Anger is an energy
Once when I was going through a crisis I sought advice from an older friend. He told me, “Emotions are never wrong.” That may be a platitude (it sounds like one) but I had never heard it before. I recall it often even though I don’t agree with it completely. I think hatred can be based on profound errors of reasoning, and therefore wrong, but as a general rule my friend’s remark has helped me pause and think before I judge people for the feelings they express.
That does not mean, however, that emotions and the expression of them are one and the same or that they have equal value. In fact it seems to me that people often act and speak as if feeling and expression are one. This conflation can lead from minor disagreements to war.
A useful way to think about the difference is to consider what artists do. Think of the way John Lydon focuses, channels and directs his anger into artistic expression.
Doing that as successfully as he does takes discipline and lucidity. Anger is an energy, but without control—such as the control of art—it is formless outflowing waste. Like a flame it could hurt the person who feels it or anyone around him. Anger is not wrong but failing to have a lucid understanding of anger is. And having lucid understanding of it but using that self-knowledge to hurt oneself or others is also wrong and potentially criminal. The failure of the political left lies in the former error; that of the right in the latter.
Without lucid understanding, anger is an energy that overrides or short-circuits empathy and rational thought. And this is a phenomenon that one can witness every day in social media. At times it reaches near-toxic levels on the left side of the political spectrum (and not just the right). With it comes gross errors in reasoning, such as the notion that hanging on to one’s emotions and refraining from acts of hate-speech is equivalent to appeasing Hitler, to putting oneself and advocating putting others in the position of being steamrolled by fascists. One of the worst and most common of these errors is the false equivalency of applying one of MLK’s quotes on the silence of good people to this argument—rather, this angry outburst or accusation. As if the only alternative to rage and hate speech is silence, complacency and acceptance. What! You’re suggesting we have to be civil when they refuse to be?! Uh, yeah. Because we can.
“We” being those of us who claim to be progressive. Everything that happens is not always someone else’s fault. It’s much more useful spending energy trying to determine what we can do to make the world better than spending it demanding that others change. But the minute a case is made to stop playing the victim those who are short-circuited by anger shout it down as just another example of “blaming the victim”. It’s not enough to recognize and have empathy for the emotions of the victim, one must also agree and approve. And if not, bring out the virtual pillory. And there’s a history of this. It was Woodrow Wilson, after all, who brought out the Sedition Act. We should be worried about fascism. But we don’t have to make sure that when civil liberties are taken away it is done in the name of making society safe from the rabid left—the left that can’t get together right now—of all times!—and agree on anything basic. Talk about divide and conquer. The president’s doing a great job. Terrific. Thanks in large part to the left. Talk about pushing buttons. Talk about being a puppet. Who needs fascists when your so-called friends scream, You must comply! The president doesn’t need to be an intellectual. He just needs the emotional smarts to push emotional buttons. It’s so easy!
When we (so-called progressives) have gotten to the point when we’re actually having a debate on whether to be civil or not something fundamental has been broken. And maybe something has been lost. I do not believe the best way to fight fascists is to line up with Democrats behind shields and spew hatred.
I have experience in this area. I was raised by my mother in a fundamentalist church and verbally abused by my father. My father had me convinced, not only that I was unloved but that I could not say or do anything right. And my mother, though she professed love, believed I would burn in Hell forever because I did not believe the way she did. My father condemned my body and my mother condemned my soul. Both aimed at dismantling my ability to think my own thoughts. That, in effect, is fascism. As a child I couldn’t escape. Think for a moment about what it was like growing up inside that vise of intolerance and hatred.
After I had left home and was living hundreds of miles away, there were nights when I could not fall asleep until I had fantasized about going back home, torturing and murdering my parents with my bare hands. I began to wonder about this. Why these fantasies and why now? They were hundreds of miles away.
Before I had gotten to the point where the only solution was leaving, I had been through agonizing mental contortions trying to accommodate myself to living with them. Communication—any kind of communication—failed utterly. And nothing, I decided, was more heartbreaking than the absolute failure of communication. If I learned one thing it is this: when dealing with a fascist, hatred is just as ineffectual as reason. Later, miles away, I learned that they had gotten inside me in the form of hatred. Hatred—holding it, embracing it, indulging in it for a prolonged time can eat you like cancer. Twenty-one years old, I was approaching a point at which one or two things had to happen: suicide or murder. Hatred destroys. Period. When your father constantly tells you to shut up and that everything you say is stupid, when your mother tells you that your very soul is rotten to the core, you have but a few options: suicide or some form of aggressive behavior are at the very top. Fortunately I found another way. I became a writer. Thinking my own thoughts is a matter of life and death for me.
How did I get to that place? First and foremost, I had to forgive my parents. It’s just as simple and just as difficult as that. Very consciously and deliberately I had to let go of the hatred. Does that mean I was defeated?—that they “won”, that they steamrolled me? Oh, no! I forgave them, but we could never be friends. Does that mean I’ve stopped feeling anger? Don’t even suggest it. Allowing oneself to feel anger and lucidly using that anger (along with the whole spectrum of emotions) for creative purposes is precisely what I do as an artist. People are sometimes puzzled by “violent” art—books like Maldoror, writers like Sade, angry music. But when anger has brought you to the crossroads of life or death, you get it—that kind of art is life saving.
Feeling anger and lucidly using it creatively is not what is happening in today’s politics. In the politics of incivility and hatred today people on the left as well as the right are losing control of themselves. They are not using their anger. Their anger is using them. And on both sides they’re being manipulated by a president who, in lucidity, cares a lot about power and not much about serving the people. No good can come of it. Democrats and Republicans are like demons with teeth clenched in each other’s face. It’s not much of a stretch to conclude that the two-party system is what is broken—that and the electoral college system of selecting presidents.
Lucidity, steadfastness and creativity will be much more effective against fascism than either trying to reason with them or hate on them. True, a time may come when it is necessary to run, hide or fight. But until then best not to waste precious energy.