Look back in anger management
23 September 2008
It is said that sooner or later the small volcano that is John McCain will blow. The presidential candidate has a famously short temper. At some point, during a long and rough electoral campaign, the wrong question will be asked at the wrong time, and the real McCain, red-faced and intemperate, will blast off.
It is perhaps encouraging that anger, in the context of politics, is now seen as a vote-loser. Once it was fine for our leaders to have a short fuse – no one worried when Churchill lost his temper – but today it is a short cut to the political scrapheap. What fools they look, these men who take a swing at a voter or who storm huffily out of a TV studio; how unworthy of our trust or respect.
Yet, as Griff Rhys Jones suggests in Losing It, a documentary to be shown on BBC2 tonight, that we have a muddled view of the subject. Personally, he rather enjoys becoming enraged, and likes angry people. People get angry because they like to be in control, he says. “They have a strong sense of what’s right, and some things knock their in-built sense of rectitude out of kilter.”
Yet, Rhys Jones argues, anger is one of our last taboos. In California, an anger management course stirs him in up in quite the wrong way. Some of those present – a mother who had shouted at a policeman preventing her from taking a disabled child to hospital, a sarcastic head teacher, a niggly bailiff – seemed to him more victims than perpetrators. The fact that a court had sent them on the course was uncomfortably Orwellian, “the blanding of society”.
Here is where the muddle starts. On the whole, modern culture is fervently in favour of expressing emotion. Why should open grief be seen as psychologically healthy, and not open rage? Perhaps, in a sneaky and indirect way, it is. In the world of entertainment, we laugh at Basil Fawlty or Victor Meldrew but their famous counterparts in real life are positively admired. Gordon Ramsay has built a profitable TV career out of losing his temper; the irascibility of Alan Sugar is his main – perhaps his only – selling point. Footballers and their managers add to their reputations by becoming angry.
In fact, anger deserves to be taboo; it would be healthier for us all if we recognised the link between verbal violence, condoned and encouraged on-screen, and the physical violence from which civilised society recoils. Who can look back on a moment in their past when they have lost their temper with anything but embarrassment and shame? Who has not, having witnessed rage in others, had a lower opinion of their character as result?
It is odd and wrong that, in the alternative world of celebrities, having a short fuse is rewarded with fame rather than ridicule. Almost always, the tantrum is a self-indulgent expression of ego. Often those who lose their temper are in a position of power, and are using it.
It is a convenient alibi for those who like to let their rage off the leash that they somehow care more about the state of the world than other people, that they are more engaged with injustice or prejudice. Any sensible person feels anger. Giving way to it in the form of verbal violence is the behaviour of a bully.