Friday, 4 May 2007

Anger - the new Opiate of the British People

We live in an angry age. In the 1960s they spoke of the 'angry young man' disillusioned by the established ways things were done. These days many of us are angry whether we are young or old, male of female. In the UK the word 'rage' seems appended to any activity, starting with 'road rage' and spreading to 'trolley rage', 'airport rage'. The popularity of 'fly on the wall' (as they used to be called) documentaries, especially about airports and traffic wardens, means that we can turn on the television to watch people get furious with others in all sorts of environments; it provides a master class for us in how to do it. It has also upped the stakes, to be taken seriously we feel we have to get angrier and more abusive than the examples we see on television and in the street everyday.

Why are people so angry? It seems something more prevalent in the UK than elsewhere, though now you can get fined on the spot £80 (€117; US$160) if the police catch you. In some ways I think it stems from men feeling useless in the modern world. British men do poorer at school and many are disinterested in learning. Despite changes in legislation, women still tend to be cheaper to employ in the UK and their abilities to 'multi-task' are contrasted with lumbering, inflexible men. If an employer has a choice, they pick the woman. Unemployment in the UK is 1.7 million (out of 65 million people), lower than say Germany (about 4 million out of a population of 80 million) or France (2.3 million out of a population slightly below the UK's) but enough to make many men feel on the scrapheap. Incomes are low for UK workers, 80% earn less than the national average of £23,000 per year and food, accommodation, fuel and cars are all more costly than in neighbouring countries, despite the UK being in the EU. Anger will not get you a job or put more money in your pocket, but for most British men, nothing can do that for you and at least getting angry feels good for a short while.

Ah, but you say, the women get as angry as the men. This is true. Women suffer from all the same cost issues and uncertainty over unemployment than men too, they also learn by the examples shown on television, but they tend less to see it as a first reaction in the way many men do. Both men and women feel powerless in our society. It is difficult to get so many things done in the UK. Customer service is appalling, especially when it comes to the utility companies for things like water, gas, electricity, telephones, etc. The development of broadband provision is now being held back by the greed of many of the providers. They force you into lengthy contracts that you are unable to break even if you have left the house you had the service provided to (I was still paying for telephone and cable television in a house I had left 3 months before because it takes NTL that long to end the service, by then they were also getting money from the people who had taken over the house), their service is appalling and the charges steep. When you contact them you are on the telephone for 45 minutes to 1 hour minimum and will be forced to telephone back on other occasions and keep on repeating details about your circumstances. I would like people in other countries to let me know if it is so bad there. Transport especially trains and aeroplanes are just as bad with impolite staff, confusing systems and minimal effort to keep people informed when things go wrong. Bashing your head against the brick wall of blank-faced or -voiced staff is infuriating. No wonder people get angry, because following the procedures the companies put in place generally fails.

As an aside, one trend many airlines are now introducing is that if you complain at an airport they call over security staff and say you are a terrorist threat. In 2006 a writer for 'The Guardian' newspaper who was pregnant at the time asked for some luggage trolleys to be moved to part of an airport where there were none. Instead of doing this airline company staff reported her to security as being disruptive and a risk to the airport. I personally faced a similar problem when some of my luggage was wrecked. I tried to make a complaint at the correct desk, it was dismissed as irrelevant, the staff summoned a security guard and a police office who advised me if I did not stop trying to make a complaint I would be fined £80 on the spot. If this is the treatment you get for a minor complaint is it not surprising that people jack up the tension further. If you are going to be treated as disruptive why not actually be so?

Another contributing factor in the UK is an increasing sense of dignity. Unlike cultures such as China, the UK has not really had a culture of 'keeping face', but it seems to be increasing. Drivers get offended if a smaller car overtakes them, people get angry if you try to get past them on the pavement, they get offended if they think you are looking at them (and even more so if you see their children) almost encouraging people to walk around with their eyes to the ground. When you have so little to live for, your personal space and your sense of dignity and in particular the authority that having a family appears to give you in present UK society, are things that people fight strongly to retain, even when the bulk of the slights against these things are imagined. Such attitudes are backed by a real sense of self-righteousness. The comedians Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse used to portray this attitude so well with their 'self-righteous brothers' characters, each week in a matter of minutes the brothers would be ranting about some imagined offence to them by a celebrity they had never met. It sums up so much behaviour in the UK today.

So, in an age when the ordinary person feels buffeted by people and organisations over which they have no comeback, anger is the temporary release that stops us sinking into utter despair about our powerless positions. Rather than sink into gloom, I prove at least that I am more justified than you in my argument and I can stamp and shout louder than you. I am a man living in the UK and I feel as frustrated as the next person. Over the past few years I have found I have become addicted to anger and indulge in it on an almost daily basis. Railing against the unfairness of the other drivers on the road, yet another bill from a utility company, my inability to get anything in my house repaired, all of this anger stops me abandoning all hope and simply slumping in a heap on the floor, stunned by the futility of most of my actions in today's Britain. Like all addictions it is doing me harm, raising my blood pressure and probably leading me to an early grave. However, in a country of anger-users there is no incentive to kick the habit, in fact I am challenged daily to be a better user of anger than anyone else. It was once said that religion was the opiate of the people, in 21st century Britain, anger is the people's crack.

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