In a recent issue of The Chronicle Review, three commentators explored the phenomenon of rage which seems to be a more dominant characteristic of American society than ever before. In his article Look Ahead in Anger: Hyperbolic rhetoric threatens to swamp our politics, Sasha Abramsky argues that movements on both the right and left are motivated by rage rather than constructive anger, making rational change or even discussion impossible.
In exploring how disillusion with Obama has fed anger in the United States, Abramsky cites Peter Sloterdijk and his new book Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation. Sloterdijk writes about how disillusion leads to anger in society, “In addition to resignation and a cynical turning away from yesterday’s illusions, these waves often lead to momentous formations of rage.” The pervasiveness of rage in public discourse or the national mood is of course nothing new and Abramsky looks at such periods as 1970s England as a precursor to the contemporary United States. Again, Abramsky turns to Sloterdijk, who comments on the centrality of rage in history, “Are not all civilizations, either openly or in secret, always archives of collective trauma?”
David Barash, author of the recently published How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories: Evolutionary Enigmas, takes a different perspective on the subject by looking at the ways in which claims of unfairness in society are feeding the anger in our society. In his article, Hey, Wait a Minute! Biological roots of today’s anger, Barash looks at evolutionary factors and the idea of a fairness instinct to understand our anger about bailouts, assistance to imprudent homeowners, and executive pay.
As Barash explains while we might have an instinct for fairness, this instinct works both ways: it can lead to generosity but also an awareness of how others are doing relative to ourselves. He suggests that this perhaps serves an evolutionary function:
But since evolution favors whatever maximizes relative fitness, it smiles not only upon those who do well, but also upon those who frown on competitors poised to do better. One way to achieve the approval of natural selection, therefore, is not only to strive to maximize one’s own payoff but also to monitor that of others, and to complain loudly if it seems too high, especially if such a complaint is at all likely to better the situation of those who act as Robin Hood or who cheer him on in the name of fairness.
Complaining and complaining loudly about fairness, Barash suggests, is part of today’s public discourse as are the disputes about how it is to be achieved. Barash concludes his article by calling on us to better understand the nature of our “fairness instinct”:
Although not all anger derives from unfairness, we might want to look further into whether people have a fairness instinct. It could help us understand why certain policies are embraced and others resisted, why self-righteous anger is sometimes so easily elicited, and whether that anger is itself fair.