Anger Management

Sticks-and-StonesParents often tell their children about sticks and stones, in the hope that they’ll end up better able to handle the psychological pain which usually accompanies an insult. But few parents expect the result to be a child who grows to feel nothing at all upon having an insult thrown at them. Such a person would have the ability to separate abstract thought from emotions and feelings – which, incidentally, is one of the definitions of schizophrenia. (When I used to work in a call centre and was advised that the correct response to angry customers who swore and shouted down the phone at me was to “not take it personally”, I was quick to point out that splitting affect from cognition in this manner is to artificially induce a mild psychosis.)

In a broader sense, nobody ever gets through childhood and adolescence psychologically unscathed. As adults, we are always burdened by some neurotic legacy bequeathed by our parents. “They fuck you up,” as the Larkin poem goes. And, again, what sort of person manages to extricate themselves from the orbit of immediate parental care without this sort of baggage? Probably someone quite scary.

Famously, Freud once received a letter from a father who wanted to know Freud’s opinion on how best to raise his children; his reply was along the lines of: “I have no advice for you at all, except to say that whatever you do, you’ll end up doing the wrong thing.” Yet, even if our parents have made some terrible errors whilst raising us, burdening us with a basketful of neurosis, it isn’t quite true to say that we are “victims” in any normal sense of that word. We have moments when we curse them, can’t listen to them, can’t be around them. Hopefully we just spend the rest of our time getting on with our lives, but that’s partly the point: we initially put distance between ourselves and our parents because we can’t stand being around them, but then that act of withdrawal creates the very space in which we live our adult lives unburdened by resentments towards our parents. (Of course, some people find this process difficult and end up needing clinical help with their neurotic problems.)

These thoughts come to me when I read Stephen Daisley’s complaints about a nationalist slide into the “politics of outrage” as a result of things like this. Daisley writes:

There is a strain of Scottish nationalism – present in all nationalisms, if you look closely enough – that revels in outrage. It feasts on slights real and imagined and gorges itself on the psychological junk food of grievance. No offence is left untaken because to do so would disrupt the pleasures of a siege mentality.

Yes, an unchecked discourse of victimhood is a potentially toxic one. This is why political anger needs appropriate management. Weirdly, however, Daisley seems to imply that there is something inherently problematic with political anger:

It is not true what the schoolmarms say. Political anger is not a dead end; it is a potent force for those who seek power or want to retain it. But it poisons everything around it. This is not the politics that inspired hundreds of thousands of Labour voters to fight the muscle memory of class and family and custom to vote for independence. It bears no relation to the positive and progressive visions outlined by Nicola Sturgeon, National Collective, or Women for Independence.

The “positive and progressive vision” belongs to the Platonic realm of Ideas, whilst forceful political anger is a deadly poison. In other words, in a state of political schizophrenia, cognition is divorced from affect. A long-held prejudice of Western political thinking, then, repeats itself in Daisley’s discourse. He accuses some nationalists of engaging in “risible fantasy” and yet his vision of politics is the true fantasy: a world in which positive and progressive transformative change occurs purely through the dissemination of great ideas without the energy of angry people prepared to fight against powerful interests to achieve them. This fantasy achieves perfect expression when Daisley writes:

Scotland is not a victim or an oppressed minority or a subjugated nation. It is a voluntary partner in a political enterprise, albeit a dysfunctional and asymmetric one. The electorate voted No and just as we have to learn to live with that fact, we also have to live with each other. The energy spent on confected victimhood is energy sapped from pursuing electoral advances and securing a second referendum.

This is the idea that securing independence can be achieved cleanly, safely and democratically, with the power of argument and ideas alone. Contrary to this fantasy, my belief is that securing independence is going to be extremely difficult, messy and will involve a lot of political anger. You decide which of us has the more credible understanding of the future for nationalist politics.

Yet perhaps Daisley is correct to say that all nationalisms contain a strain that “revels in outrage”. Stated without qualification (which is certainly as Daisley states it), this is to say that either nationalism, as I argue, requires careful anger management, or else, as I think Daisley wants us to unconsciously conclude, nationalism is trouble best strayed clear of. But the important qualification to be made is this: saying that all nationalism has a strain that revels in outrage is simply the political equivalent of saying that all adults, more or less unconsciously, harbour childhood resentments towards their parents. But, at the same time, just because everyone can be psychoanalysed, it does not therefore follow that everyone needs psychoanalysis.

To be clear: I am not saying that Scotland is a child of the UK which, now that it is all grown up and ready to leave home, is burdened with psychological hang-ups. I am making a point about how, just as part of growing up involves working through one’s anger and hostility with one’s parents, the creation of a politically-effective movement involves working through the emotional grievances which fuel the commitment of activists and supporters. This “working through” does not take place on couches, in quiet consulting rooms in posh parts of Edinburgh. It takes place on social media, in the streets, at local meetings and so on. By necessity, it all takes place in public; and this creates its own problems, as people lose control of their anger and end up making contributions to the process that are sometimes less than welcome.

A few months ago when the Guardian published a cartoon portraying Nicola Sturgeon as a Hitler-in-the-making, I got angry and said I would never read the Guardian again. Somehow I did end up reading it every so often. But with this latest episode, the Guardian really has gone too far for me, and I really won’t be reading it ever again. Two steps forwards, one step back. The messy process of becoming independent continues.

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