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Angry Demons and the Angel of History

I realise what evil things I am about to do,

but it’s my anger dominates my resolution – anger,

the cause of all the greatest troubles for humanity.

– Medea

Few emotions possess us with such ferocity as anger. It is, according to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, “wholly violent and has its being in an onrush of resentment, raging with a most inhuman lust for weapons, blood and punishment, giving no thought to itself if only it can hurt another”.

Almost 500 years before Seneca wrote On Anger, the Greek tragedian Euripides dramatised how much “hurt” unchecked anger can inflict. In his play Medea, Euripides tells the story of how Medea, a Colchian Princess and descendant of the sun god Helios, fell in love with the Greek hero Jason during his quest for the Golden Fleece. Her reward for helping him capture the Fleece was to return with him to Corinth as his lover. She bore him two sons only to see him fall in love with Glauce, the daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth. Overwhelmed by rage and jealousy, Medea set about exacting a ruthless revenge where she planned to kill Glauce and her own children. As with so much of the anger that consumes us, she knew the “evil things I am about to do” but was unable and unwilling to stop herself.

Shortly before the wedding of Jason and Glauce, Medea offered a gift of golden robes and a coronet to Glauce as an apology for her behaviour in protesting at their forthcoming marriage. Jason accepted the gifts, oblivious to the fact that the robes and coronet were covered in poison. When Glauce tried them on, she died a slow and agonising death. As soon as King Creon realised what was happening, he rushed to her side to help but as soon as he touched the robes and coronet he absorbed the poison and died alongside his daughter. Her fury as yet unassuaged, Medea then murdered the two young sons she bore Jason and at the end of the play the Chorus of Corinthian women asks, “Why does blood demand more blood?”

Anger, when it consumes us as it did Medea, knows no moderation. Built on a real or imagined sense of injustice, we confine ourselves in a prison of passivity and victimhood, where our deepest wish is to strike back, regardless of the proportionality of our response. We feel aggrieved and that is sufficient to justify the excesses of our anger. The subsequent piling of one destructive act upon another is as senseless as it is human.

In the 21st century, more than a hundred years after Freud’s famous “discovery” of the unconscious mind, we know the angry demons that possess us are of our own making. They are woven into the fabric of our biology and fuelled by real or imagined acts of neglect and disrespect. It’s these acts that create the cycle of resentment and anger from which it’s so difficult to escape and whose consequences are endlessly violent. Some have argued that there is, however, a positive adaptive aspect to our anger. Many successful and creative people, from Isaac Newton and Beethoven to Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, are famous for their angry outbursts. While they share with Medea the ability to use anger to mobilise resources in the service of free expression, they are not so possessed that they drive themselves to ruin. The line, however, that divides creativity from self-destruction, is a fine one and whether we compose great symphonies, build global enterprises or murder our lover may be more a matter of chance than judgement.

One emotion that inhibits the drift of anger into unrestrained violence is shame but when barriers of public scrutiny are removed, as they are on social media, people are free to vent their fury behind a veil of anonymity and the transformation of anger into abuse and violence is exacerbated.

This is what happened when 63-year old Brenda Leyland used the Twitter handle @sweepyface to post thousands of anonymous, malevolent tweets attacking the parents of Madeleine McCann. The ability to hide behind a Twitter handle allowed her tooutwardly express her anger, the origins of which were deeper than anything to do with the McCanns. Freed from the burden of public scrutiny and shame, she unleashed her angry demons without restraint.

A series of famous experiments demonstrate the cognitive roots of this behaviour. In a game known as the Dictator Game, one participant (A) is given a sum of money and a second participant (B) is given nothing. Participant A has to offer a proportion or none of that money to B, who cannot decline the offer. Rationally, A should offer nothing since s/he is free to keep 100% of the money. However, that did not happen and A gave an average of 20% of the money to B. However, when the game was played as a double-blind game (i.e both the giver and receiver were anonymous), then A was far more likely to keep all the money.

When the visibility of our behaviour towards others is removed and we are free from the consequences of our actions, then we are far more likely to give free expression to our demons. When that behaviour is exposed, those demons retreat behind a wall where we can hide them from public view and deny their existence to ourselves and others. In doing so, we preserve the sanctity of our ego. If that wall cannot protect us, if we feel public exposure diminishes us rather than enhances our self-righteousness, then anger turns into self-destruction. That’s why, two days after being identified and exposed on Sky News, Brenda Leyland checked into the Marriott Hotel in Leicester and killed herself. Suffering from a history of mental illness and having previously attempted suicide, the cognitive dissonance between the person she believed herself to be and the reality of her behaviour was too much to bear.

