Monday, August 22, 2016

Anger and Emotional Competence



More often than not, we are told anger is a bad thing.  There are plenty of examples where anger has terrible results, elides care, or serves ignorance.  Things are even worse when rage is considered.  Horror movies and worst-case-scenarios come to mind.  Anger?  Awful.  Rage?  The ultimate fail.
 But such blanket condemnation is wrong.  Should anger appall us like some rabid animal, even when justified?  The bias against anger extends to passions in general, whose expression is consigned to certain forms, at certain times, under the imperious rules of an onerous etiquette.  These proscriptions, built into the cogworks of daily life, delimit an acceptable zone for conversation, especially at the levels of power.  It is a rather grey and formulaic space. 
I watch the babblers on the news, glib yet clad in the soporific tones of normalese.  Their phrases blur into so many dried out husks, eroded into a shuffling mass by the windspeak of their faux objectivity.  Without emotion there is no color, only the colorless numbness of the norm.  These talking heads not only reduce news analysis to sound bites between commercials, not only add their spins, slants and fallacies, but also imbue the tenor of their presentation with an insensitive nonchalance, or worse, the merest touch of saccharine concern.  After watching for a while, the speakers’ jaws seem to go wooden, like those of puppets, and their routines start to paralyze the soul, that seat of dream-riled inspirations.
 Shallowness is good fodder for the mind control of the masses.  It is good for consumerism.  It is good if you don’t want people to think too much about lopsided wealth curves, about the sweatshopping of the weak, about the nuclear threat to life itself, or ecosystems smashed on the nihilistic anvil of avarice.
Passion in service of justice, in contravention of the puppet show, isn’t shallow.  It doesn’t dull, deaden or oppress.
            Western tradition has a long history of placing the ‘rational’ above the emotional.  If a newscaster or pundit dares to show emotion they have lost their ‘objectivity’--and then, wow, nightmare, debacle, castigation (this applies to serious topics, involving money, military, law and politics, but not the cutesy sideshows).  In Plato’s writing, Emotion is the bad black horse, always in trouble unless strictly reined in by Reason, aided by the good white horse, Willpower.
The grand problem with this ancient worldview is that, ironically, it fosters ignorance.  The ‘smarter’ conquering people are superior to the defeated ‘savage’ peoples.  Men are ‘clearly’ superior to women, as they are more ‘logical’.  Conqueror over conquered, man over woman, human over animal, these oppressive splits draw from the false, enduring dual frame. 
The result has been a more-than-poignant history of atrocious sagas.  If the mechanisms of oppression continue, world collapse is imminent, brought on by the Narcissism of the Masters;   Greed sucking us all down into its gold-toothed, war-hawking gyre.  The oligarchs, no matter how many trophies they accumulate, seek fix after fix after fix.  It is accelerative, addictive.  No empathy.  No concern beyond the immediate grab (“We must maximize profit this quarter!”  “We must win this election!”  “We must defeat our competitors!”). 
Civilizations have died from top-heavy egoism.  Given our global interconnectivity, the next iteration of such pathology will take us all down.  As I say below, this is why we must evolve our emotional competency or perish.  If we do, it will foment a true breakthrough in the understanding of the self. 
Here’s what psychology tells us:  reason is an integrated process.  It involves many parts of the mind, interacting complexity in an ocean of memory/experience. The brain’s neural nets trellis as we go along.  These dendritic vines shape our interactions with the world, even as they shape us back.
           The sophistry of the status quo would have us belittle and box our anger and other passions.  But these sprightly forces are integral to the mind’s grand holistic schemes.  Its magical fractals of neurotransmitted sparks.  Passions are not alien to the pyrotechnics of cognitive expression.  They are players within its multidimensional spotlights.
           In a reflection of my Western bias, my first impulse, when drafting this essay, was to consider passions as being much like instruments in a mental orchestra.  But this metaphor is just another version of Plato’s Chariot.  The 'rational' charioteer imposes harsh objectifying control, keeps taut the reins. 
Passions are much more than instruments leashed to scores or scripts.  They are different than horses.  They are manifestations of voices within a greater sentience ( note that even the self is a player in the greater arena of the mind, as we can see in our dreams).  Imagine instruments and conductor so entangled as to be fused into a mutuality, one that thinks, lives and performs together. 
Importantly, it is not as if the instruments merely absorb the conductor’s will, or become living mirrors of the conductor.  They each bring their own voice to collective.  Carl Jung broke critical ground when he introduced an intrapsychic pantheon of archetypes.  Autonomous or semi-autonomous presences within the greater psyche.
            On this picture, if you segregate passions from the overall performance, and try to bridle them like a horse, or control them like a musical instrument, you not only diminish the music but also the ability to compose and orchestrate.
           

