Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial


Americans Intoxicated

connect the dots to see the taboo

Posted Jul 01, 2017

It’s an angry era in America, maybe even angrier than the Vietnam War era. Instead of debating who’s right or wrong, let’s ask what kinds of work anger is doing for Americans now.

Usually civilization works hard to suppress anger. Society constrains anger with taboos or even prison.  Why? Because anger can be violent but also blind. In a tantrum we may “lash out at” or lynch any handy scapegoat. What’s more, anger has no natural limit. A cycle of anger and retaliation can escalate into a feud, rampage killing, terrorism, or world war.

But there’s another reason anger is taboo: it’s intoxicating. The aroused nervous system pumps chemicals that can be more seductive than any illegal drug. If you doubt it, look at the first weeks of World War 1, when young men rushed to sign up. They scented blood and death in the future, but they imagined this taste of anger would be the key to more life: glory, honor, romance—in psychological terms, self-esteem. This taste of anger freed them from the suffocating inhibitions of “dead”-end jobs and civility. Suddenly they felt good: grand, righteous, capable of heroic feats. Even after the war and millions of pointless deaths, many still believed they had never felt so alive as they had in the trenches.

Neurologically, the anger of war turned depressive flight into fight. The war organized mass self-medication with morale-boosting neurophysiological drugs. Since “everybody” was feeling pumped up, solidarity and a conviction of rightness reinforced the high. If you survive, you’ll feel you’ve conquered death-anxiety and feel “lucky,” “special,” “blessed,” “heroic” or otherwise guaranteed a kind of symbolic immortality. Like all addiction, the physiology comes with faith—in this case, belief that the high will freshen up sex, food, and work. In a revolution, anger at the old regime stimulates faith in new leaders who will overthrow conventional rules and fulfill utopian promises.

Americans have coped with recent decades of radical change through anger.

Everybody has a list of favorite rumbles. There's the “culture wars,” economic unfairness, moneybags politics, military defeats and terrorism. There's serious wrangling over health care. Job loss and dead-end wages  exasperate the poor. But the comfortable are choleric too. We’ve seen nasty anger toward the mixed-race president Obama, and now alt-right racial hostility. There’s misogyny and militant xenophobia galore. Some rationalize cruel healthcare and welfare policy toward those on the bottom by resurrecting ancient prejudices that “they don’t want to work.” That is, “they” want my money. Feminists and other liberals also feel anxiety and anger, since change threatens to undermine their ideals. 

Hostility toward “big government” focuses resentment of a “dead”-end future. Government becomes a scapegoat for despised inhibitions. And the hostility expresses failing trust in other people and in the civility that keeps us from killing one another. The stress of futile anger is a steady drip of poison.

Of course these are not new problems. But as in the hippie 60s, people feel free to let it all hang out. Civility seems fake. Restraint seems phony. We give each other permission to admire authentic outbursts of inner life—especially anger. 

But why anger?

In emergency mode, the nervous system triggers flight, fight, or paralysis. At root, we are built to avoid death. If that seems unsettling, think of it as a system that maximizes survival.  When we talk about the insecurity of the poor, we’re talking about social death (neglect or rejection) and alarming real death.

The fight over health care, for example, is ultimately about who dies. But what about affluent Americans? Actually studies show they live longer, with more choices, than white working-class Americans.  Why should the comfortably affluent be shaken by death-anxiety? For one thing, they fear the poor and especially racial or immigrant unrest.  But more crucially, they have a lot invested in self. They're the "elites," and "elite" has become a term of abuse. The New Yorker reports that some of the "super-rich" are preparing their escape should society collapse in anarchy. Silicon Valley billionaires have invested "in new bio-technologies that they hope will enable them to do what no human has ever done: cheat death." If you're hoarding, you can never have too many cookies.

In the NY Timesreader "bored" by discussions of vituperative tweets commented that “we live in a new world. Social media rules here, and President Trump is using it to defend himself from an overtly antagonistic fake-news media. . . . His supporters love the tweets. Maybe it’s the insouciance in the face of such fire-breathing criticism that we love.”

