Fear vs. Anger

It’s an obvious point that fear makes us feel vulnerable and weak and anger makes us feel righteous and strong. When you are afraid you are at your most helpless, an extremely hard feeling to sit with. Anger, on the other hand, makes you feel mobilized against an intolerable threat. Frustrated by feeling helpless in the face of terror, or shame, it is common to lash out in anger. The nice thing about anger is that it makes you feel justified, and it is much easier to feel than fear. The object of anger is not as important as the certainty that you’re right to be mad, a safe target of anger is often selected, even if that person has little to do with why you’re angry, or afraid.

Neuroscientists have done research into how anger works on a biological level. There is a center of the brain, the insula, that is engaged whenever you have a strong emotion. The insula is what makes you unable to find fault in the person you are infatuated with. It glows when you have a creative idea or are doing something you love to do. It is a very important part of the brain. It lights up when you’re angry. So they attach electrodes, get people angry, and watch their ability to analyze reality become disabled. All the angry person can see, while the insula is engaged, is their anger. It is literally impossible, while angry, to see another person’s point of view, to take in an explanation, to see any gradations in human experience. You are certain of only one thing– that you are completely right to be mad as hell.

The most widespread form of human genius is our ability to rationalize anything we feel strongly about. A glance at politics shows us this in an instant. If you supported a candidate who lost, that loss had to have been because of massive fraud and you have every right to be mad as hell and do whatever it takes to restore justice. Anything can be weaponized, it turns out — science’s best precautions against a new, highly infectious, deadly disease can be turned into infuriating provocations, designed by evil people solely to tyrannize and having nothing to do with public safety. When anger rules fear seems to disappear and the world becomes black and white, simple, good vs. evil. The thing you are afraid of does not go anywhere, but your fear is masked by the energetic righteousness of anger.

Demagogues have always known this and used it to get and keep power. I think of the nobility of eastern Europe, born booted and spurred to mercilessly ride the peasants, the serfs, the poor and the powerless. Whenever the mood of the masses was turning ugly the lords and barons set the mobs on the Jews, who were said to be to blame for all evil in the world. A nice drunken pogrom makes the mob feel much better, stronger, more powerful. It allows them to blow off steam by beating, raping, burning, killing and looting. It does nothing to give them any measure of control over their own miserable lives, but for a while it is apparently intoxicating to join others to do violence to people you hate. Think of mobs in this country, doing the exact same thing to a succession of immigrant groups (and indigenous ones), most commonly and consistently to Blacks. Think of the myth of White Supremacy, the massive pogrom in Tulsa, Oklahoma a hundred years ago, the popular rage of local powerless whites incensed that a prosperous Black middle class had emerged in that oil boom town.

Think of someone you love, who is seized by fear. Fear of death is a big one at the moment, and it is entirely rational to fear death right now, during a deadly pandemic that is the perfect accompaniment to the worldwide rise of angry autocrats who lead violent mass movements. Was Berlin in 1932 a fearful place? Our moment in history is not that different, but let’s focus on the personal. Take any fear, the fear of not being loved. It hurts like hell to feel it, and it feels unfair, like a betrayal, when someone close to you withdraws empathy. What did we do to deserve having sympathy and consideration taken from us? Painful as hell. The predictable response to fear and loss is anger. There is a theory, that sounds reasonable to me, that depression is anger turned against the self. Anger and depression is a cocktail as potent as a deadly pandemic amid a worldwide march toward fascism. Don’t drink it, though, it will fucking kill you.

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