It is, however, increasingly easy to justify the excesses of anger and resentment as social networks collapse the ties that bind us and we enter the Age of Shamelessness, where, as the Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran said, we become “addicted to witnessing cruelty”. Driven into silos, we listen only to those who think the way we do, which deepens both of our sense of belonging to the groups that support our narcissism and our isolation from those that don’t. It frees us to blame someone else for the misery of our lives as our ego becomes entrenched in the position of victim. This, in turn, exacerbates and justifies the violent expression of anger. The process may begin with name-calling but it ends in ever more extreme forms of violence as we separate ourselves from those we blame for the pain we feel. This toxic psychology leads to strange reversals where those who have power, albeit less of it than they think they deserve, blame those with less power than themselves for their emasculation. Principal among such victims are the angry white men that drive Western populism. A “curious characteristic of these new lesions of angry white men” is, according to the sociologist Michael Kimmel, that “although these white men still have most of the power and control in the world, these particular white men feel like victims”. Unsure of their place in a world where their roles as patriarchs, protectors and providers is under threat they are lost. They feel like failures “and when men fail, they are humiliated, with nowhere to place their anger”. They are then faced with a choice: to sink into insignificance or find a scapegoat upon whom they can vent their rage. This scapegoat is ‘the other’, those who are usurping their place in the world, just as Glauce took Medea’s place in Jason’s bed.

The first psychological step in the invention of ‘the other’ is separation. In his book The Gift of Fear, the American writer Gavin de Becker describes, at the age of 10, watching his mother shoot his stepfather. Before she pulled the trigger, she took a step backwards, removing herself from any shared space with her husband, breaking any common ground between them. History is littered with examples of this process of separation between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. From the Peloponnesian War to the Rwandan genocide and the rise of ISIS, history teaches that it’s impossible to wage war or strike out in anger, without first inventing then blaming and demonising ‘the other’. It explains why, from the perspective of the perpetrator, every war, every act of violence and every act of terror, is always an act of self-defence. From Medea to Donald Trump, anger is its own justification and the result of provocation by ‘the other’. When 19 year-old white supremacist, Santino William Legan, began shooting innocent, defenceless people at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California in July 2019, someone shouted at him, “Why are you doing this?”

Santino William Legan

“Because I’m really angry,” he replied, before police officers shot and killed him.

Angry demons are limitless in their pursuit of free expression. The more they are denied, the louder they scream and we have always been standing at a crossroads, unsure whether civilising forces or those that oppose them will triumph. In his famous essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, the Jewish philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin describes an angel who faces the past, “his mouth is open, his wings are spread”. He stares at the accumulated horror of human history, “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and piles it in front of his feet”. The angel wants to end this horror and repair what is broken. However, a storm blows from Paradise, forcing his wings to remain open and preventing him from turning to face the future. Blown towards the future, to which his back is turned, he is left, helpless, as the “pile of debris before him grows skyward”. The angel is “the Angel of History” and the storm, writes Benjamin, “is what we call progress”.

This is a terrifying vision of the future, where angry demons grow in strength as we dissipate into violent factions.

Benjamin’s own life ended in tragedy. Having fled Germany in 1932, shortly before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Benjamin arrived in France where he was arrested and imprisoned. In 1940, he arrived in Portbou in Catalonia. Instead of finding sanctuary, the group of Jewish refugees of which he was a part was denied asylum by General Franco. Having lost all hope of freedom, Benjamin killed himself.

The angry demons that possess us, are as old as our species and De Becker understood their universality. “Sometimes,” he wrote in The Gift of Fear, “a violent act is so frightening that we call the perpetrator a monster, but as you’ll see, it is by finding his humanness – his similarity to you and me – that such an act can be predicted.” And the finding of humanness in ‘the other’ is the only possibility we have of earning a collective future. Faced with grievances and feelings that we are being devalued and rendered insignificant by psychological, political and economic forces beyond our control, it’s easy to invent a simple narrative of the cause of our suffering and project our hopes for its alleviation onto a strong leader or an in-group with which we identify. It’s much harder to engage with the complex realities of the world in which we live, in which clear distinctions between Good and Evil, Self and Other, are difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. The first step on the journey to taming our angry demons is to destroy the myths that feed them. “My anger,” said Medea, “dominates my resolution” and without that resolution, she was unable to halt the slide into murder and infanticide as we will be unable to halt the slide into personal and collective chaos.

In the 1995 film, Se7en, a serial killer murders each of his victims based on one of the Seven Deadly Sins, until only two Deadly Sins, envy and wrath, remain. The killer, John Doe, turns himself him in to the police and promises to confess to the murders if he can take detective David Mills and his fellow homicide detective William Somerset, into the desert where he will show them the remains of the last two victims. After they arrive at the designated spot, a van approaches and delivers a box that contains the severed head of Mills’ wife. Doe killed and beheaded her that morning.

“I envy your normal life,” Doe says, “so it seems that envy is my sin.”

Wrath now belongs to Mills.

As Mills raises his gun towards Doe, Somerset pleads with him not to shoot: “If you kill him, he will win,” he yells.

Doe, cold and calm, looks at Mills. “Become vengeance,” he says, “Become wrath”. Unable to contain his anger, Mills shoots and kills John Doe in cold blood.

There will be times, in all our lives, when our resolution is tested to its limits. It’s in those moments we can and must find a way to hold the balance of our mind. If we fail, our angry demons win and the price of their victory is more than we can afford to pay. “Above all,” wrote Margaret Atwood, “refuse to be a victim” and that is our first and last defence against oblivion.