In early January during a mundane transaction with a small-business owner, I asked idly how the new year was going for him. Instead of the usual jokey response, there was a pause. People had become unbelievably aggressive, he said; impatient, stoked for a row, looking to be offended.
Sure you’re not doing something to provoke them, I asked jokily? He wasn’t amused. Over 15 years, he has learned to handle abrasive customers but this feels different, he insisted; there is more of that free-range anger about, or maybe it just seems that way because people see no reason to rein it in.
That same week, a bright young teacher confessed she was having reservations about her career path. Were the children very challenging, someone asked? Not at all, she said, it’s the parents. The first response to a mild rebuke of a child is anger – at the teacher, not the child. Energetic and ambitious, she should be chasing promotion but probably won’t.
These conversations chime with others on the front line – bus drivers, checkout staff, healthcare professionals, politicians. Free-range anger blights lives.
They all came to mind on Monday when this newspaper devoted half a page to a story about anger and the fallout for those on the receiving end.
If that seems like a dramatic way to describe the abuse of amateur sports referees, the craziness captures the essence of those conversations. Some of the stories are familiar because alleged physical assaults on referees at junior or minor games attract publicity.
But Sarah Burns’s interview with a Dublin secondary teacher and part-time referee was more revealing of a broader truth. David Murphy described an under-16s camogie match in south Dublin when a very aggressive, abusive parent started cursing at him over a particular decision – “You’re not f**king seeing it right, that’s my f**king daughter.” The parent was eventually removed from the sideline, but what baffled Murphy was that the daughter’s team was ahead at that stage and went on to win the game. Her implacably angry father found Murphy again after the game to shower further insults.
While Murphy is confident he can knock back abusive players, it’s mostly parents now – usually at underage matches – who are challenging him, grown men and women who encroach on the pitch and “think they’re right in every way”.
Gravity of the offence
Referee abuse is not new but it appears to be proliferating. The club got a soft fine in that instance but there was no suspension or sanction for the parent, which may go some way to explaining that proliferation.
The gravity of the offence in these cases runs deeper than the insult to the referee. It’s the example being shown to the children all around them, about respect for the referees and other volunteers giving up their time, about mental and physical discipline, about playing by the rules. For the children of the offenders, the interventions may carry humiliation and embarrassment (and even fear of the abuser), with bonus lessons on the power of unrestrained anger and victimhood to punch your way through authority. If that doesn’t invite a sanction of some kind, then what is sport for?
Most of us have moments when emotion eclipses reason, when friends, family or team-mates step in to talk us down.
But somewhere between the bank bailout and the election of Trump, incontinent rage and aggression became normalised. When Trump referred to “Mexican rapists” in 2015, it was shocking, then people hardly noticed. Remember the roars of “midget parasite” and “traitor” at President Michael D Higgins in 2015? Conor McGregor in his pomp in 2016, threatening to kill his opponent’s “f**king team, you [Nate Diaz] and them bitch kids”?
The problem was not so much the individuals’ shameful behaviour; it was the legions of equally aggressive defenders on social media and in real life, all prepared to die on the Trumpian hill of righteous anger/injustice/showmanship or some weird “authenticity”. The taint on society is incalculable.
Anyone who has ever protested against injustice, corruption or violence knows that righteous outrage is the most effective recruiting master. But as the writer and feminist Elif Shafak put it, “while the beginning of anger might feel wonderful, the rest of it is, in fact, quite toxic, repetitive, shallow and backward”. Anger when left alone for too long is highly corrosive, contagious and addictive, requiring ever stronger doses, seeping into the lives of all around.
No one is “entitled” to wreck someone’s day with unfocused anger. No one can know what worries or grief are haunting that business owner or bus driver, politician or teacher.
How to put the genie back in the bottle is the challenge. Hope lies with the communities, the local sports celebrities, the volunteers and administrators who keep sight of the bigger picture. It’s in the decent politicians who push past the abuse to try to heal division. It’s in a world leader like Joe Biden, who in spite of unspeakable loss, radiates decency and restraint.
But mainly the hope lies in all of us who plaster a smile on our faces today, stop making a big deal of ourselves and make a conscious decision that everyone is worthy of respect.