The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


A fit of rage is wild and twisted. The eyes bulge, the limbs flail. We spit and shout. We cannot hide it in the way we conceal jealousies or nurse resentments. We fly into rages. Boil over. It comes in paroxysms and bursts. ANGER can be justified, and INDIGNATION righteous, but rage is an irrational frenzy.

The last twenty years have witnessed a proliferation of types of rage. There are violent clashes on the roads (ROAD RAGE) and tantrums in planes (air rage). Spluttering, swearing frenzies erupt in supermarket aisles (shopping cart rage), in offices (mouse rage; see: TECHNOSTRESS) and even while opening groceries (wrap rage). They may have jokey nicknames (see: POSTAL, going, for example), but the fact we’ve bothered to identify these many different rages at all suggests our relationship with our uncontrollable fury is not straightforward. We don’t make a similar effort to differentiate types of HOMESICKNESS, for instance, or doubt. Our capacity for flying off the handle fascinates and terrifies, all at once.

Perhaps the stresses and frustrations of modern life are giving rise to increased levels of ferocity: the more sources of rage, the more sorts we can distinguish. But at least part of what drives this desire to parse and label fury is that in Britain and America this emotion has become increasingly unacceptable. American psychologists have created a new umbrella diagnosis: intermittent explosive disorder. One needs only three episodes of impulsive aggressiveness, each “grossly out of proportion” to the person or thing that has irritated, to be diagnosed. To qualify as an explosion, the angry outburst should be a sudden and complete loss of control, involving breaking or smashing something “worth more than a few dollars,” or hurting, or trying to hurt, someone. By this reckoning, intermittent explosive disorder may be a lot more widespread than even current figures suggest. And the cure? Attributing outbursts of rage to low serotonin, the current advice is to dull anger with antidepressants.

But what would a society without rage look like? The political theorist Hannah Arendt, who famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” found the idea fearful. In her essay On Violence, she argued that “only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not does rage arise. Only when our sense of justice is offended do we react with rage.” More than the fiery articulacy of indignation, the foaming, libidinal intensity of rage was, for Arendt, a natural response to injustice. To attempt to “cure” a person of it would be almost to dehumanize. It would deprive the sufferer of a capacity for defiance, and society of an opportunity for change.

It may seem ridiculous to lose your rag because your teenager hasn’t tidied up, or your partner has said that thing AGAIN, or you’ve waited in all day for a delivery that never came. These might feel like injustices at the time (though probably not the kind Arendt had in mind), but though they are petty and trivial, and we almost always regret them later, such rages are an important part of being human and involved in the world. If we can’t have the occasional flare-up of mouse, or shopping cart, or wrap rage, then we can’t have revolutions and riots either.