Welcome to 2019 and the promise and peril awaiting us over the next year. There is a tradition of making New Year Resolutions, a practice dating back 4,000 years to the Babylonians, that has evolved into an opportunity to make the most of the promise in a new year by trying to create new habits of thought and action, or to break old ones. This year, maybe one of the most helpful resolutions we can make is to spend time reflecting on the deeper forces that have driven our nation to its current dysfunctionality and pledge to resist those forces.
A good starting point for such a reflecting on those forces is Charles Duhigg’s article in the 2019 issue of The Atlantic, “Why Are We So Angry?: The Untold Story of How We All Got So Mad at One Another.” His article is built on the pioneering 1977 research of James Averill, a psychologist who took an interest in the positive attributes of anger, at a time in which most psychologists believed anger was a primitive emotion from our evolutionary past with no real benefits.
Averill found that anger is more gift than curse. It makes us feel powerful over our challenges, helps us solve problems, opens space for more honest conversation with people who have shut us out or not taken us seriously, and makes us more willing to accommodate others. Anger changes how we relate to one another. Averill set in motion a fascination with the emotion of anger, and a mere fifteen years later scholars published 25,000 studies on the subject in a single year. Even neuroscientists have gotten into the exploration, finding our brains on anger look a lot like our brains on happiness. It seems many of us get a buzz off our anger.
But, Duhigg’s article also reflects on the limitation of anger. Ordinary anger, Averill’s original research interest, can shift under the right circumstances into another mode of “moral indignation,” which can become a “powerful force for good.” The 20th century had iconic figures representing this form of righteous anger. Many of the most influential mixed their rage with a little religious belief, practice, and the connections and social networks of faith communities. Although Duhigg could have used Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., or host of others as a case study, he references the moral outrage of Cesar Chavez, who founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 as an organizing structure to win rights for the overlooked farm workers in California. Chavez was unconventional in his approach to workers’ rights, and the AFL-CIO farm worker organizers even considered his protest strategies distasteful, often looking too much like “religious crusades,” particularly his 300-mile protest march in 1966, which arrived at the state capitol in Sacramento on Easter Sunday with a crowd of more than 10,000 in attendance.
Chavez and his comrades channeled their anger for positive social and political change, in part by grounding the emotion in the people’s (and their own) religious symbols, concepts, and sentiments. But, if moral indignation persists and people with righteous rage do not believe their anger is facilitating changes in heart and structures, Duhigg contends, the emotion can turn into a rancid, third mode “a desire for revenge against our enemies that privileges inflicting punishment overreaching accord.” The Atlantic writer believes much of American culture is now far down this pathway, aided and abetted by what he calls “the new anger merchants,” who are more interested in manipulating the emotion for profit than using it to foster change. Television, radio shows, print outlets, and many Internet platforms are masters in merchandising anger, but there are also many other traders in the industry. Everything from bill collectors to social media designers have figured out ways to make money off of our rage, and they are making lots of it!
Since the United States and much of the world is stalled in the third mode of anger, Duhigg’s article reminds us of the importance of reflecting regularly on the causes and expressions of anger, not just in others and our culture, but in us, too. And, it is a hopeful sign that this is happening. The linguistics research tool, Google Books N-Gram, which is a database of millions of digitally copied in libraries, shows that publications using the word “anger” between 1960 and 2008 have increased dramatically and reached an all-time high.
Yet, for all the research and discussions about the dynamics of anger over the past half century, how it grows, mutates, and comes to control, it appears something is driving this emotion from fruitful resource to destructive cancer.
There are lots of theories concerning why this is happening, but I think one of the most overlooked influences is the growing gap between what we hope from life and what we actually experience. For too many educated, hard-working people, who delayed gratification on their dreams and played by the rules, life has not delivered what they expected. This is one of the unexpected takeaways from Kurt Andersen’s, Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. Andersen’s primary motivation for the book is to understand how we got to this era of fake news, alternate facts, and post-truth; however, if you approach the text from a certain perspective, his research has a lot to say about our national problem with anger.
Andersen tracks the enterprising American efforts over five centuries to create amusements, miracle products and services, half-baked ideas that seemed fully cooked, and an assortment of “fantasies” for the American public. Beginning in the mid-19th century, new technologies that seemed to the general public to work like magic, helped to create an environment of almost unlimited possibility. This made it easier for highly skilled sales personalities to pedal fantastical devices, creatures, experiences, or miracle products, and establish the foundation for an “unstoppable fantasy-industrial complex,” an entire series of industries devoted to presenting make-believe as reality.
