Over the months just past, not counting January’s break, we’ve explored the crisis of our age from various angles, moving in from the discordant jangle of outward symptoms toward the tangled heart of it all. One thing I haven’t really tried to address, though it’s gotten a certain share of discussion in passing, is the seething rage that has become such a pervasive factor in American public life. It’s time for us to talk about that now.
I suspect, for what it’s worth, that this is a conversation a lot of people are starting to have, as it really sinks in that what’s been happening in US politics for the last two years is something more than the ordinary partisan rancor that helps fuel the clattering, jerry-rigged contraption we call representative democracy. It’s normal for people to be furious when their candidate loses an election and to snarl insults at the guy who won. It’s not normal for a state of blind rage to remain fixed in place more than two years after the election—and it’s considerably more than “not normal” when an impressive number of those caught up in the rage have put the rest of their lives on hold so they can spend all their time hating Donald Trump.
As one of the few moderates left on the internet these days, I hear fairly often from people who are baffled and horrified by what’s happened to their friends and loved ones. I hear about the family gatherings where every other topic of discussion has been shoved aside to make room for angry discussions about the catalogue of Trump’s sins, the friendships and relationships that have shattered because one of the people involved can’t stand the fact that the other doesn’t hate Trump enough, and the rest of it. Does it happen the other way around? Sure, but to judge from the stories I hear and the people I know, that’s a lot less common these days.
Perhaps the saddest of all the accounts I’ve fielded, though, came from someone caught up in the rage. I got it by way of social media and wasn’t able to trace it back to its original source, so I can’t offer names and dates, but it rings true to me. It was part of an essay by a woman who was aghast to discover that the man in her life, the father of her daughters, was a horrible sexist after all. What made him a horrible sexist, in her eyes, was that he wasn’t supportive of her anger toward Trump, and what proved that he wasn’t supportive was that he didn’t want to spend all their time together listening to her rant about how awful Trump was.
I don’t know the author or the man who loves her, but I’ve heard enough parallel stories to wish him a less ghastly life. It really is excruciating to watch someone you love, someone who used to be interesting and caring and fun, turn into an obsessive rage junkie with a thousand-mile stare who spends every waking moment tripping on raw hate.
A certain detail doubtless needs to be cleared away before we proceed. It’s an article of faith among many privileged white American women these days that if a man says something less than complimentary about a woman being angry, it’s because men are terrified of women’s anger. Not so; I know quite a few men, and we do compare notes, you know. The only men I know who are terrified of women’s anger are those who have PTSD as a result of rotten childhoods. Far and away the most common reaction among men who don’t have that issue is not fear but the kind of weary dismay best summed up in the words “there she goes again.”
It’s also not true, by the way, that wallowing in anger is a source of empowerment, for women or anyone else. Any martial artist can tell you that an angry opponent is much easier to clobber than one who keeps his or her cool, and the same principle applies more generally. That’s especially true when the anger is so automatic that anyone can push the rage junkie’s button, set off the predictable reaction, and laugh at the Donald Duck splutterfest that follows. And that, my children, is why the photo below has become the face that launched a thousand memes. The people who chuckle at that image have seen that sort of overtheatrical saliva-spraying frenzy paraded about in public far too often for it to get any reaction more serious than a horse laugh.
Still, let’s take a closer look at the insistence—which can be found in any number of self-help books aimed at women—that anger is empowering. What makes that claim seem credible? Well, it’s true that if you run in circles that place a high value on getting along, you can hold people hostage by the threat of pitching a tantrum if they don’t do what you want. That sort of misbehavior is common enough nowadays that it’s played a significant role in giving politeness a bad name.
To judge by the women’s self-empowerment books I’ve read—and yes, I’ve read some; as a teacher of Druid spirituality I have to have some idea of what notions potential students are bringing to the table—that’s not what the authors have in mind, though. What they have in mind is much simpler: anger is empowering because it makes you feel powerful.
It’s quite true that anger makes you feel powerful. That’s why it’s such a handicap in a fight. When you’re angry, you think you’re more powerful than you are, and so you make dumb mistakes that let the other guy clobber you. In the books just mentioned, though, the question of results never comes up for discussion. You feel more powerful, therefore you are more powerful: that’s the underlying logic.
That logic can be found in habitats far removed from the behavior of rage junkies. I’m thinking just now of the evolution of what we may as well call transgender ideology. In an attempt to stave off the standard misinterpretations of what I’m about to say, let me note first off that I have no doubt at all that gender dysphoria exists, that it’s a major issue for those who have it, and that for some of these latter, at least, the process of transitioning to a different gender really does seem to help. I don’t have gender dysphoria, but I know plenty of people who do; my Aunt Becky used to be one of my uncles, for example, and I have a fair number of transgender friends who feel comfortable talking to me about their experiences.
