In an interview with CNN in May 2013, the author Salman Rushdie said,
“[W]e live in an age of identity politics in which people have been encouraged to define themselves by what makes them angry. You know, I mean, I would say that the more healthy definition of the self is to define it in terms of the things you value and care about and love, you know.
But now, we seem to be—or many of us—seem to be defining ourselves by what we hate. You know, and that rage, as you say, becomes a badge of identity—becomes a kind of selfhood.”
Certainly, if you follow certain people on Twitter, it appears to be the case that there is much more hostility floating around the atmosphere than there was in, say, the nineties.
No doubt, I am particularly afflicted by this type of anger as someone who spends significant amounts of time online for work. Within a few hours on the Internet, I can feel the physiological changes—my heart rate increasing, my temperature rising, perspiration forming and that hot, red blinding sensation of rage.
I have learned to regulate my propensity for strong emotions—including anger—by surrounding myself with supportive people and a flexible work schedule. Luckily the antics of my toddler and my two dogs and the ability to unplug tend to defuse any anger I might feel towards the faceless. But rising Internet use affects emotions. The Internet exposes us to viewpoints different from our own, often stated by people in relative positions of authority (namely, politicians, celebrities and journalists) in short forms free of nuance, over an extended period. It can feel like gunfire, this barrage of disturbing images and opinions that seem to be unfair or uninformed.
Face-to-face with another human being, we are usually reminded that there is context to their opinions—people’s lived experiences give them different lenses through which they perceive events. Online, however, many of us respond to this onslaught with unbridled anger.
There was plenty of disappointment and rage expressed towards Indian American actor Kal Penn when he tweeted support for New York’s Stop and Frisk policy in August 2013. There was actually nothing too surprising about Penn’s position if you’ve followed his interviews over the years, except that it came from a brown person and some of us assume people of color know better than to support racist policies.
Let me explain. In spite of being an icon for young Indian Americans as a result of his roles in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and The Namesake, Penn has said some variation of this at a number of interviews: “I don’t actively go around being Indian every day. I don’t think of myself in terms of race or ethnicity.” Penn has also made it clear he feels no responsibility not to take roles that contribute to stereotyping of Indian Americans. It is not surprising that someone who has routinely supported the status quo would also support Stop and Frisk policy. Nonetheless, the outrage expressed by his core fans ultimately led to him retracting his tweets. This is just one of many recent examples of celebrities apologizing or retracting unpopular opinions due to fan anger.
Or consider the recent response when Nina Davuluri became the first Indian-American Miss America last fall. The media spent less time celebrating her victory than exposing the racists that came out in full force on Twitter to express their feeling that she wasn’t American enough to deserve the title, that she had terrorist or 9/11 connections, that she was “Arab.”
The younger generations of South Asian-Americans on Twitter had a divided response both to the victory and to the media response. A few of us were annoyed; who cares about or watches a pageant that objectifies women anyway? Like the media, I was initially more interested in the phenomenon of racism in our supposedly post-racial world—in my view, calling out racism is how real progress happens.
Many deleted their racist tweets, just as Kal Penn withdrew his support for Stop and Frisk. The negative attention and commentary curbed their behavior.
By the time the fuss died down on Twitter, I understood how important and symbolic the win was for a large number of people in our community, even if the feminist side of me didn’t see a pageant win as progress. More importantly, it became clear to me that Twitter is a great tool for mobilizing rage in order to effect social change. (Whether it causes real social changes or simply drives certain perceptions underground still remains to be seen.)
Rushdie’s claim that the rise of identity politics has made us define ourselves by our rage certainly appears to be true when looking at the Internet’s response to virtually any controversy, but particularly those disputes involving race, politics, ethnicity, gender and religion. Unlike Facebook communities that are often made up of people who know each other in real life, Twitter encourages you to follow (and unfollow) strangers.
If all those tweeters were expressing their anger in real life, it would be equivalent to constant rioting. Frankly, as someone who has experienced plenty of anger in the past but who mostly follows the etiquette rules of a Jane Austen heroine, that level of rage in a real life setting would be terrifying to me. In our ordinary lives, however, most of us do not encounter riots and anger continues to operate by the same rules as it always has.
Are We Angrier?
Psychiatrist Bibi Das of Palo Alto explained, “I don’t think people are feeling more angry. It’s just that there are more avenues to express anger. Part of the problem with hitting somebody on the street to express anger is the possibility that the person will hit you back. But if you don’t have to identify yourself on the Internet, you can spew all this anger without fear of reprisal.” In fact, chronic explosive anger is also a mental health disorder called “intermittent explosive disorder.”
Das noted that she doesn’t have any Indian patients with this disorder and that most of her Indian patients are “nice” and “compliant” people. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t have rage,” she says. “They’re not aggressive, but there is so much anger in them. They’re so resistant to acknowledging their anger. It’s important to remember that passive aggressive behavior is still aggressive.”
