Does living in a world of extremes boost our unpleasant emotions?
We’ve all done it before. We were cut off in an intersection, or maybe were stuck walking behind someone really slow on the sidewalk. A friend might have made an off-side comment or you could have even just dropped your order of fries on the McDonald’s floor.
Out of nowhere, this rage boils inside of you. The situation certainly does not merit this kind of extreme anger, but there it is nonetheless. You grit your teeth, or shout a profanity. You might even get aggressive with the people around you, either verbally or physically depending on your level of inhibition. Deep down inside you want to go full Michael Douglas in Falling Down.
In most instances, this rage is mostly felt internally and therefore has little consequence. In others, though, it can be devastating. Last summer, American David Desper was arrested on murder charges for shooting a girl in the head out of road rage. I think it goes without saying that cutting someone off in traffic does not merit a death penalty. Even driving aggressively as a result of road rage increases likelihood of accidents, and has caused various fatal crashes over the years. A quick browse through a YouTube video’s comments section makes it very evident that people are just so angry for seemingly no reason.
The question is now… why do we get so angry over such insignificant situations? In a recent classroom discussion that took place in my Contemporary Literary Theory course, the topic was Sianne Ngai’s essay on “ugly feelings.” It was suggested by the professor that this tendency to skip over irritation and fly blindly right into homicidal rage is a fairly new phenomenon. The driver overtaken by road rage is not a scene readily found in old black and white movies. Not to say that overreaction is an exclusively new reality, but it does seem to have increased. Why? In my opinion, there are certainly many factors going into what I believe is over-reactive anger, and I will provide some suggestions on what I think some of these may be.
For one, people in the world today are entitled, plain and simple. No, I am not just talking about millennials. In our individualistic society, everyone seems to think that the world revolves around them. Every meaningless thing we do in our lives matters more than whatever meaningless thing the guy next to us is doing. For this reason, when someone cuts us off in traffic, it feels like we’ve been the victim of some horrendous personal violation. How dare they make my drive to the grocery store take an extra 10 seconds? This overall lack of empathy makes it hard for us to put ourselves into the other’s shoes, and instead of concerning ourselves with why they may also be in a rush themselves, we feel our hands grip tighter on the steering wheel or flip them the bird.
Where does this borderline narcissism come from? It’s possible that, now in a society in which face to face interaction is seldom needed and relationships are filtered through texts and pictures, people have just grown to have less emotional intelligence. As there are fewer people around us on a regular basis, maybe we have grown less aware of those that are present at times. People no longer needed to develop proper social skills and therefore simply did not. As a result, simple concepts like repressing inhibitions and dealing with emotions become alien and foreign. People feel entitled to the same level of unperturbedness that they have in their habitual solitude, and so when one thing goes awry, it may feel like the entire world is against them.
Another certain possibility that I feel could be a huge contributing issue is overall stress levels in the population. Stress and anxiety are at record highs, and it is certainly not without its consequences. With higher demands than ever on the working citizen and less time allotted to relaxation, people are generally high-wired. In the human brain, this can result in high concentrations of cortisol, the stress hormone. Aside from many health problems that can be traced back to high cortisol levels (for example, elevated blood pressure), we may be seeing the fruit of some societal problems.
In a brain that is constantly stressed, it seems natural that emotions will swing strongly either way. The brain is not far away from a state of constant fight or flight mode, ready to jump into serious action at all times. So it may not seem surprising then that people are literally snapping into murderous rage. The brain is stressed 24 hours a day. Things that stress you out and irritate you accumulate throughout the day, week or even year. Finally, something happens. Just even one little thing, as small as the drive-thru worker giving you a coke rather than an iced tea. Then and there, you just snap. It was the final straw that broke the camel’s back and your brain just cannot take it anymore. You scream, you cry and you lose your goddamn mind. It does not seem like a far stretch to me, and maybe some of these outbursts could be avoided with more realistic expectations for people.
Along the same lines of accumulative effects, I think disenfranchisement is a serious problem for this angry mob of a population, too. It’s a reality as old as the emotion of anger itself: sometimes, we take things out on the wrong people. In an age of great ideological divides, bleak futures and just overall frustration, many feel a constant ember of anger ebbing and sparking to tiny degrees throughout their day. The frustration at things much larger than one’s self – things that seem out of one’s control – has often manifested into some of the ugliest version of humanity. For instance, it is Germany’s economic frustration that gave birth to WWII. It is the largely overlooked frustration of the middle states that gave rise to the recent presidency we love to hate.
Are we really surprised then that people are so angry? It seems like you can no longer log into your Facebook account without seeing some type of political melodrama going down on one status or another. That is just the problem. We yell at each other instead of protesting before our politicians. It’s grown to the point that when someone represents in our eyes what we have grown to hate, we want to hurt them. We want to hurt people. Emotionally or physically, both stem from an anger that is directed at something far beyond that person, and yet in that moment the blood boils for them.
Clearly, I am only scraping at the tip of an iceberg. There are likely many people out there that know more about all three areas than I do, and people that would be able to bring forth insight that I do not myself possess. But I urge you all, in your hottest moments of anger to stop and reflect about where the anger truly stems from. Blind rage does well to neither you nor to anyone else. We can change.