Why So Much American Anger?

AngryAmerican2The recent episodes of now routine American gun violence have sparked discussions of the role of white male anger in it all. This is hardly a brand new strand of analysis.

    Michael Kimmel, director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook and author of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, wrote last November:

“Today’s Angry White Men look backward, nostalgically at the world they have lost. Some organize politically to restore ‘their’ country; some descend into madness; others lash out violently at a host of scapegoats. Theirs is a fight to restore, to reclaim more than just what they feel entitled to socially or economically -- it’s also to restore their sense of manhood, to reclaim that sense of dominance and power to which they also feel entitled. They don’t get mad, they want to get even -- but with whom?”

    Kimmel admits that: “There are plenty of angry men of color and plenty of angry white women.” But anyone who’s paid attention to the reactions of people around them has found that many Americans today need very little aggravation to send them over some edge.

    Cut them off in a line or in traffic and watch out. Show that a right-wing politician doesn’t have their facts straight and stand back. Just hope they’re not going to reach for some all too handy weapon.

    In America today, interacting with others can seem like walking in a minefield. One never knows what’s going to explode and where someone’s trigger is.

    There’s certainly much reason for anger. Sometimes I’m surprised there isn’t more.

    From the state of the economy for everyday people to the state of politics for those who haven’t given up, the deck seems stacked against many. And it often is.

    Even among white males, there are privileges that those who control power and money have that other white men resent they don’t share. And it’s becoming clearer to many that there’s little relationship between those privileges and hard work and ability. It’s about inheritance, opportunity, and geography.

    We hear this anger in the speeches of conservative, and sometimes liberal, politicians who rail against others as if they’re speaking as their own punishing fathers. We see it in the refrain that some others are getting away with something, that there are “takers” out there who don’t deserve the help society gives them, or that there are nations or movements around the world that deserve military strikes because we “can’t let them get away with” some offense against American pride (read manhood).

    Anger is dominant in society because it’s an emotion that doesn’t challenge someone’s manhood. It’s so assumed to be inherent in masculinity that much of our culture has given up on treating men as caring, loving, nurturing human beings with a full range of emotions – channel it into sports, send them to anger management sessions, drug them, throw them in prison.

    There’s still something unacceptable about anger in women. It’s as if it scares men. There are names for angry women, and they aren’t “decisive,” “righteous,” “leadership material,” or “powerful.”

    Women must stuff their anger so it appears in other forms. As one therapist said: under all depression is rage.

    Anger is supposed to be a manly expression because it’s an acceptable secondary emotion that hides the primary feelings men aren’t supposed to express out loud – fear, hurt, and confusion. And the continual expression, even celebration, of male anger without probing deeper into these other feelings that every human on the planet has, only escalates the anger patterns.

    Men have been told that doing the necessary digging into these deeper feelings isn’t manly either. Anger is all that’s left.

    Since America is a warrior culture that systematically teaches little boys to become real men - trying to convince their minds that men should be willing to go off to another place to kill other men and be killed by them for the system - the warrior mentality dominates our society.

    Teamwork is mostly defined as a group of men who bond to beat, defeat, or kill other men. And the solution to every problem from illiteracy to crime is to “war” on it.

    People who call for solutions that involve nurturing, caring, and sympathy are automatically dismissed as “unrealistic” or even “unmanly.” And so our warring goes on without end while our men, women, boys, and girls die from it.

    We celebrate violence in our pop culture with superheroes who often lose their nerdiness by getting violent revenge. We portray our enemies as out to destroy us. And Mel Gibson has made his fortune with movies that wallow in the anger of violent revenge.

    I’m not sure we’re ready to solve our American anger problem. Too many are invested in supporting and exploiting the status quo.

    The Tea Party movement occupies its time creating events, causes, and monuments to American anger. Anger gives Tea Partiers meaning, while the media loves to give attention to its manifestations.

    But we’re going to have to deal with the anger out there. And it will have to start with breaking the silence of gendered masculinity around admitting that there are other more vulnerable emotions both men and women feel regularly.

    It will mean that we have to stop labeling these vulnerable feelings as somehow “gay” or “queer.” It will require the courage to embrace what people have called men’s “feminine side” but what is actually just another part of being fully human, male or female.

    It will mean that men and women will have to contradict their fears and support men who break out of the mold of anger and bluster. And it will mean that we’ll have to challenge the powers that be that make money off of the mystique of the angry male and the wars that result from it.

    Anger and fear feed each other. And we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.


Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight; and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org.

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