|Prof Sloboda is at Keele University|
The main problem with anger both in my experience and as has been observed by experts is that its expression may not improve the situation. As Nico Frijda (1986) has observed “effective interaction with the environment halts, and is replaced by behaviour that is centred around the person himself as in a fit of weeping or laughter, anger or fear. Or interaction with the environment may go on but seems peculiarly ineffective. When someone smashes the dinner plates, the broken plates would hardly seem to be the end result the person had in mind”.
I have tried to bear these wise observations in mind as I have struggled with my fury, sometimes blind fury, with Tony Blair, George W Bush, and the MPs and members of Congress who have led Britain and America into the hugely disastrous and destructive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My fury is doubled because we are a democracy, and so I become implicated in these acts whether I like it or not. No British citizen of voting age can escape responsibility for what has happened. We could have stopped this war. We didn’t. We could have voted the Blair Government out of office in 2005. We didn’t. So my anger extends to myself, and to all British people and institutions, particularly those institutions of which I have membership and that failed to act. We collectively failed as a nation and that failure will haunt generations to come.
The natural tendency in anger is to attack. The attack of an intellectual like myself tends to be verbal. Yet, as we know from studies of bullying, verbal abuse can be deeply wounding. Smashing plates is physically destructive. It is only slightly better than smashing people. And we know only too well about anger that leads to physical violence, be it domestic abuse, public disorder, or war, leads to no good end. Anger against oneself can lead to depression, self-harm, even suicide. Even direct criticism is often not very productive. There is plenty of research and personal evidence to show than when you criticize someone, they go on the defensive, and harden their position, becoming less, not more, amenable to change.
So here was I, angry about the institutionally sanctioned violence that has been perpetrated in my name, and trying to work out a way to channel my anger that did not simply add to the damage.
In the height of my despair and anger, in early 2003, I helped get the Iraq Body Count project on the road. This is a project which documents as fully as possible details of civilian casualties in Iraq and the violent events that caused them. Unfortunately, the project is still very active. Although born out of anger, the project was not simply against something (the war), it was for something. It was for ensuring that each person killed in the war was properly and respectfully recorded and remembered. As time progressed, I and my colleagues at Iraq Body Count increasingly realized that this recognition was the expression of a fundamental and universal human right, the right to have one’s death treated with honour and respect. We accept this right for our own soldiers, but deny it for the civilians who get “caught in the crossfire”.
And so, over time, we have joined with an increasing number of organisations around the world that, like us, wish to see casualty recording done better, more comprehensively, and in more conflicts. There are a few (but still far too few) psychologists thinking about this (e.g. Fischhoff, Atran, and Fischhoff, 2007; PDF). I would still far prefer that there were no wars. But while there are wars, we should ensure that we keep our eyes firmly on the victims, their losses, and their needs. Unless we know, fully, the human cost of war, how can we truly learn from the experience, how can we properly help and recompense the victims and acquire justice for them, and how can we expect politicians to seek better ways to resolve the multiple problems that we face on this increasingly overcrowded and over-burdened planet?
I still am angry, almost every day, but my anger is no longer all-consuming and unproductive, precisely because it has a positive outlet, and a growing community of activists to work alongside. I sometimes ask myself whether I would ever have become involved in this creative work without anger to spur me on. Probably not. So do I, on balance, view my wrath as a deadly sin? I’m not sure it is as simple as that!
This confession is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.