Over the last few years, though, the recognition that gender dysphoria exists and that some people feel as though they’re in bodies of the wrong gender has mutated into the rather odd insistence that a person who decides that she identifies as a woman, say, is a woman, irrespective of what biology has to say. It’s reached the point that some people who identify as women, but who have penises and testicles, are demanding (angrily, of course) that lesbians ought to be willing to have sex with them—as in, penetrative intercourse with their penises—because they’re women, full stop, end of sentence. (If you think this is a straw man argument, dear reader, type the words “cotton ceiling” into your favorite search engine sometime and hit ENTER.)
What’s more, the same odd definition of gender has now become standard all over the leftward end of the political landscape. As a result, women’s sports have now been opened to people who identify as women, irrespective of biology. While taking testosterone to build muscle mass will get you banned from women’s sports competitions, athletes who’ve spent most of their lives being dosed by testosterone from their own testes are being given a free pass, because they now identify as women. How many of those athletes have chosen to say they identify as women for the moment, solely because that identification gives them a chance at the athletic glory they won’t win if they have to compete against men? That’s not a question you’re allowed to ask. (Nor is anyone supposed to ask what’s going to happen, for example, once male business owners realize they can game the system to get access to contracts set aside for women-owned firms.)
I wonder, for that matter, how many people who uphold the current ideology about what constitutes gender have realized that tomorrow morning Donald Trump could announce that she now identifies as a woman, and that America therefore has its first female president, its first lesbian president, and its first transgender president. By its own logic, the entire American Left would be obliged to cheer for Trump’s presidency as a triumph of diversity and inclusiveness. They wouldn’t, of course, but it would be immensely entertaining to watch them scramble around for reasons to abandon their principles and keep hating President Donna Trump. What’s more, given Trump’s obvious delight in trolling his opponents, I could see him doing it.
Let’s take this a step further, though. The current donnybrook over transgender people is at root a quarrel over the meaning of gender terms such as “man” and “woman.” Current transgender ideology claims that these are labels for subjective identities that have nothing to do with biology: if you feel like a woman, then you are a woman, and that’s that. To most of their conservative opponents, in turn, these terms are labels for objective biological states such as the possession of a penis or a vagina, which have nothing to do with subjective identities.
From a less one-dimensional viewpoint, of course, neither of these are the whole picture. For each of us, gender is a complex thing in which subjective experience and objective biology both play an important role. It’s precisely because both sides of that interaction matter that gender dysphoria is as challenging to live with as my transgender friends tell me it is. Recognizing that the subjective and objective spheres both have a claim to importance is crucial if there’s going to be any chance of finding common ground in the culture wars around this issue—and of course so many others as well.
But there’s another issue here, because if you plop solely for the subjective side of things, as so many people in the privileged classes do these days, you land instantly in paradox. Let’s return to the “cotton ceiling” controversy mentioned above, the insistence by some people who identify as women, but who have penises and testicles, that lesbians who won’t have penetrative sex with them are bigots who ought to change their attitudes. Here’s one of them, let’s say, in a lesbian bar. From her point of view, the fact that she identifies as a woman makes her a woman, and the lesbian she’s trying to pick up should experience her as a woman irrespective of any other consideration, such as a penis.
The lesbian doesn’t experience the other person’s subjective self-image, though. She experiences the other side of the picture: for example, the facts that the other person looks and moves like a guy in a dress, has a penis and testicles, displays a typically masculine attitude of sexual entitlement, and is pressuring her to engage in sexual activities that, as a lesbian, she isn’t interested in. That’s the lesbian’s subjective reality, and it is just as real as the other person’s sense of her own femininity.
That’s the paradox. If you insist that subjective reality trumps all other considerations, you then have to decide whose subjective reality gets to do that. The objective world, the world of facts and outward experiences, is as useful as it is precisely because most of us, most of the time, experience it in roughly the same way. Our subjective worlds are not like that, and when you treat your own world of desires and identities and impressions as though it’s the only thing that really matters, you’re going to slam face first into failure over and over again because the rest of the human race isn’t inside your head and doesn’t see you or anything else through your eyes.
That, in turn, is why the social justice movement, which began with such high hopes and ideals, slid promptly into the crudest sort of bullying, and then embraced its current fixation on chasing off as many people as possible, so that their subjective experiences of themselves and the world could be excluded from consideration. That’s part of the logic behind the Oppression Olympics, the no-holds-barred struggle to insist that the set of intersecting identity categories to which you belong mark you out as uniquely oppressed, and therefore uniquely correct.