In just one area, home health remedies, for instance, Americans in the mid-19th century may have had any of the following on their holiday gift list: Hamlin’s Wizard Oil, Dr. Dix’s Tonic Tablets, Dr. Worden’s Female Pills for Weak Women, or a miraculous cure for asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, and cancer promised to buyers who wore the magical, Electro-Chemical Ring. At the same time, the U.S. was launching new industries like advertising and mass communication, which provided a new opportunity to present make-believe increasingly as reality, and on a national scale. Transportation breakthroughs, like the railroad, for instance, made unrealistic dreams of becoming rich and famous not only more plausible but also potentially a culture movement. The most famous example is the California Gold Rush, which brought 300,000 Americans west between 1849-1850. They came in search of an easy fortune that required nothing more than pluck, luck and a tin pan to sift rocks in a riverbed. Andersen provides a host of contemporary examples of fantasyland, such as sports fantasy teams, video games, fantasy camps, theme parks and make-believe narratives that in addition to the many entertainment industries, indirectly propose a meaning-making map for people’s lives – allowing them to live more happily and with more fulfillment – even if it isn’t entirely in the real world.
Over the centuries, Andersen posits, American culture has become addicted to living larger and larger amounts of our waking hours in fantasy distractions. Entertainment became a centerpiece of most American lives more than 40 years ago, becoming so pervasive that Neil Postman wrote a 1985 book with a disturbing title: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. But, perhaps the most toxic element of our penchant for fantasy has been our vulnerability to conspiracy theories of all shapes and sizes that connect dots that aren’t really connected. The most destructive conspiracies are those that create make other people into “monsters” to blame and kill. Whether the monsters are northerners or southerners, Catholics, Jews, blacks, immigrants, or anyone who looked or acted a little different, the strategy is the same: dehumanize the person with a fantasy narrative. Over half a millennium, Andersen contends, we have been marinating in make-believe. If Duhigg wants to warn us about the effect the merchants of rage are having on us, Andersen is interested in signaling the same about the merchants of make-believe.
Andersen’s book has challenges. Growing up in a secular household, he does not understand the complexity of religion, yet portrays religions, particularly the “individualistic” emphasis in American Protestantism, as the industry trade leader in make-believe and the fantasy producer that laid the template for all of Fantasyland. But, he does see clearly the fundamental role of make-believe in American lives and posits a troubling thought that we have gradually lost our ability to discern between what is real and what is not.
“In Fantasyland, it’s hard for people to know where and when to draw lines or impost limits,” Andersen says. We know some of the goods, services, experiences, and visions of life coming from Fantasyland sources are make-believe, while others are partially mixed with real-world elements. But, we often “lose track, get immersed, become confused,” and the “large zone of fictions (in between fact and fantasy) that we probably know are make-believe” can sometimes feel more real than reality.
And, here is where we get insight into our situation today. If Andersen is correct and our culture’s obsession with fantasy has corroded all of our abilities to discern fact from fiction, his research begs an important question:
What do most Americans do with dissonance that occurs when our Realland has too much friction with our Fantasyland?
Well, for one thing, many of us get angry. Life is not what it should be (although that expectation has been so subtly formed in us by the culture of fantasies, as Andersen notes, that we don’t recall where real and make-believe begins and ends). In our anger, we become more vulnerable to Duhigg’s manipulative anger merchants, who are always ready to suggest who is to blame. And, we become more susceptible to other merchants of make-believe, who offer us that something more the real world seems to deny us.
As Duhigg discovered, anger can have a positive impact on people’s lives, and fantasy can awaken our imaginations and provide us new insights into ourselves and new psychic energy to impact our world for good. But, the merchants of anger or rage and the merchants of make-believe have figured out over 500 years of sharpening their trade how to turn both of these important human dimensions of our life against us.
I would like to propose a new year’s resolution: determine how much we are influenced by this rage-fantasy cultural merry-go-round, and minimize that influence as much as possible. This would require some reflective processes, perhaps as following:
- Make a list of the things that make you the most angry, and the merchants of rage that support your indignation.
- Reflect on the Fantasylands that have impacted you.
- Write a reflective journal entry on the relationship in your inner world between your anger, and your “go to” make-believe gas stations. Do you see any correlations?
- Make a personal resolution that anger and fantasy will work for you in 2019, you will not work for them.
The United States might be the national champion of Angry Make-Believe. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t resolve to weaken the influence merchants of rage and merchants of make-believe have on me by 2020.