Tim Lott: Anger fuels progress. But there's room for respect as well

Thoughtfulness for others would not diminish the passion that brings about change for the good
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A father kills himself, his former partner and their four-year-old child during a custody dispute. The movie star Charlie Sheen attacks his wife after she threatens divorce. Tiger Woods's wife, Elin Nordgren, reportedly smashes him across the face with a golf club in a row over his multiple infidelities.

Anyone who had any doubt that domestic life was a battlefield has no more reason to do so. Certainly there are menaces that are more public – such as the footballer Joey Barton, who spoke on Radio 4 last week of his salvation from violence both on and off the pitch after completing a series of anger management courses. But it is the home environment that most consistently draws forth the anger in us, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Why is there so much anger in our private lives? It should be a place of safety, an arena where disputes can be settled in a rational, adult and even loving fashion. Instead, too often, the anger bursts its banks and is expressed in acts of physical brutality.

A A Gill, author of The Angry Island asserts that the English are a uniquely angry people. He writes "Anger is the central English sentiment... a simmering, lurking, unfocussed anger is the collective cross England bears with ill grace". But there is nothing culturally specific about rage. Anger is universal.

This is partly because anger is functional. At one level, it is a Darwinian defence mechanism. If someone attacks you, the emotion of anger pumps your body up into an attack mode, heightens your senses and produces a countervailing aggression. The intended effect will be to deter attackers and protect you from physical harm.

This is a kind of righteous anger – and there are other varieties of defensible rage. A furious Jesus overthrew the money lenders in the temple. Anger at genuine injustice is noble. And anger can be deeply creative. As John Lydon chants in the song "Rise" for PIL, "Anger is energy". Anger is one of the great motivating forces in human life. There would be no social progress and perhaps little good art without it.

But much anger in the modern experience is neither righteous nor artistic, nor does it arise from the threat of physical harm. The anger that occurs most commonly comes in reaction to a purely symbolic threat, in response to a sense of insult, or negation. This threads through every day, through every life.

When Andy Copland killed himself and his own family, he was not under any physical threat, but clearly he saw his self-imagined identity under siege – and reacted with psychopathic violence. Tiger Woods's wife wasn't under threat from the great philanderer – her integrity as a person was under threat, because her husband was treating her as if she didn't matter enough for her husband to remain faithful or be truthful about what he had done. Likewise Charlie Sheen when faced with the possibility of divorce and the prospect of self-negation – another failed marriage – resorted to violence.

To observe that most anger (and therefore most violence) arises from the fear of being obliterated as an identity is not to excuse any of the above acts in the slightest degree. But these extreme behaviours provide a clue to what is happening on a more modest, often invisible level in many households and indeed on many streets.

All those bewildering acts of random violence we witness among teenage gangs, for instance, come from the same root – the street fight about "respect" is, at root, an expression of outrage from an individual that he or she is not being acknowledged as important, as mattering.

In a sense this anger is a childish response – but it is also a very common one. Your wife or husband forgets your birthday. Your boss gives the promotion to a rival. Your father favours the gift he received from your sibling over yours. Your friend is habitually late for your meetings at the pub. Anger might be a normal reaction to any of these things.

All these acts say to us, wordlessly, "You don't matter." We are constantly defending our sense of being a person, of being real, of being important – and when the citadel of our personal egos come under threat, then we respond with fury. We go on the attack to defend our "selves".

These attacks, or the defences against the attacks, may not manifest themselves in shouting or screaming, still less in physical violence – they may more commonly be wrought through the agency of silence, the dispensation of petty incivilities or simply a cold or withering tone of voice. There are endless possibilities for the skilled passive aggressor.

There are people with very healthy egos (who, I suspect, share a certain amount of DNA with insensitive brutes) relatively immune from this kind of intimate, everyday assault. The very mature as well as the very insensitive – I put most politicians into the latter category – experience the slings and arrows of derision or disrespect less profoundly than the third and largest group of the population, the very many people who acutely feel their own rawness.

These latter types are the angry people and they are legion. I am one. I sometimes wake up in the morning feeling furious without any idea about why I am angry in the first place. I often feel that I am being slighted or disrespected when rational reflection tells me that I am not. It's not a trait I like about myself, but there are many millions like me.

What is the root of this common anger? It is this fear of negation. And what is the root of that? That is a mystery, but John Steinbeck writes about this fear brilliantly in his masterpiece East of Eden, which is a retelling of the myth of Cain and Abel set in California at the beginning of the last century. In a set piece discussion between the Chinese-American character Lee and one of the main characters of the novel, Samuel Hamilton, Samuel observes that, "Two stories have haunted us and followed us from our beginning. We carry along with us like invisible tails. The story of original sin and the story of Cain and Abel."

Lee responds, "It [the Cain and Abel story] is the symbol story of the human soul. It is everybody's story. ... the greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world has to a large or small extent felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime, guilt – and there is the story of mankind.

"If rejection could be amputated the human would not be what he is. ... One child, refused the love he craves, kicks the cat and hides his secret guilt. Another steals so that money will make him loved. And a third conquers the world – and always the guilt and revenge and more guilt.... Therefore I think this old and terrible story is important because it is a chart of the soul, the secret, rejected, guilty soul."

This is one of the greatest passages that Steinbeck – as great a genius as American literature has produced – ever wrote. It goes some small way to explaining Charlie Sheen and Adam Copland and Elin Nordgren and all our petty arguments and everyday hurts. Steinbeck has no remedies for this primal wound. But perhaps there is something of a clue to be drawn from another writer of great insight, the French essayist Theodore Zeldin. One passage in his fine book An Intimate History of Humanity has always stayed with me. Zeldin interviews a woman who works in a renal dialysis clinic. Her complaint is not about prosperity, or job satisfaction but respect: "She wanted recognition of her experience, not necessarily in terms of money but respect.

"The lack of it has turned everybody sour. Doctors complain that they are not respected by their patients... nobody foresaw the world shortage of respect."

I was deeply struck by that phrase – the "world shortage of respect". For it feels as if respect really is in short supply. If we could find a way of respecting one another, then our collective anger might begin to ebb. But for some reason we find it much easier to disparage, belittle or demean. If we could find the will or the means to increase the amount of respect that operates in our society – even to people who don't necessarily deserve that respect – particularly within homes and among our families, between adults as well as between children, then the sum total of anger in the world might ultimately be diluted.

There would still be Sheens, Norgdrens and Coplands. But perhaps we would be less in danger of becoming like them ourselves, should we ever suffer the bad luck to experience the circumstances that tested hungry, flawed or damaged souls beyond their limits of endurance.