She recounted the story of one patient who has been angry with his parents, but dealt with his anger by not visiting them for seven years. There was no effort to talk to his parents about what was making him angry in order to resolve it.
This refusal to articulate anger, Das suggested, is what distinguishes the Indian immigrant’s experience of anger from anger in the general American population: a hierarchical script.
Everyone experiences anger, but how it is expressed may vary from population to population. According to Das, Indian immigrants usually follow the same static and hierarchical scripts that were in play in India. This means that there is no effort to communicate one’s negative emotions to someone seen as an authority figure: a father, a mother, a teacher or a boss. You aren’t supposed to release negative emotions on somebody above you in the hierarchy.
The anger, however, doesn’t dissipate because it is not expressed directly to the person who is triggering it. Instead, it transforms into anxiety or passive aggressive behavior. Expressing one’s actual emotions in a constructive fashion might be a key to managing them.
Can Anger Be Useful?
A constructive way to look at anger was offered by Shubha Herlekar, a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) and candidate in psychoanalysis, also in Palo Alto. Herlekar explained that the cutting edge of psychoanalytic thinking about immigrations and populations of color is concerned with family stories about immigration and the story of the family left behind.
These stories, often going more than one generation back, matter quite a bit in how emotions are expressed. Each individual family places certain demands on children and grandchildren based on the meaning of immigration for that family, and this in turn affects how emotions are expressed, including anger.
Herlekar explained that the emotion of anger represents information about the self. Sometimes what produces anger is a violation of a boundary, or information that someone’s genuine internal self is not aligned with what a situation is asking of him or her.
One psychiatrist I talked to last year described diagnosing an elderly Indian immigrant with depression based partly on her description of rolling out chapatis differently than she had before in India.
Herlekar noted that whether or not a patient is inclined to speak directly about his or her emotions depends on how much expressing anger (or another emotion perceived as negative) fits with a desirable self-image. A person who sees him or herself as being amiable, caring or supportive, may have a harder time acknowledging anger and trying to use it in a useful way. Those whose self-image is more balanced may be more attuned to their anger and can use it constructively.
Like Das, Herlekar made reference to an example that suggests hierarchical scripts can get in the way, though she did not interpret the situation the same way that Das did. She mentioned the adult male whose work situation is demoralizing, who comes home and displaces his frustration about the workplace on his son. In Indian culture, it is acceptable to have high academic standards whereas it is not as acceptable to directly express anger at an authority figure, so the father feels comfortable expressing anger towards the child rather than telling his boss he has a problem with him. Often, however, the rage will be magnified and disproportionate to the situation.
Herlekar was quick to note that she’s seen men and women have the same difficulty in articulating and understanding the beneficial element of the emotion in a clinical setting.
What’s allowed at home depends on the individual family as well as, possibly, generational differences. Herlekar explained that women who were first wave immigrants during the ‘60s and ‘70s have a greater tendency to internalize their emotions. The demands of proper womanhood were different for them than the expectations of those who came of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
What Makes You Angry?
Sara, a first-wave, female immigrant in her sixties told me she did not believe there were different gender expectations regarding anger for men and women from her generation. She explained she gets angry when people accuse her of something she did or didn’t do, when she sees people “do not follow the rules,” and when people “do not show consideration for others.”
Sara explained that when she was younger, she was hot-tempered and lashed out at the person making her angry. Over the years, she realized that lashing out did nothing to improve the situation. She said, “These days, I take a deep breath, and try to reason with the other party, but if they don’t respond, I just walk away, even if only temporarily.”
Leela, a thirty-five year old woman, told me some of the things that made her angry were “inconsiderateness, classism/racism/sexism/shadeism, parental miscalculations, toddler machinations.” She was also angry about the difficulty of reconciling her idealized self with the more “banal” version of herself that was presently unfolding. She noted that as an artistic person, strong anger was “hard to sustain” while also being creative.
Like Sara, Leela admitted that in the past, she has let anger build “to an unhealthy level before letting forth an explosive outburst,” but more recently, she has tried moving to another room or area. She said, “[I remove] myself into a stony silence while I let out the enormous pressure of my anger, leaving behind a barely bitter aftertaste.”
Leela explained that as she’s gotten older, she tries to channel her anger into offline pursuits, such as acupuncture, journaling and refocusing on the sadness behind her anger.
However, she occasionally uses a locked Twitter account to vent her angry thoughts, explaining, “My digital self quivers and shakes with varieties of emotions, but rarely are they meant to be taken in their full dosage.”
Herlekar commented that younger Indian-Americans seemed more attuned to their emotions, but there are times when they have difficulty using their anger in a “muscular way.” It is difficult for their anger to be channeled towards a constructive use.
Viraj is a twenty-something Indian-American whose rage on Twitter is apparent. One manifestation of his rage is to tweet (and retweet) openly hostile statements to strangers that he feels are attacking his friends. Most often these arguments with strangers involve identity politics, just as Rushdie mentioned.
