Kathy Sheridan: Time to stop rewarding tantrums
If people shrink from public debate due to its abusive tone that is a loss to democracy
‘If you’re not angry you’re not paying attention.” It’s a good old protest slogan, and generally a true one. Anger drove the suffrage, anti-slavery and anti-apartheid campaigners. It drives the #MeToo, pro-choice and gun-control movements. In free and fair elections it underpins the removal of corrupt or incompetent governments. It can turn a lonely victim of injustice into a survivor.
Anger may not be a strategy, yet correctly channelled it can be a powerful weapon. But the coinage has been debased.
Up to recent year, the grown-up choice was to contain your anger, to wait until the red mist lifted before putting it to cold calculated use. To lash out with a “f**k you”, “loser” , “you lost, suck it up” would have been deemed the height of idiocy.
It signified you had lost control, had a sadly limited vocabulary, were a pathetic attention-seeker, or had no idea how to frame a civil rebuttal. In short, you had made a show of yourself.
Now we swim in anger soup. The recent injunction to Russia to “go away” and “shut up” came out of the mouth of no less a personage than the UK’s defence secretary Gavin Williamson. Of course,Williamson was just aping the big beasts such as Boris “they-can-go-whistle” Johnson.
Donald Trump virtually owns the term “loser”, once the preserve of sullen adolescents. “You lost, suck it up” became the anthem of both Trump and Brexit fans.
“Vermin”, “scum” and “traitor” are popular weapons hurled between British Labour party members. “Quisling” has entered from the right.
Splintering of society
This is about something more serious than angry language in the public square (which is entirely different to shrieking f**kit when you step on an upended plug in the kitchen). It’s about the splintering of society into small interest groups, the bullying, angry tone of debate, the decline of empathy, the erosion of those fragile layers that protect civilisation from chaos.
“’F*ck’ and ‘c**t’ do not comprise conversation,” writes Nell McCafferty – no stranger to cold anger or the f*ck word herself – in Una Mullally’s “repeal” anthology.
The spectacle of purse-lipped old militants in the North still blathering about flags 20 years on from the Good Friday agreement is a useful reminder of where those who feed the flames of anger and resentment for their own high principles and petty interests can take us.
It’s a message every angry young male wants to hear. It’s the DNA. Why restrain yourself? Why be civil?
If people shrink from public debate because of the abusive angry tone, that is a loss to democracy. Much of the Cambridge Analytica messaging targeted at data-mined Facebook users was designed to stoke up individual anger, fear and resentment. The impact on voting decisions is incalculable.
But anger uncut only works because it is rewarded. Little wonder that every year, with tedious predictability in a traditionally slow news week, teachers invite the relevant Minister to their annual conferences with the express purpose of acting angry. They may as well recycle the footage from last year’s shenanigans.
Jeers and jibes
Protesters’ heckles, jeers and jibes carry on throughout the Minister’s speech – the task for which he or she was expressly invited – and are then reported at great length over several days.
This year when Richard Bruton was committing himself to tackle teacher shortages and to expand subject choice to include languages such as Mandarin Chinese, one delegate shouted: “We can emigrate to China, so!” Back in the classroom, no doubt, the same sparkling wit impresses on students the importance of listening (two ears, one mouth), civility and self-discipline.
There is plenty of public sympathy for young teachers who were effectively sacrificed to a regime of unequal pay for equal work by their older colleagues in cahoots with cost-cutting governments.
Last week the Minister conceded there was cause for concern. That was significant. It also has significant implications for other great swathes of the public service and future budgets. But was anyone out there still listening, taking in the bigger picture? Amid the annual threats to shut down schools, were teachers offering much in the way of solutions? How many beyond the bubble stayed tuned to find out?
That’s the problem with routine shows of “anger”. But why rein it in when everyone else is letting rip?
It may seem a stretch from teachers’ conferences to Conor McGregor’s “anger” stunt in New York last week, but they’re both on the spectrum. Alleged to have drawn blood hurling shopping trolleys and chairs at the bus of a rival MMA fighter, McGregor’s message to his many millions of young followers is that hot anger is grand. “DNA. It’s who we are,” his father explained.
It’s a message every angry young male wants to hear. It’s the DNA. Why restrain yourself? Why be civil? Why engage with anyone else’s viewpoint? Why listen to anyone who looks or sounds different to you?
Anger is not the problem. It’s how you deal with it that marks the distinction between a two-year-old in a tantrum and a person of substance. It’s time we stopped rewarding tantrums.