The Balance of Rage

November 22, 2010

Since the election, two interrelated phenomena have been simultaneously rising and falling. They’re two sides of the same coin, if it were possible to forge a coin out of undistilled rage and loathing. They’re the relative levels of anger on both the left and the right at the course the country is taking.

The anger of the Right appears to be abating. This was noted by the Guardian, who cleverly spotted that the anger of Mr Eugenides had come to a halt, amongst similar outbreaks of calm by other libertarian and/or right-wing bloggers. Even the original swearblogger, the Devil himself, has shut up shop, at least temporarily.

Guido, of course, endures, in much the same way that the Sun and the Mirror are now features of our national landscape. But Guido has always been less political than the adult version of the irksome pupil who runs to tell teacher that the big boys are smoking behind the bicycle sheds.

At the same time as the rage of the Right subsides, that of the Left is on the rise. Not necessarily in the terribly formal collective left-wing blogs, of course, but rather in comments on CiF and in a thousand and one personal blogs across the internet. CiF’s comments are an interesting case; there, the difference was clear almost immediately after the election. To take a random example, look at the comments on these two Jackie Ashley articles, and compare the relative rage. For me, I normally interpret the relative anger of the person writing the post by the level of hyperbole they choose to incorporate within it. This is a strong indication that the person felt so strongly about the subject that they felt no desire to check their facts, and that their urge to say something outweighed their concern for how they would look saying it.

That charge could be levelled at the old libertarian blogosphere, which often appeared more concerned with being angry over dreadful lefties infringing their property rights than anything approaching reality. Similarly, the Left now appears enraged by the Right’s besmirching of their moral code too, resulting in some ridiculous paranoia (witness the comments thread on this post on this blog in which the lefty claims that the Coalition will dismantle the welfare state. Really. I stopped responding after that).

We can therefore witness an interesting seesaw of rage that determines the scope and the borderlines of British political discourse. This rage typically has a strong moral quality; the enraged typically accuse their opponents of being immoral, giving that as just cause for their anger. It is very clearly directed at what is perceived as the transgressions of the governing party (or parties), which is interesting in itself – in a democracy, the source of power is the electorate – i.e. other people. But you’ll very rarely hear anyone actually attack the majority of the electorate if they’re on the losing side – rather, they’ll go straight for their representatives.

This implies that the angry don’t want to believe that the majority could possibly disagree with them, and instead focus their anger on politicians instead. Given that our two main political parties have traditionally focused on economic identity as constitutive of their core vote, research which indicates that people tend to see themselves as economically average would point to this being a question of cognitive dissonance. If people believe themselves to be an average earner – i.e. representative of the majority of the population – information that indicates otherwise would dispute this interpretation. It’s difficult to imagine a more brutal example of why you’re not average if the party that represents your economic interest group is voted down.

Poor people will blame the Tories for cuts to benefits, rather than the middle-class people who voted for them. It’s almost as though voting is taken as a somehow morally blameless exercise in which you’re not accountable for your choices – only the people who you voted in are. This is completely irrational, and can only be explained if there’s a strong irrational driver pushing the other way. The above self-perception phenomenon would appear to cover that.

I therefore make the claim that our political discourse is driven in part by this irrational reaction to majoritarianism. People feel angry as a result of the cognitive dissonance that arises from believing themselves to be average while in an economic minority. They therefore seek out reasons why they’re right and their opponents wrong, to aid in restructuring the world in such a way as to make it clear that their worldview is correct. They then promote those reasons as the truth, to avoid dealing with reality. This sort of post-hoc justification is familiar to anyone who’s ever encountered NIMBYs, creationists, climate sceptics/hawks, old-style communists, religious literalists, libertarians, racists – indeed, practically any form of belief. The only check against it is what one could call intellectual integrity, or constantly re-examining one’s beliefs in the light of new evidence. In this sense, the post-hoccers provide a useful function: they are the ones who feverishly uncover new facts to suit their agenda, and while those facts may or may not be accurate they must be engaged with every single time to ensure that one’s own ideas are correct.

Engagement in this sense is engagement in good faith; not pre-judging the outcome of any given argument. I have frequently found that post-hoccers do come up with facts that challenge one’s beliefs – for example, I have accepted that wind turbines do have an impact on bats (although not birds) as a consequence of skirmishes with NIMBYs. Rage, therefore, while describing the outer edges of our discourse nonetheless has a crucial role in holding power to account.

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