The social justice movement started out with the realization—a valid and valuable one—that the subjective experience of the disadvantaged is important. Lured by trends in modern pop culture, it ended up concluding that the subjective experience of the disadvantaged was the only thing that really mattered. What followed was increasingly shrill attempts to force everyone else to see the world the way this or that disadvantaged group sees it, followed by even more strident efforts to center the whole world of social justice on the experiences of the smallest possible group of most disadvantaged people.
The recent demand that all social justice activism should center on the concerns of transwomen of color, to the exclusion of such lesser issues as the needs of the other 99.999% of the human race, is yet another step in that same direction. Sometime soon I expect to see Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” stood on its head; social justice activists will be making pilgrimages to bow down before the one person whose perfect intersectionality at the meeting point of every axis of oppression makes xer the Most Disadvantaged Person Anywhere, and whose subjective experience of the world will therefore be assigned the same sort of infallibility that traditional Catholics assign to the Pope. The perks of the position will be such that competition for it will no doubt be fierce.
The social justice movement is hardly the only manifestation of these same strange habits of thought in our culture, for that matter. To my mind, Hillary Clinton’s doomed 2016 presidential campaign is still the poster child for the phenomenon. All through the campaign, Clinton and her staff acted as though planning the inaugural ball was more important than doing the things that might make that happen, such as finding out what the voters wanted and giving them some reason to think that Clinton would get it for them. Her impressively misbegotten campaign slogan—“I’m With Her”—could not have done a better job of making it clear that the point of the whole campaign was the glorification of Hillary Clinton: in terms of the pattern we’ve been exploring, trying to bully everyone else in the world into seeing Clinton the way she likes to see herself.
That was shown in the cold light of an unwelcome morning by the way so many of her supporters reacted to her defeat. I’m not just thinking of the bizarreries some of her fans in the media splashed around, though those make good examples. The online essayist who wrote a slobbering love letter to her idol, proclaiming her as “light itself,” is a fine example; she was expressing a purely subjective emotional state, clearly enough, without any noticeable connection to the dreary political hack she adored.
I’m thinking also, though, of the way that Democrats have spent the last two years utterly convinced that the Mueller investigation would inevitably give them something they could use to impeach Trump. That conviction wasn’t based on anything in objective reality; it was based purely on the desire of those same Democrats to punish Trump for not losing the election. Since the universe is serenely uninterested in the subjective worlds of human beings even if the human beings happen to be Democrats, and since Mueller did his job and based his report on what actually happened instead of what the Democrats felt should have happened, the Democrats have just kneecapped themselves, and handed Trump a club with which he will belabor them straight through the 2020 election. We’ll see tomorrow just how knotted and spiked a club that will turn out to be.
Not that the Democrats will notice this, mind you. Perhaps the most insidious consequence of the fixation on subjective impressions that we’ve been discussing is the way that it prevents those who suffer from it from learning from their mistakes. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign was practically a carbon copy of her equally inept 2008 campaign, and failed in the same way; that’s why the Democrats seem right now to be hard at work setting themselves up for the kind of electoral smackdown in 2020 that Ronald Reagan dealt them in 1984; and it’s why the social justice movement, by its fixation on “centering” the smallest possible group of disadvantaged persons and telling everyone else to shut up or leave, is busy wrecking the progressive coalition and helping to guarantee the 2020 smackdown just mentioned.
The way back out of such absurdities doesn’t depend on finding some source of infallible truth other than one’s subjective impressions. Nor, it should be said, does it involve a rigid focus on the objective—on biological facts, say, rather than personal experiences. The opposite of one bad idea is usually another bad idea, and there’s nothing to be gained by swinging from an unbalanced focus on one side of a complicated dynamic to an unbalanced focus on the other. What’s missing here is the recognition that there’s a middle ground where all the factors in play come together to create a nuanced vision of reality, a world in which many worlds meet.
That’s one alternative. The other, as already noted, is blind rage. If you’ve been taught to believe that the universe is whatever you want it to be, that your subjective impressions are the only reality that matters and everything will do what you want if you just close your eyes and smother your doubts and believe—if you will, the Tinkerbell theory of reality—then you have very few options when, as normally happens, the universe refuses to cooperate. You could stop and reexamine your belief in the omnipotence of your own subjective life, but the whole ideology of positive thinking that dominates the pop philosophy of the privileged pushes against that option. Of course it’s also not very fun to realize that you have a lot less power than you like to think you do, and that you may just have been making a fool of yourself, not to mention making the people around you miserable, by trying to exercise a power over the cosmos that you simply don’t have.
Rage is a way to avoid that very unwelcome recognition. It’s not a useful way, but it can be emotionally comforting, and in a society where many of the privileged have talked themselves into believing that what they feel about things is the only truth they have to take into account, it’s undeniably popular. In two weeks we’ll look a little further into that tangled mess, and talk about what kind of silence follows when the shouting finally ends.