Viraj expressed a long list of things that make him angry, about which he seemed to feel powerless to do anything in real life. It seemed apparent that, as Herlekar suggested, his genuine internal self was not aligned with what situations were asking of him. This is what makes him angry:
“The comfort with which people will espouse blatantly sociopathic/hateful ideas based in misogyny, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia … that justify violence against the marginalized. The cognitive dissonance, denial, doublethink involved in liberal racism and its globally pervasive, casually victim-blaming nature. The value of a brown body in the world … My creative paralysis and inability to find a place in the world.”
Somewhat like Sara, Viraj noted a disconnect between his ideals and his real life. When I asked him what he does to deal with his anger, he replied “I drink a lot. I listen to music. I sometimes tweet about it.”
When I commented about the rage in his tweets, he explained he wouldn’t be able to express his rage in real life. On Twitter, he was able to find solidarity with other people who felt angry about the same things. To me, this suggests Twitter functions for some people as a fantasy public space in which they feel comfortable expressing negative things they feel unable to express in their real lives.
Recognizing Out-of-Control Anger
Herlekar and other mental health professionals have explained that in a clinical setting, it is common for Indian and Indian American patients to somatize their negative emotions. To “somatize” is to express psychological conflicts through bodily symptoms.
In other words, many are not comfortable articulating their rage, sadness, anxiety or depression using words, so instead they make mention of stomach aches, headaches or other bodily sensations.
Learning to handle negative emotions may counteract the physical effects. Laine Morales D.C., C.M.T. has said, “If you are angry and just try to repress it, the molecules are still made in your body and are usually made more chronically because you did not have an emotion, express it, and then let it go. You left it unattended in your subconscious ready to reap [sic] havoc on your body.”
Out of control anger, however can lead to a host of health problems. For example, the stress that accompanies a temper is a risk factor for many issues, including stroke, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
MySahana.org (a nonprofit dedicated to increasing awareness about mental health in the South Asian community), points out that these are three ailments for which South Asians are already at high risk. Often, being perceived as someone with a temper can impact close relationships. It can also cause cognitive impairments and impact judgment. At work, someone with unmanaged anger may find it difficult to move forward on a career path. The organization lists these common causes for developing anger management issues:
(i) witnessing poor anger management
(ii) experiencing abuse
(iii) mismanaged stress
(iv) being taught that expressing
emotions is unacceptable
(v) low self-esteem
(vi) low tolerance for frustration
(vii) hiding other emotions
(viii) not sleeping enough
Those who experience significant amounts of anger, particularly when it affects their health, sleep or job performance, might want to consider consulting a professional. A safe space in which to express and deal with what is making you angry can be helpful.
Is Anger on the Rise?
Salman Rushdie implies that identity politics is a problem. Perhaps. But it seems natural to me that those who have been “minority” voices—those who have been silenced and adversely affected by their identities—will exploit the great equalizing force of the Internet to try to achieve a better situation and to find like-minded people. Why shouldn’t they?
In the recent past, those who upheld the status quo were more likely to be heard and those who tried to challenge the status quo were more likely to be silenced. Nowadays, social media can level the playing field. A medium like Twitter makes the platforms of people who might not otherwise be heard more equal to the platforms of those celebrities, authors and public figures that have been heard in the past.
The Internet as it currently exists contains a big barrier to effective communication of emotions. Because it does not allow you to see facial expressions or the intensity of someone’s gaze, it is all too easy to misinterpret other people’s words and to develop strong emotional responses to the threats perceived in those words. Interpretation occurs without any of the social and cultural modulation—or fear of blowback—that occurs when two people are face to face.
Earlier this year, Beijing researchers released the study “Anger is More Influential Than Joy: Sentiment Correlation in Weibo.” (“Weibo” is a Twitter-like service in China that was launched in 2009.) The researchers noted that people not only flocked to others who were like themselves in terms of friends, age, race, and interests. They also flocked to people with similar psychological states. The researchers found that anger had a stronger correlation between connected users than joy or sorrow did. The paper concluded that anger spreads, both, more quickly and more widely than joy. Online, anger is more influential than joy or sadness.
Das said as much to me, noting that genocides and deaths have been happening forever: “We don’t have more angry people around, just that we have YouTube, smart phones and Internet to make it public.” The publicizing of anger, in turn, helps it to spread, giving some of us the sense that there is more anger. Whether this is something you see as a positive or negative development may depend partly on how much you have invested in our existing social structures.
The rise in rage may have at least one simple solution. But it is a solution that most people today are likely to dismiss: spend less time online.
Names of interviewees, other than psychologists and public figures, have been changed to protect anonymity and encourage honesty.
Anita Felicelli is a writer and attorney who lives in the Bay Area. She is the author of the novel “Sparks Off You” and other books.