Anger channelling – effective or expressive
October 30, 2009
Months ago Hamid and Charles wondered what effective anger channelling would look like. They were picking up a line in my post on popular anger. The six months since then has seen an increase in popular public angers, notably to the level of scaring people like Thomas Friedman a few days ago – a guy who has seen a few things while wandering across flatter and hillier parts of the planet.
In the intervening months little has emerged to increase my awareness of channels I would likely choose for my angers, though I find myself continually looking at Comment and Letters pages for examples and models. Someone else's initiative I could join would be nice. Finding Don Watson interviewed recently and visiting the website spawned by his earlier writing (www.weaselwords.com.au) gave no solace to my shared anger at the linguistic (evidence of the) corrosion of basic social functions. Maybe we don't do popular anger and I'm unAustralian in my aspirations for more of it.
Sources – public and private
My most constant acquaintance with unresolved anger, aside from my own, is in therapy. With great regularity my patient clients with anxiety/depression related difficulties have substantive early abuses in their personal histories, often multi-generationally. This pattern has most recently been re-aired in the backwash of the arrest of Roman Polanski a while ago. Lurking in the interior of the veiled awareness of their abused childhoods, often extending well into early adulthood, are family systemic and peer group systemic threats to self. Coping with them at the time they are occurring involves a fine dance of conscious self-protection from these dangers and avoiding offense to their powerful authors. Especially critical is not allowing anger to surface, since that may be seen as a threat inviting even more vigorous abuse.
One can find this, too, in abused populations who are victims of racial, ethnic or other stereotypically driven abuses. Whole countries like Greece, China and Korea still show effects of longterm foreign domination. Individuals and groups learn to repress and deny their anger at felt injustice(s). The aversion to confrontation is so great people literally cannot speak their hurt directly. Equally, once freed of their oppression(s), the injured groups often cannot stop talking about the past that is so much with them. Their talk, organised as a group action, is one way to channel anger. The objective is to shame the oppressors, and maybe gain retribution or recompense. The enduring effort of surviving "comfort women" to win Japanese acknowledgement of their victimisation is a well known example. Reconciliations are another objective, seldom (?) successful, even if the once victimised are now the powerful as in South Africa. On the other hand, face-the-victim processes for personal injury criminals have some positive results, particularly if the criminal is early in their possible career.
Mixed feelings, often conflicted (an anger source itself)
One of the discoveries which open the door to moral complexity is that of conflicted feelings about acts of perceived goodness or badness. Even minor ones often suffice to elicit an emotional array about people well-known to us that leaves confusion in its wake. Where the origin of abusive treatment is within family, it is usually undiscussible. Failure to abide by the rule is punished by indirect or direct threat of emotional exile.
We could say that the existence of real moral simplification (black and white thinking) is among the leading indicators of social cohesion within groups. How better to identify a robust group than by its resistance to acknowledging, or, better, pursuing the ethical shortcomings of its members?
The latter is, however, an accepted indicator of under-development of personal ethics. Its organisational version is on show daily: the Catholic Church's repeatedly reported knee-jerk denial / obscuring of sexual predation; NFP organisations' abandoned children hostel's multidimensional predations; corporate boards unable to restrain greed in management or even apply preset performance indicators to executive remuneration; footy players distressing women or each other ….
In therapy, the mixed feelings of traumatised children are expressed in adult squeamishness about tagging their parents with any accountability for the agreed traumas. Often initially the traumas cannot be recalled, being locked in memory out of direct access. Sorting them out is essential to righting the wrongs (setting responsibility where it belongs: with those in power at the time). Once sorted, the anger can be addressed to managing the present state of the abusive relationships. This is not sortable by changing the way we think about abuses – i.e. changing the way we value them by portioning the experienced violences into non-catastrophic mind-bites. It requires action - actual or virtual – to hold the continuing forces of abuse at bay even in their weakened forms of the family social system: aged parents, the variously affected and denying siblings, etc.
Different angers – levels
Anger can loosely be thought of as having two experiential sources: (1) undesired violations by others and (2) frustration of our appropriate aspirations through our own or others incompetence to support them. Some helping fraternity folks divide angry feelings from angry behaviours. This, and its sibling – the division of thought from feeling in CBT – are on the verge of relegation to a subservient role therapeutically as the indivisibility of thought, feeling and action are demonstrated by multi-modal research in these areas. Recent work on thought/feeling integration makes this distinction functionally meaningless, since there is no thought which does not have a feeling component, nor a feeling which does not have a behavioural component. This is the practical meaning of 'non-verbal' and 'habitual'.
Channels – pathways and platforms for action
There are a number of action channels, spread over two basic levels: actual (real, authentic) and virtual (technically mediated). These two flow into each other of course when the interaction becomes live (therefore real and authentic) while still being technically mediated (phone, etc.) Means of expressing anger (and most other feelings) are many and employable at either level. Here's a start at the micro level: two people. (Plug in your own two party scenario at this point.)
For example, I want to deal with a difficult issue with a person who matters to me. The issue is so volatile, and we have handled it so badly in the past, that there is justifiable anger arising from objective disrespects on both sides. How I start to re-engage will make all the difference to the possibility of a different result from the repeat failures we have achieved so far. The start has to flag that something new is intended without getting into the substance of things too early. A new shared ground has to be prepared.
This will partly be old ground recovered from joint history, and partly new ground created for this event. The old might include shared history, experience and values; the new, opportunities for growth or development that did not exist before now and the mutual interdependence(s) which can bring them to life. It ensures actual continuity and engages the shared history as a context for future activity.
I might send these thoughts in an email, written in a spare, agenda-offering style - for discussion, a precursor to a talk. If I wondered about his accessibility to email – some folks don't turn it on every day or more than once a day – an SMS noting that it is on the way would be appropriate. It's all virtual to this point. The rest unfolds in conversational steps like those mentioned here where a delicate entrance to a potentially indelicate subject is sketched out as a face-to-face event.
More recently, in trying to find a way to channel my anger more concretely I sought out an appropriate NGO as the prospective beneficiary of ½ day per week of my time pro bono. I overcame previous doubts about my ability to stick with anything too narrowly focussed by choosing one in the environmental domain. I realised (again) that such groups have to take a whole of system and systems viewpoint on their efforts – therefore allowing my broader unresolved interests some room to play, too. So, it looks like I've found something to join. I expect it will become a source of new bloggables.