                                                            ****


            Adrienne Rich was eulogized by the New Yorker as a poet of “towering rage.”  This was not pejorative.  She stepped out bravely in the face of inveterate social inequality, the sort that  lurks unacknowledged yet ubiquitous.  Entrenched.  Imagine a broken  light bulb, shattered in its socket , shedding no light; and yet suppose the people around it all say it is glowing.  You challenge them, “The bulb is broken,” and trot out the evidence, already feeling like you are in Wonderland, because it is ridiculous to have to explain:  the brokenness is obvious, immediate, empirical.
But the group gets angry.  They call you a liar and worse.  If you resort to anger yourself, you discover it is a prerogative of the in-group.   Their anger is just fine.  They are, at the core, ‘rational’.  You, on the other hand, are branded as ‘emotional’, an exile-worthy stigma.  If you are a woman, like Rich, your ‘emotional’ status validates the prejudice that women are ‘weepy’ and ‘weak’.   The group might suggest you ‘stay in your place.’  If you are a male, your ‘emotional’ status might be taken to validate another stereotype, and get you labeled as gay.  For them, homosexuality is an abomination.
This light-bulb allegory only hints at the viciousness of the counterattack that activists confront.  From the ramparts of the denialists, there is simply no controversy.  The broken light bulb is glowing.  The white race is superior.  Men should rule.  LGBT is evil.  And on and on.
           
This sort of reality-bending has a term in mental health jargon, “gaslighting.”  Gaslighting is used to describe an abusive person (in the full criminal sense) who manipulates and threatens so much that the victims snap.  They embrace the implanted, false picture.   If the abuser says the light in on, it is certainly on in the eyes of those mentally (and often physically) battered.
Indoctrination into society as a whole is abusive this way.  Citizens get gaslighted from all sides--media, commercial, family, government.  This assembly line of acculturation is backed by an omnipresence, the Panopticon as Foucault would say.  Young children are the ones who often point out the contradictions and cruelties in our ways of living; that is, before they themselves get molded into walking echo chambers of the loud, standardized scripts.
            The subconscious, interlocking reinforcement mechanisms of our canons and institutions, the citadel-like strength of the Panopticon, cannot be easily defied.  Immense honesty is necessary, the sort that fueled Rich’s “towering rage.”
Such rage is natural if you don’t hide from the truth.  Republican leaders dismiss global warming as a hoax, even as evidence piles to the contrary.  They call it a hoax despite an extreme consensus among climatologists.  Similarly, Republican leaders don’t seem concerned by the current mass extinction event, or the unprecedented pollution and overtaxing of the Earth itself.  They balk at racism even as they hammer racism into the hearts of their followers with paranoid, delusional rhetoric.  They employ homophobia and  misogyny as recruitment tools, couching them in insidious ‘dog whistle’ references.  Their shortsightedness reveals the danger of passion imprisoned, passion harnessed by deception.

     We understandably fear anger in such cases because it resembles a powder keg.   But artists and poets, like Rich, effectively work with intense anger.  They are alchemists of emotion, wielding pen or paintbrush.  Anger wedded to honesty opens the mind and stimulates thought.  It is liberatory, cathartic and cleansing.  It motivates vigilance and seeks evolution of the collective consciousness.
Much of what I’m saying relates to the academic discussion of emotional intelligence.  “The [Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence] helps people build effective emotion-regulation strategies, equipping them to transform powerful emotions like anger into action that targets unjust systems.”  This is a vast step in the direction of saving humanity.  I would go so far as to say that humanity will either persist or crash depending on how far we can evolve our relationship with our intrapsychic forces.
We can no longer afford  a planet where sociopaths take center stage, pushing the anti-virtues of fascism on susceptible masses, even as they seek to usurp the right to choose  how and when we go to war.  If psychological maturity overwhelms bigotry, the malice of  demagogues who seek power for ignoble ends will be readily thwarted.
The problem I see with the Yale Center’s philosophy is the talk of  'transforming' anger, as if it were a mere stage in an hierarchical process.  Obviously anger, and all passions, need to coexist with wisdom.  The artist hurls paint at the canvas, the writer hurls words onto the page, the protesters yell chants or cover themselves in fake blood.  They don’t throw rocks.  If the voices of anger are allowed to speak, the mind might be cleared for moods of peace.  Organic experience will be cyclical, not hierarchical.  It’s not as if one passion is better than others, or that peaceful moods are superior.  All participate in actualization.
As the contexts and stories of our lives change, so do the cognitive weather patterns within our brain lobes.  If some ‘rational’ tyrant of an ego imposes shackles on the stormy emotions, it has tremendous consequences.
Wise relationship with the forces within the mind, a sort of respectful, mutual management, is hard.  It requires acceptance.  Purging.  Dealing with wounds and shames.  Heroic effort goes into working with anger and other passions.  But the honesty, the truth, the raw wonder and release that leave one feeling quintessentially alive; the soulfelt urge to heal this world and strive for love not hate, compassion not greed, these are no mere perks to be acquired, no mere trophies for a shelf.  They are liberatory centers of action with many offshoots, many implications. 
By marrying truth and ethos--the science of psychology and also the most noble concepts we can discern, such as human rights--we can live deeply and well, and strive to navigate the perils of the current age, of doomsday weapons and extinctions, despots and wars-- and confront the very gaping curses, not yet begun to heal, forged from the awful, monumental genocides, starting with the invasion by Columbus.



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