Are we living in an age of anger? Why does everyone seem so steamed-up, aggressive or furious about certain aspects of today’s society? These are some of the intriguing questions that were posed by Zoe Williams, writing in the UK’s daily newspaper The Guardian on 16th May.
Whether it is angry householders complaining about the behaviour of their neighbours, or motorists engaging in extreme road rage, or people venting their racism or sexism anonymously on social media, or populist politicians openly engaging in whipping up the fury of crowds, it does appear that there is something about early 21st century society that is making people more prone to angry outbursts or signs of greater impatience.
From a historian’s perspective, is it possible to understand this better by detecting similar cycles of anger when we look back at the past? One discipline that has caught the attention of some historians is known as ‘cliodynamics’, which was apparently developed at the turn of this century. It is something that I must admit is completely new to me, but makes for some fascinating reasoning.
According to the Guardian article by Williams, it was a discipline developed by scientist Peter Turchin, and it plots historical events by a series of mathematical measures: ‘These measures yield a map of history in which you can see spikes of rage roughly every 50 years: 1870, 1920, 1970…’. Cycles of rage and violence are not always unproductive – they take in civil rights, union and suffragette movements, and so on. In fact, the Turchin model points out that all social movements of consequence start with unrest or anger, ‘whether in the form of strike action, protest or riot’.
Interestingly, as Williams noted, some situate economics at the heart of the social mood, and it may possibly be that the modern world economy, as it goes through cycles of low and high growth over time, creates a kind of stagnation which can always correspond with unrest or anger.
As support for this, Williams pointed to the views on this theory put forward by David Andress, a professor of history at the University of Portsmouth and the author of Cultural Dementia. This book is about how the rage of the present time we live in may indeed have an ‘economics’ context, rooted in things such as the insecurity created by inequality: as Andress has argued, ‘Economics is about scarcity and insecurity turns very quickly into anger and scapegoating’.
As Andress has also noted, there are periods in history not marked by fury, of course, but it may be that modern conditions today – for various reasons, including a new sense of insecurity on the part of more and more people – are producing this latest cycle of anger and rage.
Another perspective on our current seeming ‘age of anger’, one that may also be useful for historians, comes from the discipline of psychology. Williams in her article pointed to the work of Aaron Balick, author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking, a book which has highlighted the new availability of social media. As Balick himself has commented: ‘I think for sure anger is more expressed. What you see of it is a consequence of emotional contagion, which I think social media is partly responsible for. There’s an anger-bandwagon effect: someone expresses it and this drives someone else to express it as well’.
Indeed, social media may have given us a way to transmute our anger to every area of life; more worryingly, the recent resurgence of the far right in Europe may be partly a result of them tapping into this seeming fury about all aspects of current life. Moreover, as Williams pointed out, writ large on a world stage, politicians like U.S. president Donald Trump or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban may have found ways to exploit such anger and vent this unmediated fury for political effect.
That is certainly food for thought. So, are we in the latest ‘cycle of anger’? If so, a silver lining in this dark cloud must surely be that this anger will at some point begin to decline. The challenge is really trying to pin down when that will be.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(Images: WikiMedia Commons)