Don’t just stand there and take it – give them hell
10 August 2007
The man in the cinema foyer was making an exhibition of himself. He was remonstrating loudly in a red-faced, vein-throbbing way, to an official who was trying unsuccessfully to placate him. Cinemagoers hurried by, no more than mildly curious. It was London. It was hot. Small detonations of urban rage of this kind were no big deal. They were part of life in the city.
I might well have hurried by myself, had it been for the fact that I was the ranter in question. The point that I was trying to make, with some force, to the manager of the Vue Cinema, Shepherds Bush concerned the irritation of three people – one nine months pregnant, one up from the country, one from the other side of London – who had travelled to his cinema from different directions to see a film advertised in the press. The Vue manager was trying to explain why, unannounced anywhere, the showing had been cancelled to make way for a promotional screening by a film distributor.
It was not, it goes without saying, the greatest outrage that modern life can offer, but plans had been made, miles travelled on hot and sticky public transport, not least by a heavily pregnant woman. At that moment, the casual approach of the manager seemed a small but oddly significant act of contempt by big business towards individual customers. No warning, no apology, no amendment to the listings in the local papers, no recompense: tough shit, mate.
How important is it to keep one’s dignity on these occasions? Not very, I have begun to think. Faced by, say, the boorish indifference of a bureaucratic jobsworth or by the stuff-the- customer greed of corporations, a person has limited choices. He can put up with it, valuing his stress levels above an unwinnable argument. He can go through some tedious complaints procedures. Or he can let anger off the leash in the sure knowledge that he will probably look foolish, as the powerless tend to when confronting the powerful.
None of these approaches is likely to make much difference, but walking away is feeble, and filling up a complaint form pointless. Which leaves the ranting option. Becoming angry is, I increasingly believe, not only the most satisfactory but also the most socially responsible form of protest that an individual can make when confronted by minor, irritating instances of official stupidity or capitalist greed.
A manager berated in front of his customers is briefly extracted from his air-conditioned comfort zone, and reminded that the insensitivity of his organisation has had human consequences. Other customers witnessing the row might just be encouraged to stand their ground when the moment comes for them to be treated with official contempt, as it surely will. Out of these small acts of hot resistance, an opposition to corporate bullying emerges.
Anger is not entirely futile; in fact, it is sometimes highly effective. While overseeing the building of a house five years ago, I discovered that the polite way of chasing up on late deliveries was often ignored. One morning, when the non-arrival of a particularly important order threatened to delay the whole project, I awoke with a knot in my stomach, drove to the workshop of the contractor and stormed about in a way which my old self would have deemed embarrassing. The effect was miraculous. Five minutes of ranting had succeeded where hours of civility had failed.
There is a thin line, of course, between justified anger and mindless displays of temperament – berating a bad driver or a thoughtless neighbour risks more than a mere descent into yobbish intemperance – but customers treated badly by officialdom should feel free to be openly annoyed. A big urban business may just possibly think twice the next time they are tempted to make some quick extra cash at the expense of their luckless clientele.
Rage may be undignified but, properly directed at those who deserve it, it is a sensible, socially responsible reaction to the bland and sinister facelessness of those who have power over our everyday lives.