Mad As Hell

Woman with paper bag on her head with an angry expression on it
Woman with paper bag on her head with an angry expression on it

We sometimes forget how expressive the English language is, regardless of which side of "the pond" it is spoken and written. There is a wealth of adjectives, antonyms, synonyms, and verbs, making it impossible for us to really find ourselves at a "loss for words."

Consider the word "angry," for instance. When I checked my trusty thesaurus, numerous alternate nouns were offered, a lexical smörgåsbord, ready to be savored. To-wit: apoplectic; ballistic; enraged; furious; incensed; indignant; irate, seething; annoyed; bilious (my favorite); irascible (which always seems associated with old men shaking their canes threateningly at young whipper-snappers) pissed-off; grumpy; disputatious; pugnacious. And the heat goes on.

For many Americans, some of the above words should come in handy. Earlier this month, NBC News and Esquire magazine joined forces to conduct a "rage survey" to measure the anger many of this nation's citizenry say they feel. Anyone who has been even somewhat attentive to not only the 2016 presidential campaign, but to the range of events that have taken place in American society and culture over the last two years, is aware that the temperature of e pluribus unum has elevated markedly. Even the American eagle looks fiercer than usual.

However, the survey is limited to gauging frequency of anger rather than intensity. And it gives attention to not only who is angry but also to what is getting everyone's dander up. According to the survey, half of Americans claim they are angrier than they were a year ago (and we are only in January!), and a majority claim getting mad at least once a day at something they hear or read in the news.

One of the biggest sources of ire is the sense that America is not what it used to be; that it is a less powerful nation than it had been in the past; that, more to the point, the American Dream has died. On this point, both Democrats and Republicans share this feeling, and Donald Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination, and Bernie Sanders, seeking the Democratic nomination, are tapping into the fury and frustration of their respective supporters.

In analyzing the findings of their survey, the authors put forth an intriguing phrase: "the anger of perceived disenfranchisement." This is that discomfiting feeling that the majority (i.e. white people generally, and white males in particular) has become a persecuted minority. The perception is not limited to any one party; Democrats and Republicans alike have this sense, both groups feel besieged and hold the view that recent changes in American society, such as immigration, foreign competition, and the increasing presence of Muslims are compromising, if not destroying, this nation's status on the global stage, as well as their personal lives. While Mr. Trump has cited international security concerns as the primary problems behind America's decline, Mr. Sanders has stressed economic inequalities as the reasons for the nation's woes.

As an African-American woman, I was particularly taken with the section of the survey focused on women and racial and ethnic minorities (especially African Americans). Forty-eight per cent of women are angry about the way they are treated, and in terms of empathy, women are more likely than men to be angry about how others are treated. When it comes to perceived unfairness, women surpass men for feeling others' pain.

The surprise (or what the authors call the "weird part") comes over race: Although they take great issue with the way they are treated by society as a whole and by police in particular, the survey results found that African Americans were more likely than whites to believe in the viability of the American Dream; that America is still the most powerful nation in the world; that race relations have improved rather than worsened; and that their financial situation is far better than they had thought it would be when they were younger. Despite the numerous recent events that should elicit more negative emotions, African Americans remain hopeful in the face of adversity.

Anger is not new to America. It was what fueled the colonists to revolt and forge a new nation; anger has been behind America's great civil rights movements that sought to confront and eradicate injustice; it is what inspires us to change wrong to right.

We all have the right to feel anger, but history has shown that public outrage can be misdirected to groups or even institutions undeserving of our anger. To that point, I would not gloat over the sense of "perceived disenfranchisement" felt by white males; to feel disenfranchised is to feel not only irrelevant but invisible. But I would also argue that people of color and other historically marginalized groups have not only felt disenfranchised, they have truly been in that state, and many continue to be. I would hope that those who have never been in that position would make some effort to acknowledge that irrelevancy and invisibility have been the daily bread for many Americans through no choice of their own. And if it seems that the American Dream has died, perhaps a new and better dream, one constructed by all Americans rather than by a select and privileged few, can come into being.

While I, too, get angry over various things, I try to ask myself a few questions: Is my anger aimed at the right person or thing? Why? Am I really angry or is it something else? Have I learned all I can about this issue to justify my anger? Whom can I talk with about how I am feeling? When I manage to ask myself these questions, I am less likely to end up a seething cauldron of fury.

Anger is an important and useful emotion, which is why it should always be handled with utmost care.