This is a revolutionary fantasy. Not the US Constitution but “social media rules” a “new world.” The traditional world is "fake." [1] Lacking a revolutionary credo, the reader has reason to be anxious (flight) and “love” the leader’s angry tweets (fight). If social media "rules," then we're governed by a clamor for identity. Consider what social media is. On Facebook people try, sometimes for hours a day, to advertise their identity. In gender terms, Facebook reflects more a women ‘s network of relationships than a traditional male role, yet it's abstract information and for sale to advertisers.

Tweeting is even more disturbing. The tweeter is disembodied, without photos or complete opinions. Most tweets are clever put-downs, competing in an insult competition. It’s a sublimated sort of boxing or warfare. The warrior feels heroic and right. You can see this when the reader above misuses the word “insouciance,” which means "lack of care or concern, even indifference." In his tweet about Ms. Brzezinski’s supposed bloody facelift, Mr. Trump was plainly agitated, which is why so many worried about his loss of control.  But “insouciant” does express the reader’s fantasy that the leader has scored a victory and is now above all threat.  In the wisdom of slang, he has “destroyed” his opponent. Like social media, he “rules.”

This example directly reflects the psychologist Otto Rank’s insight that in the end, every argument is symbolically a struggle to the death. If you win, I feel canceled out. If you're right, I'm wrong: worth less, punishable, killable. Such thinking assumes a kill-or-be-killed mentality. We try to control our symbolically murderous arguments for good reasons. The confused reader above begins by proclaiming he's "bored by the whole twitter debate." Then—presto—he insists that "His supporters love" Mr. Trump's angry tweets.

You can see Rank's logic in the political insult “snowflakes.” A slang dictionary observes that the word “works in two ways. [A snowflake] melts under the heat, it has no backbone, no spine, no guts, no spirit, anything. It just fades away as soon as people are nasty to it. And the other side is the special side of it. Every little snowflake is different and has its own identity.” Since a snowflake “dissolves right in your palm,” by confronting a snowflake you annihilate it.

You can see the connection between the put-down, identity, and death in Mr. Trump’s tweet. He attacks Ms. Brzezinki’s “facelift”: her supposed attempt to improve her self-image. He calls her facelift “bloody,” which as commentators pointed out, recalls Mr. Trump’s allusion to Megyn Kelly’s menstrual blood when she questioned him during a debate. 

Blood and a facelift are reminders of our inescapable nature as creatures made up of frail flesh and blood, and doomed to get older and die. Maureen Dowd reports that "The famous germaphobe once complained to me about the time a man came out of a New York restaurant bathroom with wet hands and shook his hand. Trump said he couldn’t eat after that."  The preoccupation with death shows vividly in Mr. Trump’s inaugural speech. It could be argued that the fear and anger in his policies toward Muslims and racial minorities also signals deep anxiety about death and failure. In Europe on his G-20 trip, Mr. Trump played up a doomsday theme: "Does the West have the "will to survive?" Again, fear pumps up angry survival talk.

History shows us a tragic paradox. During periods of radical change, we need help staying calm in order to manage our inherent fear of social death, not to mention real death. Civility and problem-solving are two of the most useful tools for making people feel secure and hopeful. A look at history’s great tyrants, however, shows their compulsion to hoard money, power, harems, and bijous, as if these substitutes can make us healthy as the real thing does.

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1. In The Psychology of Abandon, I examine as "berserk style" many fantasies in which people unwittingly dream of overthrowing all inhibition in hopes of freeing up some buried powerful resource.  The fantasies mimic the berserk state that makes soldiers feel super-powerful and invulnerable if they run amok in combat. The NRA ad Moyers cites  is literally a call to arms (Join the National Rifle Association) as well as a sinister use of berserk style to manipulate do-or-die rage against scapegoats.  Don't take my word for it: have a look: 

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon: berserk style in American culture 

Dan Liechty, ed. The Ernest Becker Reader