary life

NOT that long ago, I was sent to interview an anger-management therapist in north London. Thanks to an administrative misunderstanding, I arrived promptly at the instructed hour, but 30 minutes later than he had wrongly been told to expect me. He was furious.

If even the professionals can fail to rein in this most corrosive of the deadly sins, one wonders what hope there is for the general public, whose ability (and, indeed, willingness) to keep calm in trying circumstances is vanishing fast: the default setting to any challenge or reverse these days is anger.

Although they now seem to have taken place an age ago, particularly dispiriting were the scenes outside Boris Johnson’s house on the day after the Brexit vote last month. There was no reasoned debate from the pavement protesters . Only fury, abuse, and physical intimidation that would have escalated in short order, had the police not been on hand to keep people moving.

We have seen such anger before. Usually personalised and often vicious, it scarred the Scottish referendum, and made exercising a cherished democratic freedom a risky business if you were unwise enough to talk about it in the wrong company.

And, of course, the (increasingly anti-) social media played their part in the latest referendum, giving malcontents of every political stripe the green light for the vilest of taunts and threats. When the result was finally announced, it surely came as no surprise to anyone that anger should boil over again, as the disgruntled losing side took to the streets, demanding a rematch.

Beyond the political arena, you need only study the attitudes of many a campus student union for an equally troubling example of angry intolerance. This takes the form of a policy known as “no-platforming”, whereby student bodies seek to deny would-be speakers a platform to air anything other than the approved world-view. While once understandably invoked to debar racist and fascist groups from disseminating illiberal, illegal, and violent ideologies, it can now be deployed to curtail anything deemed offensive to the student body.

Thus a lifelong LGBT campaigner such as Peter Tatchell could, earlier this year, be angrily tarred “transphobic”. Common sense (not to mention Mr Tatchell’s often heroic record of defending the rights of minorities) should have quashed the accusation at birth; but, no, the allegation stuck. What his “crime” consisted of was appending his name to an open letter condemning no-platforming, which alone, it was alleged, might stir up resentment towards transgender people.

As Mr Tatchell and others have noted, if reasoned opposition to no-platforming is enough to get a person no-platformed, then freedom of speech as traditionally understood has suffered a grievous blow. And self-righteous anger will fill the vacuum.

This month, in Oldham, a 70-year-old man was beaten senseless by a young thug, who was offended that he had been reprimanded for urinating in the street. As first sight, the everyday coarseness of the attack seems to have little in common with the rarified nature of political abuse or university intolerance. But what all three instances have in common is an overwhelming sense of personal, and essentially infantile, entitlement that is deemed to trump all otherwise legitimate opposition, examination, or discussion.

Meanwhile, amid calls for a kinder, “grown-up” type of politics, 48 per cent of the electorate will have to live alongside the 52 per cent who disagreed with them, and vice versa. As it happens, healing these divisions is among the first tasks that Theresa May has set herself as the new Prime Minister.

The electorate can only hope that, with a fatal angry bullet already fired, and an angry brick already thrown, an effective loyal opposition will soon emerge to help her do just that.

 

Trevor Barnes reports for the Sunday programme and other BBC Religion and Ethics broadcasts.

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